Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 5

Flavor #5.  Theological Development of Cultural Artifacts

Ideally, a robust local theology draws from worldview, beliefs, and values. But not all theology is at such a high level. Theology can also be said to address the small and the mundane. For example, a worship service is a gathering where men, women and children mingle together, or are kept separate is based most likely on how culture is expressed in other settings. The same can be said of whether the congregation sits in rows facing one direction, in rows facing each other, or in a circle; or if pews, chairs, rugs, or soil are used for sitting. One may not see this as theological, but as merely a matter of convention. However, whenever one chooses to take a cultural convention or artifact (using the term very loosely to include any sort of cultural characteristic one can readily ‘see’) or rejects it for church or ministry one is taking a theological stance. For example, suppose a culture group normally has meetings where men gather loosely sitting on the ground, with women with their children also sitting on the periphery. Now suppose a pioneering church is established where gatherings are done with rows of chairs set on concrete with men and women sitting together all facing the same direction while their children are taken to a different place for activities. What led to doing things so different from the cultural norm? As soon as one is saying that one OUGHT to function as a corporate body of believers one way versus another, one is being guided theologically. The decision may be intentionally or unintentionally theological, but it will be theological.

Redemptive analogies and other types of metaphors and illustrations can be thought of as small activities of theological localization. Generally, one is attempting to show God’s work of salvation in a way that makes sense in a different culture. St. Patrick’s use of a shamrock to explain the Trinity may be seen as simply an illustration, but as it is an attempt to connect God’s self-revelation to Man’s cultural setting, it is in some way an act of theologizing.

In Cordilleras of Northern Philippines, some churches integrate the use of gongs and local dances into the worship services. Other churches reject these as being ‘pagan,’ using electric guitars and drums, while other churches reject both styles, seeing both as being devilish. Ultimately, it is the local church that should determine what is correct in their context. It is not necessarily wrong for missionaries to have an input (church is both local and universal and as such should be open to critique from both near and far), but the ultimate decision should be the local congregation, not outsiders.

Another example of an activity in the Cordilleras that might hold promise for theological reflection and practical ministry is the “watwat.” This is a community meal where a great deal of food is cooked and served to every member of that community. It actually sounds very much like the Love Feast described by St. Paul, and described in greater detail by Tertullian.  <<Provide footnote for Tertullian… and perhaps Paul>> The watwat also then draws us into ethics as well. Paul and Tertullian note that the love feast must model the principle in the church that there is no respecter of person. Each member, rich or poor, free or slave, is to receive equal shares. The watwat also has this same principle. According to Lawrence Kwarteng, the ethical system of the Cordillerans, “Lawa at Inayan” expresses ethical principles through stories. One of those stories, for example, explains why it is necessary that each member of the community should receive shares equally regardless of his or her position within the community. In many churches around the world, “potluck dinners” are held where the church members share and eat together equally. Despite its roots in the Christian rites of Love Feast and Eucharist, these potlucks often as a bit of a humorous part of church culture rather than a sacred and theologically rich activity.

Some may see bringing the watwat into the church as problematic— a mixing of profane with the sacred. This is doubly true when it comes to the ethical system (lawa at inayan) where the underlying idea is that one should do what is ethical to meet the expectation of one’s ancestors, and avoid bringing a curse upon oneself. However, one can look at it more positively. Not only is the watwat, shared community meal, not inherently profane, but it points to something that is good in the church but has sometimes been forgotten. Shared meals are not only a historical part of the church, but has had a message of equality and a  sacredness that those outside of the Cordilleras can gain from. And while the ethical system of the Cordilleras may draw its basis from a less than ideal source (ancestral patterns and fear of curse), the use of story is a far more powerful than propositional ethics that is often expressed in the church today. As such, a localization of the Christian faith can benefit not only the local people, but the universal church as well. <<An unpublished, in-process, dissertation provides considerable insight in this topic. Lawrence Kwarteng, Inculturation of the Gospel in Light of ‘Inayan and Lawa’ for the Evangelization of Kankana-eys, Benguet, Philippines. South Africa Theological Seminary.  First Draft, 2017.>>

These “flavors” will ultimately form a chapter in my book on Theology of Missions. Hopefully, some of the rough edges will be cleaned up by then.

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