Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 2

Instead of repeating myself, please read PART ONE. Now, let’s move to the first flavor.

Flavor #1. Localized Theology in Terms of Region

Using the example of the Philippines, a localized theology for this country might be thought of as Asian, or sharing features of theologies of other parts of Asia. 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:

  • -Plurality/diversity
  • -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

<Emerito P. Nacpil, “The Critical Asian Principle,” in Asian Christian Theology: Emerging Trends, D.J. Elwood, ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1980), 56-57.>

When I first saw this list, I felt that the list does not lead to common experience. After all, the first and the sixth items on this list (plurality, and home of the largest living religions) seem to say that the commonality is due to a lack of commonality. That being said, it may be true that there is a commonality of experience that would tend to drive Asian theologies toward a range of characteristics that could be grouped together, in a similar way as “Western theologies” get lumped together. The Western commonality of strong link between civil power and religious (Christian) power, the focus on the courtroom metaphor for salvation, economic power, centuries of hegemony over many other parts of the world, and the aftermath of the Enlightenment all give Western theologies a rather similar “flavor,” despite what at first appears to be great diversity. For example, much of Western theologies struggle with the issue of whether God decides who to save and who not to, or whether individuals make that decision. The result is a spectrum of views. At first this suggests great diversity. However, most all questions regarding salvation in Western Theology relates to the individual in the hereafter. There is little attempt to take seriously salvation in terms of community as well as the “here” (meaning present).

Looking at the figure below, one might say that Western theologies are focused, in terms of salvation, on the individual and the hereafter. There are aspects that extend to the community and the here/present, but not much. One might also say that various Liberation theologies tend to focus salvation predominantly on community (commonly in terms of class, caste, ethnic, or gender group) and on the present. Much ink has been spilled in one side arguing against the other side. However, rather than doing this, it is worth suggesting that both are in some ways “sub-Biblical” by themselves. By emphasizing one aspect of salvation over others, an image of salvation is given that is lop-sided— less than God’s full revelation. As such, rather than fighting, a more constructive answer would be dialogue between so-called Western and Liberation theologies. <Stanley Grenz, 20th Century Theologies>

Theologies of Salvation

There is, however, another way of looking at it as well. Rather than saying that Western and Liberations theologies are sub-Biblical in terms of salvation (an admittedly harsh assessment), one could say that each is a contextualization of God’s revelation. It only becomes sub-Biblical when one proclaims one’s theological construct as addressing God’s full revelation on the matter. In this case, the contextualization can be good as long as it answers (with divine truth) the concerns of those it is developed for.

This is not to say that all contextualized theologies are true, or that they are always necessary. It seems doubtful that there is a need for “Left-handed Theology” to counter the “Right-handed” bias of Western (or Eastern for that matter) Theology. My son is left-handed, and my father was left-handed until the school system forced him to right-handedness. That being said, their view on this could be different than mine. Ultimately, it depends on the people of a culture to develop a theology, and these same people to decide whether it is needed and beneficial.

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.” <Sapphire P. Athyal, ”Toward an Asian Christian Theology” in Asian Christian Theology: Emerging Themes, D. J. Elwood ed., 71> Although this seems reasonable, should Asian theologies be systematized at all, or is that desire for structure a Western characteristic? Perhaps a narrative form is more relevant— or perhaps visual. As always, I don’t feel competent to say.

In one very crucial way, the Philippine context does not fit the broader Asian context. The Philippines is predominantly Christian. Over 90% of Filipinos would describe themselves as Christian. Christianity has a position of power in many aspects of life in most of the Philippines. This makes things very different than much of the rest of Asia. In fact, it is common for Filipinos to say that they are the “only Christian nation in Asia.” Ignoring the question of the validity of the term ‘Christian nation,’ this is not actually true. Timor-Leste, Armenia, and Cyprus are definitely Christian majority nations, while South Korea, although not having a Christian majority, still finds Christianity having a strong role in the broader society. However, the Philippines is the largest country in Asia to be predominantly Christian. This has led to calls for the Philippines to be a key nation for reaching Asia for Christ, and in recent years the Philippines has joined the list of what is referred to as “New Sending Countries,” as it pertains to exporting missionaries to the world.

Another difference is that the Philippines has strong ties to the West. These ties go beyond being a former colony. Huntington in his “Clash of Civilizations” sees the Philippines as part of the Western Sphere. <Samuel P. Huntington The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order> One does not have to accept Huntington’s overall thesis to recognize that the Philippines has a rather unique relationship with The West. This is partly due to the American colonization of the Philippines (Note: Americans balk at the use of the term colonization.) This influence is sustained by the use of English as the main language of business and governance, and the high number of overseas foreign workers and immigrants to Western countries.

These differences should certainly make Philippine theology quite different from other Asian theologies. However, the relative youth of the Philippines as an independent nation, its connection with other Asian regions over millennia, and its colonial history will likely make the ‘flavor’ of an authentic localized theology distinctly Asian.

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