Thoughts on Localization of Theology

I have been working on a couple of articles. One of them I decided to remove a large section. I will include it here. Most of it comes from parts of my books on on Interreligious Dialoge and Theology of Mission (using some of the work of David Hesselgrave, Stephen Bevans, and Paul Hiebert).

Theology that is not well-grounded in God’s revelation is untrue and irrelevant. Theology that is well-grounded in God’s revelation but not contextualized to the people will be misunderstood. Misunderstood is essentially the same as untrue, and thus also irrelevant. Bevans has also gone further and argued that a couple of tests of a good (orthodox) and healthy local theology are (a) it develops from the people in their local context, and (b) it is open to both challenge other theologies from other contexts in the universal church and accept critique from the same.

Paul Hiebert described three types of contextualization— non-contextualization, uncritical contextualization, and critical contextualization. Critical contextualization is considered the ideal type of contextualization, with the other two types essentially being to forms of inappropriate contextualizing. For Hiebert, critical contextualization occurs when there is an integration of a careful reading and understanding of the Bible with a sympathetic This is where Bible doctrines are “translated” into a new cultural setting through a careful study of Scripture and a sympathetic understanding of the recipient culture. While this appears to establish two stakeholders in the activity— the Bible and the recipient culture— there are, in fact, three cultures interacting. These are the recipient culture, the missionary culture, and the Biblical culture(s). A proper interaction of interpreting Scripture in light of these three cultures should, hopefully, lead to a good contextualized theology.

The other forms of contextualization occur when the process is unbalanced. Uncritical Contextualization places too much emphasis on the recipient culture. Too much of the recipient culture is essentially “blessed” that key elements of God’s message are downplayed or eliminated. In such a setting, the resultant faith may take on more of a mythic rather than parabolic role in that culture. That is, the resultant faith justifies the culture more than it challenges it. This is syncretism— an unhealthy mix of God’s message and culture.

The other form of unbalanced contextualization, according to Hiebert is non-contextualization. This is where the local culture is given too little value. Perhaps the thought is that since the culture is not considered Christian, all elements in which it differs from the missionary culture, thought to be a Christian culture, is bad. Hiebert notes that this often leads to the Christian faith maintaining a “foreigness” to it, and a faith that is often shallow. Below a thin layer of Christian behavior and answers to questions, is the unchallenged values and worldview of the local culture. Both Charles Kraft and Jackson Wu would note that this also is a form of syncretism. It is the unhealthy mixing of God’s revelation and the missionary’s culture. Often people express concern about contextualization saying that it leads, inevitably, to syncretism. In fact, the opposite is probably more true. If the local culture is ignored and the missionary culture version of the Christian faith is indoctrinated into the people, syncretism on some level has already occurred.

Earlier I noted the Three Culture Model speaks of interaction between recipient culture, missionary culture, and Biblical culture. One could argue that there is a fourth type of contextualization where there is an overemphasis on, or theological blessing of, the culture(s) in the Bible. This is true, and actually quite common, but functionally, it is essentially the same as non-contextualization. If one goes to a new culture and tells them, “Christians are supposed to wear white shirts and ties if they are male, and dresses if they are female” (because that is what we wear back home), there is no functional difference from telling them, “Christians are supposed to wear tunics and cloaks” (because that is what both men and women wore in the Bible).

Identifying the importance of balance in contextualization in no way makes clear how this is done. But each form of contextualization suggests a different strategy. These different strategies are described by David Hesselgrave. He applied these terms to a somewhat different problem, but they work here. Non-contextualization follows the Didactic Method. Didactic here implies one-way communication. The missionary enters a culture and takes on the role of teacher, and the people in the recipient culture embrace the role of student or learner. Good discipleship happens when people change a lot and missionary changes little. Uncritical Contextualization follows the Dialogic Method. I don’t actually care for Hesselgrave’s term here. He is using the term rather negatively, while I will be using the term Dialogue in a more neutral way later in this paper. However, I do understand the reason for his choice here. In the Dialogic method, little importance is placed on change. Dialogue is often seen as focused on two-way communication with the desired outcome to be mutual understanding rather than change of heart or behavior. Great importance is on interaction— Presence and Participation over Proclamation. <In the 1960s a divide formed in Protestant missions where conservatives focused on Proclamation of the Gospel with the goal of leading to radical conversion to Christ. On the other side, many liberals focused on missional Presence where Proselytization was seen as the “antithesis” of missions. The extreme of the conservative view would line up with non-contextualization, where the job of the missionary is to talk, and the job of the people is simply to listen and change. The extreme of the liberal view would line up with uncritical contextualization. The result of presence is generally to bless the best in the culture rather than inviting a call to change of allegiance.

Between these extremes would be a the Dialectic method. In this view there is dialogue (two-way communication) but the goal is a process where both sides challenge each other other with the goal of finding truth. Thus it is more focused on truth than what is described as Dialogic method. It is more focused on two-way conversation than the Didactic method. It also assumes the possibility that both sides may need to learn something. The Dialectic method also differs from debate or apologetics. The latter is interested in winning rather than finding truth.

Recognizing that syncretism is an anticipated risk for either extreme (excessive and inadequate contextualization of the faith), this suggests that the spectrum of contextualization may be viewed as a circle where critical (or balanced) contextualization is on one side (such as at “3 o’clock”) and movement away from that side, occurs either clockwise or counterclockwise towards its opposite (“9 o’clock”). Referring to Figure 1, Clockwise movement could be used to indicate movement towards more non-contextualization. This direction would involve giving more respect to the missionary culture in terms of contextualization, and less to the recipient culture. Counter-clockwise movement could be used to indicate movement towards uncritical contextualization. This direction wou involve giving more respect to the recipient culture in terms of contextualization, and less to the missionary culture. The two movements are shown as joining together at 9 o’clock because both lead to the opposite of critical contextualization— syncretism.

Figure 1

Looking at Communication

Instead of looking at the movement of the Gospel message into a culture in terms of contextualization, one can look at it as an act of communication. In most cases the presentation of the gospel to a new culture comes through a process of cross-cultural dialogue. There are different models of dialogue, but I prefer one that breaks things down into three general models. Different authors use different terms, but I will use “Apologetic,” “Clarification” and “Common Ground” models. The Apologetic model focuses on the differences. The missionary goal is to win the argument. The goal is to show the superiority of one’s beliefs, and the inferiority of the others. The ideal result of such an encounter is a full surrender to the perspective of the missionary. The other extreme in terms of dialogue is the “Common Ground” model. In this model, the missionary seeks to promote dialogue by emphasizing similarities and minimizing differences. In this situation, the missionary is not so focused on changing the others’ beliefs, but that “we all are pretty much the same.” Between these extremes is Clarification. Clarification seeks a certain amount of balance. Both the similarities and differences are valued.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows a way of showing this. Figure 1 shows the movement converges on the left side since both directions end up with syncretism. Figure 2 can also be shown this way. As one moves from the right side (“3 o’clock”) towards the left-side one is moving towards less focus on truth. This is obvious from the standpoint emphasizing similarities in Common Ground Models. Common Ground Models can be described as relativistic. The goal is to make connection, breaking down barriers, ignoring issues such as what one believes. Emphasizing differences moving toward Apologetic models also lessens the importance of truth. In apologetics, the primary interest is on winning, not determining what is true. On reflection, this just makes sense since focusing on agreement versus disagreement with beliefs would mean less focus on the truth of beliefs.

Comparing The Two Figures

While there are clear similarities, it is worthwhile to address the marked differences. The biggest difference is that the two are dealing with two different spectra. The first is about the spectrum of strategies for contextualization. The second is about the spectrum of strategies for interreligious dialogue. And yet, the two are very much related. Both involve the interactions between people of different beliefs from two different cultures. The spectrum regarding contextualization is more implicitly missiological, but both involve conversations in a similar setting.

A more important difference is a comparison of what is going on at the left side (“9 o’clock”). In Figure 1, the left side shows a greater tendency to syncretism. In Figure 2, even though not explicitly marked, the left side expresses a lesser interest in truth. This in itself is not problem since each figure could emphasize a different thing. However, if the two figures are expresses a similar experience, presumably the two tendencies should be compatible. At first brush, they do not. Syncretism is not necessarily linked to a lesser emphasis on truth. That being said, syncretism is a result, not a motive. So if one looks at Figure1, the argument could be made that an unbalanced contextualization, either uncritical contextualization or non-contextualization, involves a lesser interest in truth. Critical Contextualization involves determining how Biblical truth can be established faithfully in a new context. Non-Contextualization and Uncritical Contextualization rejects critical faculties in determining truth. This does not mean that syncretism is a rejection of truth, but rather that setting something else as a priority over truth establishes a a setting where syncretism can develop.

The similarities of the figures outweigh the differences. Most importantly, the two establish three categories that line up fairly well. Clarification Models for Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) would involve a search of the truth through identifying similarities and differences with regards to two cultures (and potentially three cultures if including Bible culture). Such a search would ideally be dialectical rather than dialogic (in this case focusing those forms of dialogue that focus on common ground rather than on truth) or didactic (being primarily unidirectional). Critical Contextualizaiton should be harmonious with the Clarification Models of IRD. In a similar way, Apologetic Models for IRD line up with didactic methods relating to non-contextualization. Although Apologetic Models would utilize two-way communication, the similarity lies in the premise that the recipient culture has little to offer the sending (or missionary) culture. Common Ground Models for IRD line fairly well with dialogic methods related to uncritical contextualization. In these, the focus is on covering over differences and minimizing change in the recipient culture.

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