Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 4

Flavor #3.  Theologies of Cultural Patterns

It has been common to think of the Philippines as an Honor/Shame culture, particularly in contrast to Guilt/Innocence cultures. However, tests from Honorshame.com for the Philippines bring doubt to this assessment. As noted before, the Philippines is rather globalized, and this helps give results that are a more mixed. (Missionaries become less extreme in their cultural patterns than either people from their homeland or their mission field the longer they stay in the cross-cultural ministry.) Additionally, much of the Philippines has been strongly influenced by Roman Catholicism, which puts a strong emphasis on guilt. Despite this, hiya (shame) is a strong social motivator, and to be described as “walang hiya” (shameless) is a serious accusation. Still, perhaps the central pattern may not be Honor/Shame, Justice/Guilt, or Power/Fear. Robert Strauss speaks of four major patterns. Two of them line up with Honor/Shame and Justice/Guilt. The other two are Harmony and Reciprocity.

Several cultural values certainly fit with Harmony. One is “pakikisma.’ In its most positive form, it involves adjusting oneself to reduce conflict for the good of the group. Of course, it can also describe caving in to others, violating one’s moral principles. “Bahala na” is looked at often as fatalism. It doesn’t really translate well, but essentially means “Things happen— one can’t do anything about it.” However, on a practical level, such a perspective tends to reduce conflicts. <<Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano, Filipino Values and Our Christian Faith.>>

On the other hand, perhaps a better pattern to focus on is Reciprocity. A very important part of Philippine culture is described with the term “Utang ng loob.” This term, literally meaning ‘inside debt,’ translates better into ‘implied obligation’ or ‘debt of gratitude.’ It is important to find ways to pay off what one has been gifted— whether in kind, in cash, or some other way. Related to this is patronage. In this system, the ‘haves’ (Much in line with Confucian values) are to act benevolently for the ‘have nots’ and the ‘have nots’ respond through loyalty and service to the ‘haves.’ Perhaps Reciprocity and Harmony share as leading patterns in the Philippines.

Much of Western Theology has focused on Justice/Guilt. The focus has been so intense that some seem to believe that this is “the Biblical” perspective. However, it is quite clear that other patterns are common in the Bible as well. In fact, Honor/Shame is at least as common in the Bible providing great potential for theology. Power/Fear has been taken up to some extent by Pentecostals and Charismatics for theology as well. However, I believe there is much potential in terms of both Harmony and Reciprocity. In some ways, I think Harmony is easier. The Bible starts with God, Man, and Creation in perfect harmony. Genesis 3 finds God, Man, and Creation in conflict— without harmony. Christ comes to restore  harmony, the Church is meant to model harmony, and the end of the Bible finds perfect harmony fully restored. Reciprocity may be a bit more challenging (I could be wrong), but certainly attempts to look at our relationship with God in terms of covenants point toward a certain understanding of reciprocity.

Reciprocity may even help us understand aspects of our relationship with God that many of us have struggled with. We learn from Paul that salvation is a gift that is given to us by God, and not earned or purchased by us, made effective through our faith. At the same time, we are clearly supposed to follow Christ, and declare Him as Lord. Even though we are saved by faith not works, our faith is evidenced by works, and faith that does not demonstrate itself in terms of works is suspect. One way to address this is in terms of Reciprocity. We are saved by God as a covenantal gift. However, with God as our patron, such benevolence demands (culturally in the Kingdom of God, not legally) loyalty and service. We serve as a gift of gratitude. While this contextual view does not address every problem of “What If,” it certainly places salvation in a context that makes more sense. Salvation is not transactional, but relational.

Flavor #4.  Theologies of Cultural Values

Instead of focusing on major cultural patterns, one can simply focus on one or more cultural values. “Bayanihan,” or the cultural ideal of Filipinos coming together for the common good, certainly can be explored theologically. In fact, many cultural values that have been determined over the decades to be associated with Filipino culture have potential for positive theological reflection.

Jose de Mesa has put a strong emphasis on “loob” as a term that can and should have great significance theologically in the Filipino culture. The term also helps demonstrate why theology should be done by locals, not outsiders. The term, loob, is a Tagalog word whose first meaning is “inside.” As an outsider, this is the meaning that I immediately connect ‘loob’ to. However, the term is used broadly to include virtue and virtuous behavior, and, most notably for theological purposes, one’s ‘authentic self.’  Francis Samdao has noted importance of the concept of ‘Kapwa’ as well in localized theological formulation. Again, the top translation for this term is “other,” but it is in its broader understanding where its value is found. It has a strong relational value. In contrast, the English term “other” commonly implies that someone or something is alien, different, or some other way is disconnected from another. In Tagalog, kapwa suggests connectivity or mutuality. In its strongest sense, it suggests seeing one’s authentic self in the other.  <<Add footnotes from Francis>>

The use of cultural values can be fruitful, but there are certainly risks. Historically, so-called cultural values were often assigned or at least popularized by colonizers (or employers in the case of OFWs). Terms such as “crab mentality,” “Juan Tamad,” and more identified perceived qualities and then were used to label/judge the culture. For other terms like “bahala na” or “pakikisama,” outsiders may take the negative implications of these rather than seeing the possible positive implications of each.

At the other extreme, Philippine Psychology has at times seemed to have reacted to the one-sided negative perspective by idealizing Filipino cultural traits. Gerald Melodi has noted a risk of doing this. If Filipino cultural traits are seen only as good, then the line between culture and morality becomes blurred. <<Gerald M. Melodi, “Virgilio Enriquez and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Dialogue:  Discerning a Theology of Solidarity in Philippine Kapwa-Culture:  Evangelical Review of Theology 45:3, 2021, 268-278.>>If one is to be morally good, one must be authentically Filipino. From this comes obvious questions. Does an Arab, or a German, or an American become morally good as he or she becomes more culturally Filipino? Or is morality only to be judged in terms of living according to one’s own ideal cultural norms? Perhaps the Spaniards who invaded the Philippines centuries ago were morally right to do so since they were living out their own cultural trait of conquest.

Since cultural values are prone to abuse, are they beneficial in developing theology? I believe they can be, but suggest that they are best understood as opening doors to stories. After all, it is difficult to understand concepts such as courage, honor, compassion, and such via definitions. They are understood best through stories. I also believe that it is in terms of stories where we can see the healthy and unhealthy use of cultural values in localized theology. A more nuanced, hopeful but cautious, approach to cultural traits seems wise.

Figure 20 has “The Story Wheel,” loosely based on the work of Sacks and Crossan. <<<Theo-Storying.>>>  For a story to be theological and localized, it must take some sort of stance in terms of culture. As such, Action Stories are likely to have little import for this. From there, going counter-clockwise one moves towards greater affirmation of local culture, and going clockwise one moves towards greater challenge of local culture. The extremes of cultural traits led to extremes of story-making. Using cultural traits as weapons to belittle a culture could be called “Anti-mythmaking.” In this, one is seeking to supplant a culture deemed inferior with another culture deemed superior. The other extreme, where one idealizes the local culture could be called “Mythmaking.” In this, stories show how great the local culture is and that one “should not change a thing.”

Figure 20.  The Story Wheel

If theological stories for localized theology should address culture in some sort of critical way, then the ideal stories should be Apologues and Parables. Apologues (or fables) embrace the best of the culture and teaches members of that culture to live up to that best. There is no assumption that the local culture is perfect. On the other side, Parables challenge aspects of the culture. However, parables are not anti-cultural. Rather, they are counter-cultural— embedded in the culture to challenge certain aspects within that culture.

Many stories may in fact have both apologue and parable elements. This just makes sense since culture always has aspects that are both ideal and non-ideal. The story of the Prodigal Son is one such story. In some ways it very much supports cultural values during the time of Christ. Themes such as “Foolishness is in the heart of a child” and “Father knows best” certainly are in no way challenged in the story, and appear to be affirmed. On the other hand, the extravagance of the mercy of the father to both of his rather foolish sons challenges cultural values quite stunningly. Taking this story as pointing out our relationship to God, we find that aspects of our cultural values help us understand God and our relationship with Him, but there are aspects that clearly point us in the wrong direction. God is wise compared to our foolishness, and we are at our best when we are living under His reign. Some of our understanding of father and child support this. However, some of our understanding needs to change. God’s love and mercy is extravagant. God may be just, but He is more merciful than He is just.

I believe that if one recognizes God as the ideal, one can use cultural traits (1) positively through apologues, (2) negatively through parables, and (3) ethically to point us how to live incarnationally in one’s culture but under God’s reign.

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