Theology in the Context of “World Christianity”

This is a revision of a paper presented at the Convocation of Teaching Theologians, ELCA, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, August 19-21, 2005

[1] In 1942, at his inauguration as the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple referred to the nascent ecumenical movement as “the great new fact of our era.” Perhaps, Temple’s memorable phrase may be applicable to developments in Christianity in recent decades. Sometime in the mid 1990’s, the center of gravity of Christianity shifted from the Global North to the Global South. In a relative span of one generation, the Christian faith has witnessed an explosive growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It has been baffling to many that this cross-cultural expansion of Christianity has occurred following the collapse of colonialism and the demise of the modern missionary movement. The emergence of Southern Christianity as a significant force may very well be considered as “the great new fact of our era.”

[2] In roughly the same period that the Christian faith has experienced a significant accession in the Global South, it has also experienced a severe recession in the Global North, especially in Europe. The changing topography suggests a shift in the “balance of power” within Christianity with significant implications for Christian self-understanding and with the potential to reconfigure church theology and practice in the future. The focus of our deliberation at this Convocation, as I understand it then, is to make sense of this changing reality. My assigned task is to explore the implications of this new reality for theological discourse and practice in North America. Before I proceed to offer my observations, I would note two caveats.

[3] First, “World Christianity,” “Global Christianity,” or “Non-Western Christianity,” are relatively new categories that have entered Christian theological and missiological vocabulary in recent years. What these new categories mean or their implications for Christian self-understanding are not always clear. As academic constructs, these categories are intended to define, understand, analyze, and structure the emerging realities within Christianity from a certain vantage point, usually from the perspective of Northern Christianity. They are popular, especially in the European and North American theological/missiological discourses, but they are rarely invoked in theological discourses of the Global South. This makes one wonder whether they really serve as useful categories that might help reconfigure or re-map the nature of Christianity and the content of theological discourse in a global horizon.

[4] Christianity, as everyone knows, has always been a global religion and took root in diverse cultures and contexts for two millennia. Unless we have been oblivious to this reality, it does not make much sense to speak of “World Christianity,” as if it is a new phenomenon. The phrase as currently used in our discourses exposes our bias. I am struck by the fact that the recent interest in establishing chairs or professorship in “World Christianity” in seminaries and divinity schools, indicates some sort of recognition of the shifting topography of Christian faith from being a Northern religion to a Southern religion. However, “World Christianity,” and “Global Theology” have come to connote studies in history and theologies of the “Third World” churches, traditionally the focus of “missiological studies.” In other words, the phrase “World Christianity,” wittingly or unwittingly, I am afraid, has promoted a form of segregation in the study of the church’s theology and history and it reinforces a sort of hegemonic view of church history and theological discourse in the North Atlantic world in relation to the rest of the world. This observation has implications for our reception of theologies from the Global South and how seriously we value “World Christianity.”

[5] Second, our discussions of “World Christianity” often fail to take into account the broader context of the emerging consciousness of global interconnectedness and mutual interdependence as a result of the phenomenon of “globalization.” The term “globalization” itself has become a subject of debate as to what it refers to and how it affects societies. It is a matter of perspective whether it represents an inevitable historical process of global integration of economic, political, and technological systems that has contributed to the “flattening of the world” into a borderless network (to use Thomas Friedman’s phrase)1 or represents a new ideology of convergence of military, economic, political, religious, cultural and racial legitimacy of an “Empire” (to use Noam Chomsky’s phrase–now adopted by others)2. However one looks at it, “globalization” as a phenomenon has contributed to a “perception of a singular identity” to all world religions on account of significant cross-cultural and transnational exchange.3 From this sociological perspective, the phrase “World Christianity” represents a different dynamic of which we should be aware.

[6] Notwithstanding the emerging perception of a singular identity to religious faiths, Christianity has always been a multi-centered religion with multiple particularizations while sharing a global universal identity. In the course of history, theological ideas and practices have transcended geographical boundaries and have influenced contexts beyond their territorial origins. In today’s context of globalization, the flow of ideas, concepts, and practices have become even more accelerated on account of the Internet and modern forms of communication. The point here is that in the context of emerging global environment, it is becoming harder and harder to discern the flow, cross-flow and reverse-flow of ideas, concepts, theologies, and movements. Nor can one accurately discern their territorial/geographical origins or their nature and place of impact. In other words, theologies from the Global South cannot be viewed in isolation from theologies of the Global North. Theologies in the Global North are becoming more and more cognizant of theological developments in the Global South. The “theological flows,” to use Robert Schreiter’s phrase,4 going every which way makes theological discourses not only “de-centered” but also “de-territorialized.” Because we are in the midst of this multilateral process, it is difficult to get a handle on global implications of particular contextual theologies.

[7] Bearing in mind these caveats, I shall attempt to offer some perspectives emerging from the Global South that may have some implications for re-mapping Christian theological discourse in North America. F. S. Sugirtharajah, a post-colonial writer and biblical scholar, has identified the two mutually related types of theological discourses that are central in Third World Theologies: 1) Liberation-centered discourses; and, 2) Culture-sensitive discourses.5 Let me briefly summarize the main thrust of these two types and then offer my comments on their significance and implications for North American theological discourse.

Liberation-centered Discourses
[9] The “Liberation” paradigm is undoubtedly the most familiar and influential theological discourse that has emerged from the Global South in the past forty years. What began as a practical movement in Latin America in the late 1960’s to bring about social change aimed toward a more just and participatory society with more equitable distribution of power, wealth, and influences became a worldwide movement. This occurred through a reinterpretation of Christian scriptures and theological sources that was soon adopted and adapted by Christian social activists and theologians in North America, Caribbean, Europe, Southern Africa, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Korea, Palestine and a whole range of regions and countries. The widespread appeal of the liberation paradigm today in diverse contexts and in various particular and localized variants gives it the status of a kind of “global universal” in theological discourse. Liberation theology is not universal for reasons claimed by Enlightenment based theologies. It is universal in the sense of being ubiquitous and in “addressing systemic problems affecting everyone in the world.”6

[10] Though re-particularized to suit the needs of local contexts, the various forms of liberation theology have maintained a mutual intelligibility and continual interaction among themselves. As a result, liberation theology is evolving and has undergone revision and refocus in the past decade. Though originally focused on economic and socio-political issues affecting society, especially the poor and the marginalized, its discourse has now begun to pay attention to issues of culture, religion, popular religiosity and spirituality. Asian forms of liberation theologies have even drawn insights and resources from other religious traditions in their search for human liberation. The liberation paradigm, in its interaction with Western Feminist, Womanist and Black Theologies, has become re-energized in new directions in the Global South and in the Global North. There are numerous examples such as the development of “ecofeminism” dealing with issues of environment and patriarchy, Asian and African Feminist Theologies, Mujerista Theology, Dalit, and Minjung theologies. Each of these deals with issues of liberation but in relation to culture, race, religions, patriarchy, cast and identity, and human rights in diverse contexts.

Culture-sensitive Discourses
[11] The dominance of the liberation paradigm in the past few decades has to some degree eclipsed culture/identity-centered theological discourses of the Third World. Liberation Theologies were easily accessible in English translations or in Spanish. In addition, their popularity in the North American scene is due in part to certain shared assumptions with Western theological discourse. The pioneers of Latin American Liberation Theologies were quite successful in utilizing the intellectual structures and tools of European theology, even mobilizing the grandmasters of Western intellectual heritage in articulating their theology. This fact, together with their Christocentric framework and their use of Western academic syntax, made their theologies easy to absorb in North America, despite certain ideological and theological hesitations.

[12] By contrast, other Third World Theologies that are culture and context specific have not had the same appeal. Culture-sensitive theologies tend to focus on localized issues or to privilege particular indigenous culture(s) as sites for doing theology and draw on native characteristics, ideas, and resources. They are often done in vernacular languages and therefore do not rank as high as liberation theologies that are able to straddle different cultures. They are seldom read or recognized in North Atlantic contexts, except in some specialized academic guilds, because the content and contours, not to mention the language and idioms, of their articulation heavily rely on indigenous cultural resources, texts and histories. Therefore, unlike Liberation Theologies, they do not always fit into patterns of Western theological discourse.

[13] Some of these theologies are attempts at mediating the gospel to specific cultural contexts and employ methodologies or rational frameworks of local cultures and religions. A good many African theologies and Asian theologies belong to this category. Others are reactions to superintending tendencies of Western intellectual tradition as represented by missionary theologies imposed upon them or were drawn into the Western missionary problematic of “translating” or “enculturation” the Christian message in non-Western cultural settings. Set in the background of colonial experience, a good many culture-sensitive theologies from the Global South are attempts at retrieving indigenous resources for asserting their self-identity. A good deal of classical Indian Christian Theology, for example, produced over the course of 150 years attempts to encompass both. I suspect few in North America are familiar with the voluminous theological literature produced in the Indian context. Similarly, the Korean Minjung Theology, Dalit Theology from India, Burakamin Theology from Japan, or the theologies articulated in the context of Africa are less known and therefore have not had much appeal in North America because they are non-translatable, incomprehensible, or operate under different sets of ground rules than acceptable by Western standards of theological discourse. Because cultures and identities continually change, these theologies are also constantly shifting. Still, the worldwide mobility and migration of people today, one hopes, may help reenergize culture-sensitive theologies outside their original setting in new or hybrid forms.

Implications for North America
[14] The preceding summary of the two broad types of theological discourse evidenced in Third World Theologies leads me to offer some comments about their relevance and reception in the North American context.

[15] First, it is important for us to recognize that it is not particular themes or typical emphases from the Global South that matter. Rather we need to be more attentive to divergent perspectives associated with different historical settings and their interlocutors in Third World discourses. More than two decades ago, Gustavo Gutierrez remarked that the difference between the theologies of the affluent countries and that of Third World is that their interlocutors are different. The theologies of North Atlantic countries are more attentive to contemporary problems associated with “the modern mind and spirit” as their chief interlocutor. By contrast, theologies of the Third World focus on the problems raised by the poor majorities of the human race-that is, those “without history,” those who are “non-persons,” those who are oppressed and marginalized specifically by the interlocutors of dominant theologies.7 Issues of life and death, a central theme in all theological discourses, take on a greater theological significance and meaning in the context of starvation, disease, poverty, oppression and political repression in Third World situations than in affluent situations. The way theological questions are framed, reframed, or nuanced in Third World contexts in relation to historical processes of our world require greater attention by the dominant theologies in the North Atlantic World.

[16] Second, the primary barrier for the reception of Third World Theologies has been that these theologies are an implicit or explicit critique of North Atlantic way of life, its socio-political ideology, its commitment to neo-liberal capitalism, and its hegemonic worldview. Third World theologies by their very nature are subversive and challenge all forms of marginalization of people, cultures and nations and thus tend to be adversarial and ideologically partisan. Generally speaking, they are based on feelings and pains of people and therefore they are basically “experiential” rather than strictly “academic” discourses. As experiential discourses they do not translate well outside their primary contexts, even when they are put into words. Often they represent “contrary experiences” and forms of spirituality and represent commitments that people in a secondary context cannot fully grasp or appreciate. We in North America tend to be suspicious of such theologies for their ideological commitments and tend to dismiss their importance and relevance for our context.

[17] Third, texts and discourses that carry enormous liberative or interpretative power in their original contexts become de-contextualized texts in a secondary setting. They become objects of analysis and thus the power of such texts is lost. Theologies of Liberation when read in our classrooms become theologies about liberation. Sugirtharajah calls it the “commoditization” of Third World Theologies in the West: “When such theologies are introduced neglecting the historical and political circumstances of their production and the contextuality of their development, then liberation becomes a commodity which can be theorized, talked about, traded and exchanged among many other interesting commodities that are on offer.8” In other words, they become “Over-there Theologies” in contrast to “Over-here Theologies” without addressing the structural issues they raise for us in North America in terms of our commitments and priorities in a global context.

[18] Fourth, another form of response to Third World theologies that Sugirtharajah identifies is “ghettoization.” The tendency in our academies and theological curricula is to characterize such theologies from the Global South as being provincial in nature or fragmentary in form. They are treated as appendices to theology and not theology proper. Third World theologies, especially those that are culturally based, are seen as not measuring up to the intellectual rigor and failing to transcend racial, gender, and class boundaries as any good theology should. They are even considered as “irrational” or “pre-modern” because they do not comply with the forms of rationality prescribed by the European Enlightenment and its hermeneutical traditions. Their biblical focus is often misconstrued as being “fundamentalist.” Sometimes the criterion of universality is applied to Third World discourses in order to dismiss their relevance and applicability in Europe and North America. Our theological curricula in North America, as we all know, have not been hospitable to plurality or cultural diversity in theological reflection because they are dominated by a single modernist worldview rooted in the experience of a handful of Western nations. Readings in church history courses tend to be so narrow or truncated that they seldom include the histories of Eastern and Southern Christianity. I would also mention in passing that this is, in fact, the problem of Reformation based confessional theologies. They are so territorially entrenched and culturally circumscribed that the framework of discourse is largely bound up with either issues of the Medieval Church/Christendom or issues as refracted through the subsequent experiences of the Western church or culture. Because of this, confessional theologies have had little or limited relevance or impact in the Global South beyond their historical value!

[19] Finally, the concept of “World Christianity” and “Global Theology,” despite their ambiguity and complexity, challenge us to liberate ourselves from our own cultural, territorial, and ideological captivity. Moreover, when understood in a true sense they challenge us to become open to the transforming power of the Spirit and of the “other” at a time when boundaries are being blurred and geography is no longer the arbiter in defining theology or the Christian faith. This is not to suggest that the way forward in theological discourse in the global horizon is to forge some sort of a facile synthesis of theological insights emerging from diverse contexts. It means, rather, to be attentive to the divergent framing of fundamental questions of life in different historical, social, and cultural settings. The future task of theology is precisely to “correlate” divergent answers in the emerging global horizon. This is nothing short of striving toward a new Oikumene in our theological discourse and ecclesiastical life, a striving that operates “according to the whole” and in which all have a place. In the present context of globalization, this is a new agenda for theology.

End Notes

1 Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

2 See Jon Sobrino, Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope (New York, Orbis, 2004).

3 Peter Beyer, “De-centering Religious Singularity: The Globalization of Christianity as a Case in Point,” Numen, vol. 50 (2003): 357-386. Also, Roland Robertson, “Globalization Paradigm: Thinking Globally” in Peter Beyer, Religion in the Process of Globalization. Ergon Verlag, 2001.

4 Robert Schreiter, The New Catholicity (New York, Orbis, 1997), p. 15 f.

5 F. S. Sugirtharajajah, Post Colonial Reconfigurations. Chalice Press, 2003, p. 163

6 Schreiter, p 20.

7 Gustavo Gutierrez, “Reflections from a Latin American Perspective: Finding Our Way to Talk About God” in Irruption of the Third World, Eds. Virginia Fabella, M. M. and Sergio Torres (New York, Orbis p. 227)

8 Sugirtharajah, pp. 166-167.