A Theology of Celebration (Part II)

This is a continuation of “A Theology of Celebration (Part I).” You are welcome to read that one first.

However, I have decided to make this second part more briefly than originally. Part one was written close to the time when some Christians were expressing the belief that Valentines Day may be “Un-Christian” and therefore should not be celebrated. But that was a few weeks ago. In a couple of more weeks, we will start getting the FB notices and articles that Easter is “Un-Christian” and likewise should not be celebrated. But at the moment, I am not feeling that annoyance so I will shorten my argument.

The starting point for a Theology of Christian Celebration is that God approves of celebration. We see celebration as being affirmed in Heaven in a number of places. Consider Luke 15:10 and Revelation 7:9ff. Celebration then, at least as a concept is not sinful… it is even viewed positively by God.

On earth, celebrations were identified by Jesus as good (consider Luke 19 and John 12 as examples of people celebrating Jesus’s presence). Additionally, the Jews had a number of celebrations of different sorts. Consider for a moment some of the variety.

  • Some had been formally commanded by God (in the Torah) and some were not.
  • Some were tied to historical events (Passover, dedication of the temple, Purim, Chanukkah), and some were not.
  • Some were based on harvest festivals (pre-Jewish celebrations) and some were not.
  • Some were national and some were tied to rites of passage (circumcision, wedding) and some were ad hoc (community feasts like described in Luke 15).
  • Some were highly religious (day of atonement), some were not really religious at all (community feast), and some were non-religious where a religious significance was tied to it (Like Shavuot).

Let’s consider this last one. Shavuot marks a period of time in the year in Palestine where the end of the Barley harvest meets the beginning of the wheat harvest. As such it lines as a harvest festival and was certainly celebrated as a harvest festival well before the time of Moses. However, with Moses and the arrival of the Torah, The Feast of Weeks was established (“Shavuot”) in the Torah, to commemorate the gift of the Law to the Israelites. Later on, during the Feast of Weeks (also known as Pentecost), the Holy Spirit came upon the 120 in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. This event has been marked until today as Pentecost and is celebrated as part of the Christian Liturgical calendar. So we have one continuous celebration from Pre-Israel days to the Christian era— a harvest festival, the arrival of the Torah, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Not only does this appear to be blessed by God, it appears to be intentional. The arrival of the Holy Spirit ushering in the Church age, is supposed to remind people of the arrival of the Torah ushering in the era of the Law, and both are to remind people of the joy of the arrival of the first wheat of the agricultural cycle. The overlapping symbols are not competitive but supportive.

Today there are those who feel that symbols have a certain permanence of meaning to them. And a symbol of permanent meaning has a permanent moral value associated with it. Therefore, a day that was once used by pagans cannot be used by anyone else for any other purpose. A symbol that has meaning in one faith can never be redeemed by another faith.

The truth is, however, that symbols (especially “pure symbols”) have meanings associated with them that are purely arbitrary. Even with iconic symbols, however, they can be redefined as well. A cross can be a symbol of disgrace and of execution, or it can be a symbol of faith and salvation. Meat that had been sacrificed to the Greek god Zeus, can symbolize the power of polytheistic Greek faith to give health and blessing, or it can be a worthless activity that can be ignored as one thanks the God of the Bible who provides all good things.

Celebrations are similar. If someone feels like he is doing wrong by celebrating something, then he should not. If someone feels like he is celebrating something worthy of Godly joy, he should feel no shame.

However, the challenge comes when these two people come together. What do we do then. Who is the weaker brother? It could be argued that either of them is the weaker brother and is required to adjust to the other out of loving concern. On the other hand, perhaps neither are the weaker brother. Perhaps they each simply disagree. Neither needs to apologize and neither needs to try to shame the other.

But that brings up a new thought. Can one join a celebration of a different religion or celebrate a secular event? Is that wrong? Generally, there are two answers given:

  • No you can’t. You are joining in something that is wrong.   Or…
  • Yes you can. We have Christian liberty. What is not clearly wrong is… right.

I would argue that there is another option… and that is “Maybe.” From a missiological standpoint there are then two questions that need to be considered.

Question #1.  Rather than focus on Yes I can or No I can’t celebrate, the question can be “How can I as a Christian join with the celebrations of my community, my friends, and still be true to my faith?”

Question #2.  How can I redeem the symbols of this celebration so that Christians can embrace the culture transformatively?

To me these questions are better to consider than addressing the issue of Bad versus Good.  Is Valentine’s Day non-Christian? In some ways, historically, and practically, the answer is clearly Yes. In some ways Valentine’s Day is non-Christian. Is Valentine’s Day Christian? Historically, it is also quite clear that the answer has to be Yes as well. Valentine’s Day has very clear Christian roots. So instead of fighting about trying to argue that Yes is No… Christians should ask the question,

“How can we as Christians celebrate Valentine’s Day in a way that is transformative in our community and true to our God.”

 

A Theology of Celebration (Part I)

There has been a move within the “Cell Church” movement to describe Sunday morning gathering as “Celebration.” I never really cared for the terminology, although I grant at least the somewhat clever alliteration of church involving Cell Groups (another term I don’t care for) and Celebration. It seems to me that “celebration” is a sub-biblical understanding of gathering as a church body. But then, I don’t think “Worship Service” does better by combining two inadequate terms.

That being said, one thing I do like about calling the morning gathering Celebration is that it embraces a positive Christian understanding of the term. With the popularization of Spiritual Disciplines among Protestants in the 20th century, the term celebration has been seen more positively with both Richard Foster (in “Celebration of Discipline”) and Dallas Willard (in “The Spirit of the Disciplines”) describing celebration as a discipline that leads to spiritual growth.

Some, however, struggle with this. A wonderful

Image result for babette's feast
Babette’s Feast (1997)

Danish film that came out in 1987 was titled “Babette’s Feast” (based on a story by Isak Dinesen). The setting was a Protestant group that embraced a certain ascetic frugality. It appears as if celebration and joy were seen as wrong.

 

A friend of mine, a missionary, visited a group of devout Christians in an Asian mountain village. Discovering that one of them was having a birthday, the missionary asked if there would be a birthday party. The answer was “No.” In fact, there would be no public recognition at all. “Everything is about God. Every day is God’s. Isn’t it hubris to say to take even one day a year and say that it is about me instead of God?” That missionary was rather impressed by their piety. He may have a point, but I am wondering whether this is a healthy belief system.

A friend of mine, admittedly Jehovah’s Witness, not Christian, was talking to me about the soul-searching he was having about taking a piece of cake at the office we worked at. His religion tells him that birthday celebrations are forbidden because these celebrations are “pagan.” However, at the office, there really is no party. The secretary simply brings out some cake for people to eat when it is someone’s birthday. As my friend would say, “It feel like it is not wrong to eat cake. It is not a party, and I am not part of a celebration.” His religious training, however, leads him to a lot of guilt.

Facebook (and to a lesser extent Youtube) has become the dumping ground for people to share why celebrations are “pagan,” “devilish,” or just plain wrong. A few months ago the issue was Halloween as demonic because of its loose connection with Samhain (an animistic Druidic festival), while ignoring its strong connection to All Hallows’ Day. A few weeks later no one complains about American Thanksgiving (strangely since a stronger case could be made for its pagan roots than the others), but then complaints start up again for Christmas (linking it to a pagan holiday that doesn’t even line up with it). Now it is Valentine’s Day and people on FB again are suggesting that it is also celebration of a pagan holiday. Soon, it will repeat for Easter/Resurrection Sunday (even though it is the weakest of any of the arguments).

Why do Christians seem so quick to be bothered about celebrations— actually searching for arguments why they should not participate in celebrations? Why do so many Protestants here in the Philippines believe that culturally significant local festivities are wrong, priding themselves with their disinvolvement, while often embracing celebrations from other cultures? Why is it that when my daughter’s classmates discover that she is Baptist they react with pity because of the presumption that Baptists are against anything that brings happiness?

Perhaps there is a need for a good theological understanding of celebrations.  I would like to start the ball rolling on this one in Part 2.  You can Click on it Here.

<As one who is not much of a celebrant or any sort, it feels strange that this is a topic I would take up. However, from a missions standpoint, it is quite relevant. One of the most crucial ways that Christianity remains foreign is to reject local festivities. And one of the ways that problematic aspects of festivities are passed on generation after generation is when Christians ignore them rather than seek to reimagine and redeem them.>

 

 

 

Asian Christian Theology? (Part II)

Years ago I wrote an article on Asian Christian Theology, where I expressed some questions or concerns about how some consider this.  (You can read it by CLICKING HERE).

Recently I was in a meeting where exploration of supporting Asian Christian Theology books was explored. Some questions came up that commonly come up when this topic is being considered. For example, what defines Asian Christian Theology? If one is Asian does this make one’s theological writings Asian or not? Many Asians are trained (and sometimes indoctrinated) in Western schools or traditions. Will the results of these Asian writers be Asian theology, or simply Western Theology written by an Asian.

Additionally, do Asian Christian Theologies have characteristics that make them distinctly different AS A GROUP from Western or other Christian Theologies? Considering the variety of Asian cultures it seems doubtful that there is one unifying theme. Continental identity does not seem adequate.

Further, does Asian Christian Theology have unique methodologies (or at least foci) different from Western? Perhaps there is a greater focus on narrative over propositional truths. Maybe the dominant metaphors would be different. Perhaps systematization would be less valued. But if an Asian wrote a systematic theology with a strong focus on propositional truths, would that make it “un-Asian”?

For me, the key point is not on any of the above.  I would suggest something different.

cultural-bridge

The above figure suggests theology as a man-made construct that relates God’s unchanging revelation to Man’s changing culture(s). Since human cultures are diverse and changing, good theologies should be:

  • Contemporary
  • Culturally Practical
  • Making sense within the culture

<Consider reading the post where I talk about this more. It was meant to be part of a book that I never finished.  Click Here.>

With this in mind, what is an Asian Christian Theology? It is one that is

  • Relevant to people living in a present Asian culture
  • Has practical value to these same people in that culture
  • Utilizes metaphors, thought processes, and such that make sense to people in that culture.
  • AND… effectively links accurately and fully to God’s revelation.

I could add a fifth point. Ideally, it should speak to people of other cultures as well. That is because we are not only part of a local community of faith, we are part of a universal community of faith. As such, it should not serve as a wedge between local and non-local Christians. (Theology should both unify and diversify.)

Ultimately, the best test of whether a theology is Asian is “Does it give God’s answers to the questions that come from Asians within an Asian culture?”

Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at Christians in culture. It seems clear, I hope, that Christians should live on three levels as it relates to the Idealized Culturesurrounding culture.

  1.  We should live in many ways like those around us… fitting in quite comfortably with the broader culture.
  2. We should live in many ways like what the broader culture idealizes, even if the members of that culture rarely live up to its own standards.
  3. We should live in many ways according to God’s standards in opposition to the culture.

This is built on the presumption that all cultures are, although far from perfect, good. They are good to the extent that they provide cohesion and guidelines for their members.

But not everyone sees it that way. Some tend towards the demonization of cultures.  In this case, often the person embraces a foreign culture as “holy” and the local culture as unholy. The goal is to rid the church of the “stench” of its local cultural roots and embrace an outside culture as ideal.

Here in the Philippines, this is often seen in the “demonization of pagan roots.” The Philippines has a rather short distance to paganism, or tribal animistic faiths. In fact, animistic faiths are alive and well as both separate religions and as syncretizations of world religions. It has become popular to demonize paganism… and sometimes Satanize paganism.

For example, every Halloween and every Christmas people write about the pagan roots of these holidays. (In a few weeks articles about the pagan roots of Easter will be starting up as well.) In these holidays, the case for the pagan roots is not nearly as strong as people think they are. However, what is most interesting is that those elements that have been incorporated into the present holidays that have roots in early pagan cultures are not just thought of as “pagan,” but as “demonic,” or even Satanic. The connection between pagan and demonic is rather debatable. In the Bible, idols are sometimes linked to the idea of worshiping demons, but at other times is seen as worshiping wood and stone— created things, rather than the Creator.

Samhain (linked loosely to Halloween) and Saturnalia (linked by present pop culture, rather than actual history, to Christmas) were pagan events, but not Satanic. One may argue that pagan symbols are not from God, or that they point people away from God, and in this way are Satanic. This seems too broad of a leap. Satan is described as a liar, an accuser, and a deceiver. So if you are a person who lies at times, it may be quite accurate to say that in a very important way you are Satanic. But that seems unhelpful. Such hyperbolic language is akin to the humorous observation that any argument on social media eventually results in comparison of one or both sides to Hitler.

It is interesting that Paul takes a more nuanced approach to the paganism of the Hellenistic around him. He was grieved at all of the idols in Athens (and other places) but did not express fear or horror of them. In more than one place, he emphasized to the people that God was pretty forgiving of their pagan activities since they did so out of ignorance. He also instructed Christians to avoid idolatry, but not to fear that the idolatry has power over them. I have an acquaintance over here who has described Christmas as the greatest work of Satan today. I feel this language is really unhelpful. There are problems with Christmas (especially as a materialistic, consumeristic, activity) but hyperbolic language undermines the argument. And it is actually worse than this. The problem the person has with Christmas is not its connection to greed, but rather that it seeks to subvert or redeem some formerly pagan symbols.

I would argue that such subversion is commendable. I know of no Americans who think that the Fourth of July is demonic or Satanic even though fireworks are used for the celebration. (For those of you who don’t know, fireworks have been traditionally used by pagan cultures as part of a celebration to “scare away” ghosts and demons. Fourth of July may have problems in that some celebrate a certain unhealthy jingoism in it, but the fact that it has subverted the symbolic meaning of (pagan) fireworks is not a bad thing.

A different form of demonization is idealizing another culture. I have friends here in the Philippines that are practicing a form of Christianity that embraces strongly Jewish symbols. Is this wrong? No. Is it useful for non-Jews to embrace Jewish cultural symbols? I doubt it… but I suppose it is harmless. What is not so harmless is when Christians celebrate Yom Kippur (a perfectly fine day to celebrate) but then suggest that Christians who celebrate other days have fallen away from the truth.

Of course, they are not the only ones. There are churches here in the Philippines that are KJV-only. It is hard to understand why any missionary would try to get Filipinos to embrace a version of the Bible that is not only not their language but is not even their century. Of course, up until 50 years ago, the dominant religious group in the Philippines required the Bible to read only in Latin… a language that is native tongue to exactly 0% of Filipinos. I have heard some KJV only folk call the NIV the “New Infernal Version.” This is demonization of a translation of a Bible. A translation may be better or worse, clearer or murkier, but I don’t think any honest attempt to make God’s word understandable should be called demonic.

And it is not only them. As one goes around to different churches in the Philippines we find that an awful lot of churches here mimic churches elsewhere… in building design, dress, songs, and so forth. They are also often best known for how they refuse to interact with a lot of the local cultural activities (because people from their denominational roots wouldn’t participate).

Demonization of culture is unhealthy. I would argue that a more healthy understanding of culture is in the three areas listed at the top. Demonization of culture does not get one closer to God, but farther from the community in which one serves.

 

 

 

Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part 1)

Much like there have been times in church history where people have embraced the idea of “holy language” (Hebrew, Koine Greek, Latin, Middle English) there have been periods of time and places where a similar sanctification has been placed on culture.

The Jerusalem Council struggled with this during the first century. Does a Greek have to become (culturally) a Jew to become a Christian? The decision, in the end, was NO. A Greek can remain culturally a Greek and still be Christian. This still left a lot to be determined. Is everything Greek sanctified and good? What about underlying beliefs or worldview?  It is pretty clear that some things need to radically change, but which things?

It seems to me that four places to get a bit of a grasp of this are:

  • Jerusalem Council (as recorded by Luke) and the Didache
  • Paul’s remarks of culture
  • Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (chapter 5)

I will dig into none of these deeply.

1.  Jerusalem Council.  Here is the announcement as recorded by Luke regarding the summation of that council.

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

The keyword here is Flexibility, I think. The Apostles and Elders said that they would place no burdens on the Greek Christians except minor limitations on food, and on sexual misconduct.  If you think about it, what does this mean?  Is it saying that the Council was saying that it was okay for Greek Christians to lie, to steal, to murder? Certainly this is not the case. Is it saying that virtues such as integrity, godliness, and honor are not being placed on the Greeks Christians? Again, certainly not. What does appear to be said is three things:

  • The trappings of Jewish Culture are not necessary for non-Jews.
  • The ideals and taboos of Greek culture are, for the most part, commendable. Because of this, the Greek Christians do not need to be told “do not lie” because they already know this to be virtuous even before here the gospel message.
  • Some specific areas of Greek culture may be unhealthy and set aside if one is supposed to follow Christ. (However, Jesus also challenged some aspects of Jewish culture as unhealthy as well.)

Alan Garrow has made the suggestion that the Didache was originally a longer version of the short-form of the Jerusalem Council announcement. He has suggested that the Didache is less clear on the breaking down of Jewish cultural rules. However, when I look at the Didache it seems to me to be an expansion on the Sermon on the Mount… and as such, expresses principles that are in many ways supracultural as well as principles that challenge all cultures. The principles mentioned in the Didache certain do not encourage a rejection of Greek culture but recognize that the words of Jesus challenge both Jewish and Greek cultures.

2.  Paul’s comments on Culture. I am not going to go into details in this area, but simply point people to his writings to the Churches of Corinth and Galatia.  In these it could be said that Paul took a more extreme view than the Jerusalem Council. For example, to the church of Corinth he says that it is okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, as long as people are mature enough to handle it. Since idols are nothing, and the religion of the Greeks has no power, the danger in eating food sacrificed to idols is how it affects the belief and heart of the Greek Christians. In his message to the church of Galatia, he makes a point that when Greek and Jewish Christians are together, it is better for the Jews to adapt to the Greeks rather than remain separate. I would, however, describe his view as Pragmatic. Additionally, it seems like the focus is on avoiding a ghettoization of Christianity. Jewish Christians and Greek Christians should find ways to fellowship together rather than build walls of separation. And Greek Christians should be able to interact with Greek Pagans without fear and separation. I would also suggest they were a bit ad hoc, in that his words point to how broader principles would be carried out in this specific case.

3.  Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.  Chapter 5. This chapter can be read in another post I wrote before.  Click HERE.  When you read it, it says three things about Christians.

  • In many ways, Christians fit into the culture so well that they are indistinguishable from the culture.
  • In some ways, Christians surpass those in the culture by living up to the ideals of the culture rather than the typical reality within the culture.
  • In some other ways, Christians live counter-culturally, by rejecting some specific aspects of culture that are opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

If one looks at these references, I believe oneIdealized Culture would have to see that culture (at least within the context of Jewish and Greek cultures) is generally good or neutral. It is Neutral in that it has distinguishing characteristics that are perfectly fine for Christian and non-Christian. It is Good in that it provides ideals that are often quite commendable and worthy of seeking to live up to. At the same time, culture can be seen negatively in three major ways. First, it can be seen as failing to live up to God’s standards. But is universal for all cultures fail in this area. Second, it can be seen as failing to live up to its own standards. Most all cultures idealize certain virtues and attack certain vices or taboos— but its members rarely live up to these standards.

Third, cultures may be seen as bad based on “demonization” by outsiders. They take certain qualities and broad-brush the culture undermining virtues, and exaggerating vices.

This third area will be looked more seriously in Part II.  But for now, based on the passages above, Christians should live in a culture on three levels:

  1. Christians should live in the culture as it is lived out by its members. As such, in many key ways, Christians should be indistinguishable from others in that culture.
  2. Christians should strive to live up to the ideals of the culture, not simply the culture as it is commonly lived.
  3. Christians should also live up to, as best as possible, God’s standards, being willing to reject cultural ideals and cultural norms WHEN NECESSARY.

Where one shifts between these two, good people can disagree. Paul and Peter appeared to disagree. Mature and immature believers in Corinth disagreed.

It is Okay for good people to disagree.

(But I think Part II will cover an area that is NOT Okay)

 

 

Reflective Book Review: “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ”

I don’t do book reviews very often. Frankly, I usually read through or skim through books rather than deeply read a book. And I even more rarely read a book in the manner appropriate for critique.  However, the author of “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ” was one of my students, and I did work through the book cleaning up some aspects. Anyway, here is my rather lengthy review.

The book, “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ: Effective Contextualization and Dialogue for Transformation and Discipleship,” was written by Adesegun Hammed Olayisola. He is a Nigerian who was raised as a Muslim and trained as a Muslim, before coming to be a follower of Jesus when he was college age.

I find the book has several strengths, one weakness, and one or two things that fit in a gray zone between these points.  I will start with strengths:

1.  It is written from a position of sympathy and love for Muslims. Much Christian writing regarding Muslims tends to embrace negative stereotypes. I once decided to electronically cut ties with a pastor friend who essentially used his FB account to promulgate every hateful click-baity story put out there that degrades Islam or its adherents. The author finds much that is commendable in Islam and its adherents, and chooses not to pander to his primarily Christian audience.

2.  He takes up more space bringing awareness of Islamic teachings over Christian responses to those teachings. Some of this is because of the next point. However, in addition he notes that Christians often have a stunning ignorance of Islamic beliefs (and I would add beliefs of almost all other religions). Effective interaction with Muslims begins from a foundation of understanding, rather than ignorance.

3.  Olayiwola recommends dialogue built off of a foundation of mutual understanding over the utilization of argument,  or special plan or technique. Argument generally drives people further apart and special techniques or procedures often are ineffective because they completely fail to take into account the individuality of belief, personality, values, and situation of the person one is talking to. He recommends using a clarification form of dialogue (as opposed to argumentative or relativizing dialogue), and finds value in the 7 principles of Max Warren for interreligious dialogue.

4.  He emphasizes what needs to be done with those Muslims who decide to follow Christ. He speaks particularly of those Muslims who, like himself, find themselves ostracized by family and community (and for some by nation) because of this change of faith. He gives a lot of good advice as to how to bring them into the community of faith. He does not recommend C5 or C6 groups, but does see the need for churches who are MBB (Muslim Background Believer)-friendly. Ideally, it is pastored by an MBB. He speaks of some of the difficulty and rejection he had with Christians and Christian groups for some trivial things such as his name (an “Islamic” name) and whether being a Christian requires a Muslim to start eating pork, or reject part of his (polygamous) family.

The major negative aspect of the book is that it is roughly edited. I have to bring this back on me. I helped with the editing, but Olayiwola lacks to resources for professional editing. It does show, but I don’t believe that it undermines the book, but readers should be aware of this. <As a person who cannot afford professional editing, and as one who likes to put out books first, and fix some problems in later revisions, I am quite sympathetic of this.>

There are some other things that I consider neither negative or positive, but are worth noting.

  1.  The book arguably is not clearly written to any specific target demographic. The early part of the book spends considerable time talking about the story of Sarah and Hagar. This is shared because it is an important issue for many Muslims. However, for most Christians, Hagar and Sarah of Old Testament characters, and a rather obscure New Testament metaphor for salvation. For many Muslims, the story is much more. The author spent considerable time on this because it is important to Muslims and an important separation point for Muslims and Christians. The likely readers, Christians, should embrace this focus rather than seeking to undermine this focus. (I remember when the author presented this topic in one of my classes, and students began to try to argue with him. It was as if they forgot that the presenter is a Christian who is trying to present Islam from an insiders perspective for the benefit of the class.)  Additionally, context of Islam and Christianity is heavily skewed towards Nigeria. As such he focuses on concerns such as “white weddings,” polygamy, prosperity churches, and shariah. While many readers wouldn’t connect with some of these issues, it is unlikely to be beneficial to speak of Islam and Christianity only from a supracultural, decontextualized, setting.
  2. His principles of leading Muslims to Christ point to the idea that there is no set method. The title of the book should hint at this, but Christians are so used to focusing on methods, that they often struggle with focusing on principles or on process. However, once one embraces a method, one often disregards relationship. Additionally, whatever method works in one context is likely to be unhelpful in many (most… nearly all) other contexts.

I do think this book is valuable to Christians who love their Muslim neighbors. But expect to be challenged.

Olayiwola’s book is available at this time in online sources such as Amazon.com.

NOTE:  Olayiwola used some of what I had written on Interreligious Dialogue. If you want to read up more on this topic, consider my book:

Dialogue in Diversity

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theology in Terms of Locality and Catholicity

I have had several conversations in recent weeks with different people on this issue. Should theology by honored in terms of being cultural or supracultural. Stephen Bevans likes to say that all theology is contextual. However, as one of my dialogue partners noted, it could be taken to mean that their is norm… or nothing that is distinctly Christian in Christian theology.

On the other hand, those that embrace a more supracultural view of theology, are commonly doing no such thing. Rather they are granting divine favor on theology that has been custom-fitted to their own culture.

We see this controversy recently in terms of honor-shame theology versus guilt-innocence theology. Some from the guilt-innocence side of things (read penal substitutionary atonement if one prefers) feel like the other side is creating its own theology to fit honor-shame cultures. Is that correct? Yes and No. But Yes and No also applies to the guilt-innocence cultures as well.

The Bible uses many metaphors to explain the relationship of God to Mankind, and His activity to restore us to Him. The Bible has so many metaphors— some of them resonate with guilt-innocence folks, while some resonate with with honor-shame cultures. Penal substitutionary atonement as a theological construct draws from the metaphor of justification and the courtroom. To a lesser extent it draws from metaphor behind propitiation— the image of God as having wrath that must be appeased through sacrifice. However, there are metaphors that resonate more with honor-shame cultures. One of these is adoption. One could even argue that redemption is closer to patronage in honor-shame cultures (although redemption could be forced into the the justification model I suppose). Ultimately, these metaphors are equally valid and Biblical. all of them are supracultural in the sense that they are canonical. However, they are also cultural in the sense that they may connect in especially important ways to certain cultures (and less so with other cultures).

So when a group claims that their preferred Biblical metaphors or concepts are supracultural (and thus “good theology”) unlike the Biblical metaphors or concepts that those from another culture prefers, they are simply embracing a different form of localization of theology.

Theology, at its essence, bridges the gap between God’s revelation and Man’s condition. God’s revelation is unchanging, while Man’s condition is both varied and changing. As such, theology should be constantly changing, connected to the changing state of mankind, and connected to the unchanging revelation of God.

I tend to like “strange attractors” from Chaos Theory. In some non-linear systems the condition at any point of time is changing and non-repetitive, but still appears to be controlled by some points that provide limits to the motion. Theology seems to fit this as well since theology is constantly changing and non-repetitive, but I would suggest that it has (at least) two strange attractors.

  • The revealing of God. Theology must3D Lorenz Attractor reveal God, since it is based on God who seeks to reveal Himself to mankind.
  • The relevance to Man. Theology is meant to benefit mankind.

Theology that fails to reveal God, and/or fails to be relevant to mankind, is flawed.

So what does this have to do with the church. The church is where theology is lived out. It is lived out most obviously in terms of practical theology, but ultimately it is bound to all aspects of its theology. As much as some church bodies express the belief that “theology is not important” it truly is. Ignoring it doesn’t make it cease to exist or cease to be relevant… it just is moved into the church’s “blind spot”— affecting the church without the church aware of it.

So let’s move this forward. Suppose a local church has a local theology. To what extent is it bound to be responsible to churches of other cultures? I would say— Quite a Bit. First of all, our theologies are linked by common revelation from God. To replace that is to drift from being Christian. However, additionally, the local church may be tied to its local culture, but it is also tied to the universal church— that mystical bond of all churches often called “the body of Christ.” This catholicity should never replace its locality, nor should its locality replace its catholicity.

Consider a bit of practical theology in terms of sacrament/ordinance. What should the elements of the Eucharist be? Tradition has it to be unleavened bread, and wine. Some groups have change things by using leavened bread or using grape juice (“new wine” if you prefer). Here in the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines, I have often thought that many of the groups here would do well to use kamote (yams) and coffee instead. The logic of this is that bread and wine were the staples of the Jews in Palestine, while kamote and coffee are the equivalent in the Cordilleras. As such, the latter better point to Christ as one who sustains us. The bread and wine point not only to Christ as sacrifice, but to the passover and God’s sustaining of His people. Kamote and Coffee may express this better for people around where I live.

But there is another take. The Eucharist is among the oldest traditions of the church. It has been practiced for nearly 2000 years and in all parts of the world. This 4-D aspect of the church is not irrelevant. When a local church holds Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion), we are also connecting ourselves to the the practice of the local churches across time and space. Perhaps bread and wine is more appropriate because it reminds us of our mystical union with the Body of Christ.

In one of my conversations, I think we sort of agreed that while one can say that “all theology is contextual,” it may be more useful to say, “All good theology must address context.” To ignore culture simply means that one syncretizes with culture unknowingly.

Addressing context doesn’t always mean localizing. Addressing context can also mean embracing the fact that the local is part of the universal.