As Christianity globalizes we need to rethink some things.
(1) We need to remember that many of our debates and subsequent doctrines were formed contextually. This means there are some things that may be irrelevant to Christians in other parts of the world. In fact, this is true of Christians who may live in North America and/or Europe, but who do not see themselves part of the culture that has emerged in these parts of the world.
(2) While it is good for Christians to know the history of our religion we must be careful to avoid equating the history of our religion with the history of so-called Western Civilization. For instance, Christianity has had quite a history in Africa (see the work of Thomas Oden and others), but the history of Christianity (and often historical theology) is framed as if everything went from Jerusalem, to Athens and Rome, to Paris and London, then to the United States. We acknowledge the contribution of north Africa, but that is it. If some Christians aren’t fascinated with German or French Christianity this is OK.
(3) Politics can be a hindrance to the unity of the global church. While many Christians in North America find democracy and free-market capitalism as highly compatible with Christianity we should be aware that some Christians in China may feel very, very different. Even within our country it is welcome that Christians continue to check their political systems against the teachings of Christ.
(4) As we throw around words like “heresy” let it not be our contextualized Christianity clashing against the contextualized Christianity of others without critically evaluating whether or not this is so.
(5) We should anticipate and welcome global theologies informed by other contexts. Christianity has often adopted the better angles of various cultures. There is much we can learn from how Christians elsewhere live their faith.
(6) As Christians whose relatives are Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim wrestle with how Christianity relates to these religions I think we should be cautious. Yes, syncretism can be bad, but let us not mistake modern Christianity with the Christianity that came from Judea in the 30’s CE. There will be things to avoid and things that are compatible. We can challenge our brothers and sisters if we think they compromise something essential, but make sure that is what we are doing.
(7) Finally, it may be time to rethink global missions. It is no longer the United States who is at the forefront and this may be OK. Similarly, if our countries send missionaries our direction, we should be careful not to resist them out of some sort of superiority complex. God may use them in ways that we did not foresee.
What would you add?
I read this today, and in light of what you’ve said here I think it’s relevant. It’s an interview from some years ago with Tom Oden in CT: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/octoberweb-only/back-fathers.html
The only thing I might add is a caution: truth judges culture; culture does not judge truth. And the history of theology as revealed to the Church testifies to the transcendence of truth.
Peace to you,
Yes and no. Yes, it is truth that judges culture, but….everyone, everywhere interprets and understands truth through the lens provided by their culture. So I agree with your warning (my post said that we can challenge our brothers and sisters if something seems contrary to Christ), but I think it is far too easy to brush off our own contextualization while treating it as a universal.
I think you are giving too much credit to culture, and too little credit to the gospel. Too many stories of the gospel radically changing the heart of culture testify to the difference. For example, Paul Glynn’s “A Song for Nagasaki” documents how Christianity and Japanese culture are worked out in the life of Takashi Nagai. Or Elizabeth Elliot’s “Through Gates of Splendor” documenting the ministry and change in South American tribes. In each case the truth of the gospel wins over culture, transforming it. Of course ‘Christianity’ in Japan will look different than it does in South or North America, but the essence of it is always profoundly transformative of the culture it is planted in.
I might say this further: all our lenses are imperfect, but some are better than others. And the Truth is unchanging.
At the core we agree, but I think you minimize the lens of culture and its inevitable impact on how we understand the Christian message. Even “the Gospel” which we’ve seen as something we are always trying to rethink and reshape because inevitably our lens becomes dominate. For example, the fascination of many Protestants with justification by faith as the Gospel is an example of how we may speak of the Gospel without realizing how past debates has influenced our definition. Even when we attempt to scrape away certain misgivings about the Gospel, like the modern overemphasis on the doctrine of justification, we are seeking a more original definition in contrast to what we think is a somewhat misguided definition. That quest to find something more original over against what we see as the complexity of tradition is in itself part of our lens.
If the Gospel is the object we as subjects always see it through the lens of our culture, language, experience, and so forth. That doesn’t negate the truthfulness, and as you said it doesn’t negate that some lens are better than others, but the contextualization remains.
Qualification: As I write this remember I am one who has strongly agreed with people like Wright, McKnight, and others that people like Piper, Horton, et al., have added too much of their tradition (culture) to the Gospel. That said, I don’t deny that Wright, McKnight, and others have their lens.
I think the gospel was developed out of a specific culture to address a specific need there. I think the same of the Bible. I’m not sure why either of those are needed for Christianity. On the same note, I’m not sure why theologians and biblical scholars spend their time trying to understand the Bible in its original contexts when it’s clear that the Bible is simply contextual document that should be left there. Thoughts?
Have you read the Tom Oden interview I linked to above? I think he does a better job of answering you than I can.
@JohnDave: All communication participates in a hermeneutical circle of sorts. We are contextualized by the western situation with our interest in historiography. We are contextualized by the lines drawn by the Reformation cry, “Back to the sources!” So in some sense our desire to get back is part of our contextualization. Athanasius didn’t do form criticism. Augustine didn’t give heavy attention to the Synoptic Problem. What we seek from Scripture is often defined by our context.
In part, this has do with our theory of communication. We affirm that authorial intent matters. That causes us to seek the pure voice of the author, even if we know we can never fully recover it. In that seeking we hope to get closed so we may better understand them.
What cannot be done here is what is commonly done by modern apologist. We cannot say, “If our context determines in part how we read and understand the Gospel, and if their context determined how they framed the Gospel they’ve passed onto us, then it is hopeless that we will ever share the Gospel.” That is a reduction that simply goes too far.
@J Michael: I haven’t yet, but I will.
This is terrible that I’m reading and replying through my iPhone!
Good thoughts! What my devil’s advocate response was doing was asking the question, “Why does this matter?” One could take contextualization to the point that even the gospel message and Bible are contextual. So what makes it so important that we affirm the gospel and the Bible, even though they were born out of a specific context to specific people? Where did the gospel message and the Bible get their authority to be foundational for Christianity, and why do we let those contextual pieces be foundational but not other aspects? These are some things I am wrestling with myself.
@JohnDave: While it is true that one could take contextualization to the place of relativity what is the alternative? Do we pretend that a Christian in Mexico City, Mexico, hears the Gospel exactly like a Christian in Moscow, Russia, so that we can speak of the Gospel as being universal? I think we know better than that.
Let’s start with the Gospel –the declaration that Jesus Christ has been made Lord and Christ over the whole world through his death, burial, and resurrection. There is something “objective” about this: Jesus himself, the declaration of God, the events. If we could be objective and understand something from a universal perspective we would be claiming to somehow embody Jesus, God’s declaration, and the events. We would be the object.
In a sense there is something about Christianity that allows for this. We speak of God’s Spirit testifying to our spirit. We speak of being baptized “into Christ”. The oneness that the Spirit gives us with the Father and Son gives us a knowledge that is as close to “objective” and “universal” (in that we are one with the object and that we all share this oneness) as we are going to get. And this is not something I ignore, but it transcends our rationality and thought.
In our limitations we still must conceptualize what this means. That is where there is subjectivity. Each “subject” experiences the “object” differently as true and real as the object may be. We can’t deny that we experience it differently. You and I could watch a movie, hear the same story, same message, yet see it differently. There will be continuation and discontinuation as to how we see it (much like the Evangelist all describe Jesus in similar way…then at times very different ways).
So as long as we don’t make the mistake of equating subjectivity with relativity we’ll be OK.
J Michael: I read the Oden interview and I don’t see how it is applicable unless you’ve misunderstood me to be saying (1) tradition and history have no use; (2) the new is always better; or (3) theology is relative. If it is one of those three it was a misunderstanding of what I wrote, though I would say Oden gives too much credit to later Christian thinkers and he is shaped by a view that has acted as if how Europeans spoke of theology in past centuries is the best formation of the language of Christian doctrine we’ll ever see.
@Brian: I agree with you on relativity and subjectivity-objectivity. I should probably note that I don’t believe in any of what I said above or in what I will say, but I always find it helpful to think about issues from another side. So that said, what I’m asking is why do we allow the gospel and the Bible, both coming from specific contexts to specific people, to be our foundation? Sure, there are post-gospel and post-Bible developments that we can call contextual and have them not apply to others. Yet, is it possible to have the gospel and the Bible not apply to everyone who calls themselves Christian and still have Christianity? What if some civilization decides to develop a church that it claims is thoroughly Christian, yet say that the gospel message preached in the first century and the Scriptures are all contextual, so it needs to reconsider whether it should even use them. Would that church be a genuinely Christian church? If not, then couldn’t it object they are being called non-Christian based on contextual documents, thus invalidating the objection? Does that help to clarify what I’m trying to get at?
@JohnDave: Sure, we find these people in existence already. They dub themselves “Progressive Christians” and other than things like the beatitudes they tend to find Scripture worthless. But their conclusion is strange to me. There is no doubt that Scripture emerges from a context making them contextual documents. This doesn’t automatically equate to lacking authority though. The United States Constitution is a contextual document, but it provides the foundational principles upon which the identity of the country has emerged and will continue to emerge. This is because we determined that as long as we exist this contextual document will provide the starting principles and the same is true of Scripture. The canonization of Scripture provides the foundational principles upon which the identity of the country has emerged and will emerge. Much like how various amendments and laws have evolved from this foundation so have some traditions and doctrines. As with both, some things are still debated and in tension.
So for a Progressive Christian my first qualm is what makes their religion Christian in any meaningful sense. If they’ve relativized the documents that create our foundation (which is different that wrestling with interpretation) and if they deny all the amendments that have evolved (think the “Great Tradition”) then it would be like some group running around calling themselves Americans who deny all the founding documents and amendments. We’d be quite concerned with their claims. They may have citizenship (some “Progressive Christians” may have citizenship in the Kingdom), but they make about as much sense as odd anarchist groups who camp out in northern Idaho claiming to be some alternative America.
A message from a context to a context doesn’t make something relative. As we’ve learned in any basic communication class something that comes from one context must be translated into another. In doing this we may find what the kernel of the speech-act is. I will try to think of something that function as a good example and maybe write a post on it.
Thanks for the challenging questions!
@johndave and brian i foresee a book between you gentlemen! (e.g. like crossan and wright on the resurrection).
@Roger: That would be fun!
@JohnDave Was this part of your Devil’s Advocating? “I’m not sure why theologians and biblical scholars spend their time trying to understand the Bible in its original contexts when it’s clear that the Bible is simply contextual document that should be left there. Thoughts?”
Pardon my ignorance, but could you explain what you mean by the Bible being a contextual doc that should be left there? Thanks.
@Brian I recently picked up Theology of Culture by Paul Tillich and wanted to ask if you’re familiar with it.
@Roger : I’m not. I’ve never read Tillich (to be honest, I am not a very good “theologian” since I am unfamiliar with the writings of pretty much every important theologian).
Hey Brian and JohnDave,
I fear this discussion is descending into an ocean of epistemological doubt. Finding bearings is going to be difficult.
Re: Oden – I think his piece was appropriate because he identified the core foundations of our faith (“One canon, two Testaments, three creeds [the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian], four [ecumenical] councils, and five centuries along with the Fathers of that period,” by which he meant the great doctors of the first five centuries: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom in the East; and Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great in the West.”). These define and shape our common faith, and give meaning to the term “Orthodoxy.” And while you are right to separate “The Gospel” from “Western Civilization,” we must also remember that the Gospel is always, to a degree, syncretistic–it appropriates and molds itself to different cultures in different ways, while always remaining the same gospel. I am less concerned about the historical links between our faith and the ascendancy of the West; I rather look to enjoy the strengths that heritage gives us (among which is the ability and preference to take the best that alternate societies have to offer and appropriate those elements). To state this simply, much of the critique of the West is a sawing of the branch we’re sitting on.
What I think JohnDave was devilishly advocating what was I sensed in your original post–a subtle smattering of relativism. And while you backtracked from that in a later comment, I think it’s still there. Permit me to go back for a moment to the original post and try to articulate what I think has happened (forgive me if this is overly pedantic…)
#1 – You talk about contextuality, but I’ve countered that I think truth trumps contexts. Perhaps there is some terminological confusion here. When you say that theology is ‘contextual’ what I really think you mean to say is that it is ‘occasional.’ That certain circumstances occasioned theological movements. We can see that this is objectively true–the Church rises up to declare what is Orthodox in response to what is heretical. Now, just because the occasions of a heresy have passed away does not mean that the orthodoxy so defined becomes irrelevant. What is truth is still true without the falsehood that helps to give it definition. Some occasions (i.e. Arianism) are still floating about, and in these circumstances our dependence on the Fathers is all the more imperative. Above you mention Justification by Faith, and this is a great example for us. The occasion for the reformation was clearly Roman abuse of the Sacerdotal system, resulting in (what is arguably, though not agreed by all) heresy. Luther’s theology responded to those abuses. While today the occasion for that movement has ended, the truth of Luther’s theology remains. The problem is that many have taken it as THE truth to define and judge all other truths, and here they have stepped into historical error (Re: Oden above). We see this in the theological preference for Romans over against the other Pauline epistles (and even in the question of Ephesian authenticity on the basis that it isn’t “Pauline” enough by these goofy standards).
Truth is coordinate. We inherit some of these coordinates from our predecessors, and gain new coordinates as we learn about the Gospel in it’s interaction with other cultures, contexts, and theological occasions. The job of theology is to comprehend and coherently plot these coordinates in a manageable fashion. No one possesses the whole picture, but… and here I might bother you… the Western Tradition of Christianity has the most tested, tried, historical, and experienced set of plots available to us. We ignore that to our peril.
Okay, Imma shut up now.
@Brian Well, I hope you weren’t under the impression that I thought you weren’t a good theologian. Nor do I think for a second that I’m a theologian. I was just curious, it seemed to me that you articulated a fair contextualization of the Bible.
@ J Michael: When you say that the Gospel “appropriates and molds itself to different cultures in different ways” you aren’t saying anything different from me. You are saying the same thing another way. Again, I see the value of the shaping of Christian doctrine by councils and creeds. I’ve stated that many times, though I am not as dogmatic as many regarding whether or not they can function as legitimate boundary markers. What I am saying is that as Christian doctrine moves into other cultures it is inevitable that they will see things differently and they may use different wording and terminology to explain essentially the same teaching though with a very different nuance.
I think you’ve confused subjectivity with relativism. Subjectivity is a given. Each person brings their own lens. Relativity removes any central objective truth. When I say we are subjective I am not saying that the truth is not there. I am saying we are see that truth from our unique perspective (if we are seeing the truth). Relativity either denies that there is an objective truth to observe or that there is any degree in which we can know it accurately so that it is almost hopeless to discuss right and wrong views on things. Subjectivity allows for degrees of accuracy while acknowledging no two people see any one thing exactly the same.
So I am pretty sure that the problem is not with what I wrote, but rather with how you subjectively interpreted it. You brought your own categories that don’t make much distinction between subjectivity and relativism and came away fairly convinced that I was advocating some sort of relativism. I think this serves as a nice case study proving my point.
I do not mean “occasional”, per se. I do mean contextual. But again, I think you need to consider my definitions before you call this a “smattering of relativity”.
As to the strength of the Western tradition, well, again, yes and no. I think that could die the death of a thousand qualifications. As to Luther’s views, again, yes and no. Luther was superior to the views he challenged, but I don’t think he was the best exegete of Paul (considering that he ignores Paul’s argument in Romans because of his fascination with a secondary point, namely justification by faith).
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