A couple of common, and related, themes in missions today are “contextualization“ and “self-theologization.” The first says that to make the Word of God accessible to a culture, it must be translated into that culture, not only in language, but in symbology (in its many forms) as well. To do this, one attempts to minimize carrying over the culture of the missionary… piggybacking it onto the new culture. The reason is fairly simple. We don’t want to confuse God’s message with our own culture. It is deceptive to do otherwise, and may hinder God’s work by making God’s message more relevant in the new culture.
The second is tied to the 4-self concept (formerly 3-self) of mission churches. Mission churches should, as soon as possible be Self-Supporting, Self-Governing, Self-Propagating, and Self-Theologizing. New churches should not mimic the thought systems of the missionary and his/her denomination. Why? If theology is the bridge or human construct that exists in creative tension between God’s unchanging nature and revelation and Man’s changing culture setting, then theology must always be local to function correctly. Successful church growth in a different culture usually requires “indiginization”… that is where the church loses its foreignness in that culture.
But there are challenges here <I am looking at it from the perspective of Asian work>
1. Asian Mission churches do tend to mimic the missionary and his/her theological stance. While one may view this as bad, and I suppose it is, it is human nature. Even if the missionary is trying not to be very directive in the area of theology, people learn through modeling. A young believer is going to grow through the missionary as role model. One can’t really avoid that. A missionary only really has the choice of being a good role model or bad..
2. When Asian mission churches break free from their founder’s theology, they typically simply gravitate to another Western theological system. Or in some cases it is a creative combination of several Western theologies. In the Philippines, the largest home-grown religion was developed by a founder who had grown up in several Western denominations. His innovation was to take an odd mix of the (in my mind) less-commendable teachings in these denominations to create his own “Asian theology.” The result is something that doesn’t appear to conform to the revelation of God. One is also reminded (in a non-Christian setting) of Nanak who combined, syncretistically, Islam and Hinduism, removing the less pleasant and more dubious aspects of each to create Sikhism. Development of a theology that is truly Asian (from the cultural pole) and truly Christian (from the revelation pole) is a challenge.
3. It seems doubtful that one could come up with a Single Asian Theological System— meaning, that one cannot find a theological system that would encompass all “Asian” thought.
Emerito P. Nacpil claims that there are “at least seven features that are characteristic of the region” (of Asia) that are useful for developing Asian theology. These are:
- -Nations in transition (nation-building and modernization)
- -People seeking authentic self-identity
- -Colonial Experience
- -Christianity as a minority religion
- -Contains some of the largest living religions
- -Peoples seeking new social orders
It is hard to see that these 7 points lead to much of a commonality among the peoples/ nations of Asia. In fact, saying that an area of commonality is its diversity appears to create a self-contradictory position. In many areas (Philippines, Northeast India, Tribal regions of Myanmar, parts of Indonesia and more) Christianity is not a minority religion. Many do not really share a colonial experience. Perhaps an “Asian Theology” is much too broad and, ultimately meaningless.
<It might be like creating a “Left-handed Theology” for people who are left-handed, to counter the “Right-handed” bias of present-day theology. Interesting, but is it valuable? It may well be that the diversity of experiences of left-handed people would make the creation of a theology that addresses their common experiences meaningless.>
4. “Asian Theology” is often sought as a systematization of theology within an Asian perspective. But is this reasonable? Saphir P. Athyal states “A Western systematization of theology may not fit in the Asian scene. Asian theology should take a systematization which is dictated by the emphasis of the culture and leading thoughts of Asia.” (p. 71, Asian Christian Theology, D. J. Elwood ed.) The question to me is whether systematization is, in itself, inherently a “Western” concept. The Bible is Asiatic, and expresses its theology particularly within the realm of narrative (history or parable) more than proposition. The Western attraction to Paul’s writings (justified or otherwise) may well stem from his tendency to systematize (appealing to the Greek). Could it be that creating a “non-Western systematization of theology” is somewhat self-contradictory. Perhaps Asian theology may express itself in a narrative or visual format more than structured theological or propositional statements.
5. If a distinctly Asian theology is developed, will it be universal, or marginalized? “Black Theology” developed out of a situation in America of Black versus White power distribution partly determined by a simple test of race origin. This may have had value in the 1960s, and may still have power today, but does it break loose of being a novelty? I don’t know… but it appears to lack universality. Black Theology has no real bearing in the Philippines, for example. It deals with a group of people in one region dealing with a somewhat unique situation. There is, some resonance to other groups that have been marginalized, but each group is somewhat unique. With the influx of other races into the US, racially mixed marriages, affirmative action, and so forth, the theology seems to lose much of its reason for being. Elwood (p. 29, Asian Christian Theology) says that Asian theology should not be “a theology for Asian Christians only”. It should have a universal character for the ecumenical church.” But what would prevent its ghettoization?
6. An Asian Theology may not achieve the unity hoped for. Athyal (p. 78, Asian Christian Theology) states “The development of an indigenous theology in Asia will encourage unity and cooperation…” This was stated in terms of an “Asian Creed” that would be above denominational creeds. Other writers decry the Western Protestant denominationalism as causing disunity in Asia. However, the church in China shows how disunity can develop (organizationally and theologically) without much help from the West (although American and Korean “bible teachers” do play a part in the theological and political power struggle, as well as marginal sects). The Chinese church is divided into two official churches, 5 networks of unofficial churches, thousands upon thousands of independent churches (of various flavors) and numerous heterodox groups (ranging from foreign imports to home-grown cults). Even places of apparent unity (take for example the Catholic church in the Philippines) often have so much variation in the theology and practices, that they appear like a husband and wife who decide to stay married “just for the sake of the children”. The point is, even if a common Asian theology could be developed, would it unite, or create a new source for divisions?
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in localized theology. I simply doubt the grand scheme of a great Asian theology. A theology for the Cordillera highlands of the Philippines should be greatly different from the theology of Muslim background believers of Aceh, Sumatra. To do otherwise is to reject the proper role of theology. Some commonalities do exist. Most (All?) Asia cultures resonate with Honor/Shame more than Forgiveness/Guilt or Power/Fear. That seems like a good starting point, but regional uniqueness still should be honored. Theology links God’s unchanging revelation to changing cultures… not geographical regions.
A look at Philippine theology, see This Article.