Tag Archive | history

Theology in the 21st Century


There is a postmodern theology. Although the term ‘postmodern’ might be overused, it still mean something. Modernity has passed. Not all elements of modernism has left us, just as not all of Medieval left Enlightenment Europe, or tribal/traditional culture left the developed Asian countries of today. Yet, postmodernity has arrived. Whenever the overarching, over-confident meta-narrative of the Enlightenment project is in doubt, modernism fades and postmodernity arises. It is in politics, society and arts. There is a certain ‘postmodern’ culture which defines its own meanings and symbols. The very reactions towards the failed Enlightenment confidence, coupled with a world dominated by free-market capitalism, allows an ultra utilitarianistic and narcissistic culture to emerge. This culture only sees individuals. Blinded to the need to submit to governments and authorities, partly due to market forces and self-interest, this generation of postmoderns are also pragmatic – ”meaning’ means very little to them apart from what meant to be of their own interest. There is no need for a universal truth or value.

How does this affect theology in the 21st century? It is certain that systematic theology will suffer (it has) as it is suited more for a modernist mindset than a postmodern one. Yet the more crucial question is how can we theologise if the modern category is faulty? This is not new. The discovery of various cultures worldwide and the missionary encounter with them have confirmed that the Western categories or methods of theologising is limited. Western Christianity, it was discovered, was modernist, especially when compared to the various contextual theologies in the Third World.

Mission theology, informed by the Liberation Theology and other contextual theologies, should take prominent role in theologising in the 21st century. If the modern project was Western, postmoderns represent a multitude of cultures and peoples. If theology was at a time (from Enlightenment to the 20th century), a Western and systematic exercise, today it shall be a ‘postmodern’ exercise for Global Christianity. Thus, mission theologians equipped with the skills of contextualisation and training in classical theology, history, biblical studies and practical ministries, must set the pace for this age. To the postmodern, a proper exegesis of a biblical text means very little unless it means something to him or her. An all encompassing, structural, and theoretical, and authoritative tone suited to the big meta-narrative claim has given way to the cry for meaning of the particulars and individuals. It will take a missionary of the 21st century whom can decipher cultures to communicate with them. Just as the residues of modernity still linger around, and their values not to be undermined, a postmodern way of doing theology does not deny the classical and modern ways of doing theology. Yet it takes the bull by its horns by asking relevant questions about this age, while reinventing and evolving itself to be relevant to the present era.

p.s. There is no denial of a core – or a constant in context of Christianity. Just how this core can be discovered and discerned is a continuous debate. Suggested readings:

Mission Responses to Postmodernism by John Corrie

MISSION AND CONTEXTUALIZATION by John Corrie

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The Pope who Stunned the World


There is a post at the Read the Spirit site entitled ‘Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!‘  Many have thought that the new pope, Francis I, brings a refreshing aura with him into the office. So it would be natural for one to look back curiously for past popes with similar ‘aura of change’. John XXIII was one of them. He was the pope whom brought the Roman Catholic Church and the world a revolutionary change through the initiative of Vatican II.

Excerpt from the above post:

MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICSaround the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations.

Also, a book on John XXIII is also introduced in the post. The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church–The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II (Kindle version) costs only $3.99.

Students of mission studies will no doubt remember documents which are the results of the Council. For example, Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes. Through these documents and other efforts, the council set the pace for inculturation of worship to happen in the global church and contextualisation to take place for evangelisation.

And, in his own words,

In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.  Pope John XXIII: Opening Speech at the Council, October 11, 1962

Engaging yet not compromising. A mission-minded pope indeed.


Is ‘Allah’ a Translation?


I have finally come to understand why some Muslim in Malaysia are so against the use of ‘Allah’ by other religions, especially the Christians. One of the reasons, of course, has to do with theology. The Islamic faith has no notion of incarnation and hence, no idea of contextualisation or inculturation. The expansion of the Islamic faith is a socio-political-cultural expansion, and has always been geographical. Wherever it spreads to it brings along a set of cultural practices which is more or less fixed – the way of life, worship and rituals. On the other hand, the Christian faith has always been expanding via an interaction between faith and culture, allowing a spectrum of cultural expressions according to the local context. Instead of using a single ‘sacred’ language, the Christian faith has seen the translation of the Bible into all major languages. The Christian faith has spread via translation. For instance, one of the major contextualisation exercise in history is the Reformation, which saw the Bible ended up in various languages contextualised to the needs and suitability for various people groups.

So it is not surprising to see the comment, ‘Allah is the name of god not a translation’ (See Comments area of the linked webpage), as Muslim, with their theology has ended up regarding ‘Allah’ a proper noun. Dr. Ng Kam Weng has an article here, refuting this from the grammatical perspective. I would like to point out though, that this issue is more than a dispute about a proper noun.

According to the various comments made, it is clear that Muslim scholars know about the various name of God used in the history of the Christian faith – YHWH, elohim, etc. They are also well aware of the fact that the Arabic (and others) Christians were using ‘Allah’ to refer to God prior to the existence of Islam. However, according to their arguments, once Islam came to the scene the word ‘Allah’ became a proper noun specifically referring to the god of the Muslim. It is ‘his name’. So if Christians want to use a Malay word to refer to their god, they are asked to use a ‘translation’ (i.e., ‘Tuhan’), instead of the proper noun or the name of the personal god of the Muslim.

Hence, any talk about who used this word for how many years since when will not work (with this group of people). This word, ‘Allah’, has been assimilated as part of the cultural heritage of the Islamic faith among Muslim in Malaysia – a part of that great socio-political-cultural-geographical expansion. If you like, a part of the ‘spoil’. This is understandably a typical Malaysia situation as in the context of Malaysia, there exists a need for certain cultural group to find its identity.

Therefore, I am also not sure if in the context of Malaysia any talk about ‘rights’ would help. Of course constitutional rights is to be upheld, but whether it is the best link for dialogue or basis for debate is questionable. Perhaps national unity and other concepts are more appropriate?

As for Sabah and Sarawak,it is the same story, albeit the other way round.1  The natives here have adopted the word ‘Allah’ just like the Muslim when they first ‘discovered’ him and they will not like to let go of the ‘name’ of their God. So the Sabahans and Sarawakians will likely fight for the right to keep using the word.

So where does this bring us? I see the heart of the matter is the clash between two parties – between those who advocate Islamic rule (technically called ‘rule of law’ – the Islamic way) and those who insist on constitutional rule. Obviously non-Muslims belong to the second group. The question now is, how many percentage of Muslims in Malaysia stands with them?

1 Sabah and Sarawak are two states at Borneo which form the Federation of Malaysia with the rest of the states in the Peninsular Malaysia. The Borneo natives have been using ‘Allah’ in their Malay Bible for decades.

China and the Christian Impact


China and the Christian Impact

Excerpt from ‘A Conflict of Cultures’, the Review of: China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures
Jacques Gernet – Cambridge University Press, 1985, by J.S. Cummins:

Translating and closely analysing contemporary Chinese material, Gernet show that it was not merely clerical squabbles, doctrines, rituals or customs which separated missionary and potential convert. The twain were unable to meet because their respective world-pictures differed radically: the Chinese mind-set, for instance, rooted in concepts from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, found literally inconceivable Christian ideas evolved from the Graeco-Roman- Judaic-Scholastic mental world. And vice versa. The literati, by and large untroubled by metaphysical anxieties, showed keen interest in Ricci’s technology, moral tracts and memory exercises (see History Today, December, 1985) but laid aside with contumely his religion and his Tridentine ‘Ptolemaic’ theology.

Would love to read this book. The above shows that there is an area which students of inculturation should look into – the definition of ‘mind-set’, its relation with language (and vice versa) and how these affect evangelism. If China is having a revival today – how are the barriers of ‘mind-set’ and language overcome? Perhaps inculturation doesn’t work at all if worldview (mind set and language included, philosophy) is to be separated from culture (behaviour)?

Traditionally people ‘blame this first ‘Failure in the Far East’ upon the Jesuits’ ‘narrow-minded’ co-workers, the friars, whose machinations, we read, misled nine successive popes into denouncing, and finally prohibiting the Jesuits’ ‘China Strategy’, thereby destroying the plan to convert Asia.’ But the review highlighted how the author of this book opined that the mistake was Ricci’s as he failed to notice that the key barrier is not cultural (hence Confucianism) but philosophical (Taoism). A more scholarly review from The Journal of Asian Studies summarises the author’s view succinctly: ‘He doubts that many of the early seventeenth-century literati-converts were “really” Christians, because they were so insistent on reconciling Christianity with Neo-Confucian notions; they were attracted to the Jesuits’ behavior and moral rigor, not to Christian doctrine.’ (China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. by Jacques Gernet; Janet Lloyd, Review by: Daniel H. Bays, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 114-116)

I will try to find a copy of this book!

Christmas Traditions


I have always wondered how some of the Christmas traditions came into being. Hence I was pleasantly surprise to find a good piece of article in the in-flight magazine of AirAsia which explains the origin of some of the Christmas practices. The following is a selected list of answers I get from the article:

The Christmas Wreath:

Christmas or Advent wreath appeared only in the 16th century – being circular shape to represent God who has no beginning and no end, and the evergreen used to decorate signifies the everlasting life which Jesus brought to His believers.

 

The Nativity Scene:

Introduced by St Francis of Asisi nearly 800 years ago to combat commercialism of Christmas at his time.

 

The Christmas Tree:

Introduced by Martin Luther in 1510 as he decorated a tree with candles ‘to recapture the beautiful sparkling stars amidst the evergeens’. It would have remained a German tradition had it not because of the marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Germany, which saw the tradition setting its foot in the British Isle. By then the Americans still consider decorating a fir tree to celebrate Christmas a pagan practice.

 

The Christmas Carols:

Songs written to celebrate the birth of Christ emerged in the 4th and 5th century in Latin. It was only in the 13th century that carolling became a common practice. In those days, in the context of feudal rules, the poor would sing to the wealthy for supper.

 

Santa Claus:

We can trace the origin of Santa to St. Nicolas, who was a kind monk who cared for the needy and poor.

 

My Observation:

I have not done any research on the above but I believe the article has got the facts right. If the above are true, it intrigues me in a number of ways. Firstly, if I imagine myself as 2th century Christian, not only that there is no wreath, no Santa, no carols, no Christmas tree, no Nativity Scene, there was actually not Christmas (Christmas day as the day to commemorate Christ’s birth came after 2th century)! Secondly, in the course of history, various cultural elements have been added into the celebration of Christmas, and it seems to me that this process has enriched the festival and in each case above, had a good Christian intention. However as times go by their meanings were lost and people tend to adopt the tradition without knowing the meaning behind it. More alarmingly, is that the Christians often find it unnecessary to unveil the true meaning of these traditions. Worse,some would shunned these practices and condemn them as pagan practices. As a Chinese believer I do not think that I need to follow some of the practices of the Western church. However, I would have no problem celebrating the joy of Christmas with the Westerners as they express their celebration via their own cultural elements – be it fir tree, wreath or carols. If possible I would also seek relevant expression from my culture which I could relate to the Christmas meaning, so I could also use them to celebrate Christmas meaningfully.

Revivalism = Pagan Christianity?


My previous review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices highlighted the need for works like this to be aware of the cultural context of the historical period involved before making any judgement. One of the mistakes in which ‘Pagan Christianity’ made is to draw conclusion on the effect of the revivalist movement in the 18-19th century America without providing a balanced view. Viola mentioned in ‘Pagan Christianity’ that ‘Frontier-revivalist’ movement has contributed to the emergence and acceptance of individualism within the church. In his own words, ‘the goal of the Frontier-Revivalists was to bring individual sinners to an individual decision for an individualistic faith. As a result, the goal of the early church – the mutual edification and every-member functioning to corporately manifest Jesus Christ before principalities and powers – was altogether lost.’

Firstly, I am not sure if the early church has a single goal of mutual edification, or in fact there is more to a church than merely corporately manifesting Christ before principalities and powers. Secondly, it was the Reformation and then the emergence of Enlightenment and America Independence which set cultural context in which these revivals occurred. The churches in America by the time of Finney were under tremendous challenge from various ‘secular forces’, namely Enlightenment philosophies (some of which later were grouped and generalised as secularism) and were losing their members. Influenced by the need to find an identity after the American Independence, believers embraced the new American ‘popular democracy’, fuelled by an Enlightenment sentiment of appeals to self-evident truths, inalienable rights, and equal creation of all.1 If there were ‘principalities’, they were colonists, who were no more. Meanwhile, they have already accepted the Reformation belief which call each individual to come to salvation by personal faith. The very reason revivalism thrived during that period of time is due to its ability to relate to the people at that time. Finney’s methodology, for example, is the very language that Enlightenment thoughts speak – mechanistic, purposeful and causal. If there were laws governing the physical world, as demonstrated by Newton, there will be ways which governs the making of revival. As much as the means of revivalism – or man-made methods used to create revivals – is questionable, its motive, and subsequently success in engaging a whole generation of Americans to the matters of faith, should not be overlooked. Instead of seeing the revivalist’s method as overwhelmingly pagan, perhaps we could also see it as a form of contextualisation suited for the ‘mission field’ of a new Enlightenment-infested, individualistic age. 1. Noll, M.A. (1992) A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 148.

Institutional Church = Pagan Christianity?


Ben Witherington shared Howard Snyder’s review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola here. I find Snyder’s review helpful . He pointed out that there are three approaches to church history: 1. the “traditional orthodox” approach, 2.the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory and 3. the “renewal movement view.” Snyder mentioned John Wesley’s renewal attempt within the Anglican church as an example of the ‘renewal movement’, which he sees as the preferred solution compared to the ‘secret history of the faithful remnant’, which Viola prefers, where the institutional church is often regarded as corrupted and true Christianity is seen as carried in history by remnant groups. Of course the opposite of the ‘remnant’ theory is the ‘traditional orthodox’ view which sees the institutional church and its progressive development as a natural development of authentic Christianity and Constantinianism is viewed as a victory for the church.

I would like to respond to both the book and Snyder’s review from the perspective of mission, in particular from the inculturation point of view. I will make some quick attempts here to offer alternative views on the issues of ‘pagan’ practices within the church which Viola seems to suggest for the church today to do away with.

First, I am surprise that Augustine of Hippo and his ecclesiology, especially that was expressed in his confrontation with the Donatists, was not mentioned – neither by Snyder nor Viola! Augustine made some important points regarding the church when debating with the Dontists. Dualistic or Platonic as it may seem, Augustine argued (especially later in his ‘City of God’) for the validity, authenticity and authority of the institutional church, while acknowledging that the institutional church and its ministers are not perfect. Though the debate was much more complicated and involves a lot of theological technicalities, especially on the issue of sacraments, it serves as one of the earlier if not the earliest debate on the authenticity of the institutional church and its ministers.

Secondly, I agree with Snyder, who helpfully sees that the whole issue is about  ‘the nature and practice of the church’. Now there is still a difference between the ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’. The other term which one will think of, which is related but not equivalent would be the ‘Kingdom of God’. Again Augustine linked the kingdom with the church as a means to defend his high view of the institutional church. If we are talking about the church (ecclesiology) let the discussion be on the people or ‘group of people’  who are Christians.

Now that is where I think both the book and the reviewer fall short. None noticed that if we are talking about church – we are talking about the universal and the local church. In each case we are talking about people, and when people is involved culture is involved. It would be better to evaluate ‘Pagan Christianity’ with a larger view. From the mission point of view, the so-called ‘pagan practices’ mentioned in the book are just ‘pagan practices’ in the Western church. Constantinianism was a triumphant victory of Christianity successfully converting not just the individuals but the culture of the time. Since ‘Christianity’ has archived such victory, the ‘church’ or the people groups were then happily Christianising everything in their daily lives. These people were not living in a cultural vacuum. Now zoom out and consider the mission situation and we will see that when the Chinese or Indians converted to Christianity, they do not abandon all that is in their culture.

For instance, language is a a key element of culture. Do we abandon our language and adopt Hebrew and Greek so we could ‘fully’ appreciate  authentic Christianity? We all can imagine how a Chinese, an African and a Westerner would understand the word, ‘Lord” quite differently – each according to his or her cultural understanding. Feudal Lord for the Westerner? Does it exist in the history of China (the word ‘Lord’ is translated as ‘master’, not ‘lord’ in Chinese Bible) and Africa? The is no escape of having to face the trouble of cultural difference when one is in mission field. Hudson Taylor has to dress and speak like a Chinese to relate to the Chinese. Now when the Chinese converted, what do we expect them to change? The same happened when Constantine  and others ‘converted’ to Christianity – ‘what do I do with my clothes, my language, my habits, my hairstyle, my furniture, my pets, my buildings, my life?’ Stripe everything and live like John the Baptist? Even Jesus didn’t do that! Viola did his research in the book and one should rightly doubt Constantine’s conversion, but besides that, I wonder how much would the most powerful man in the Western world then be able to theologically reflect and take time to contextualise his faith?

The other problem which I sense when observing the church, especially the modern church, is the insufficiency in Theology of Creation. Viola traced the development of the church architecture, and highlighted how ‘pagan’ they are. However he failed to see how art was ‘redeemed’ for the worship of the creative God. Human beings are created to be creative by the creative God. Architecture, in particularly church architecture is a way people at different times, bound by their cultural circumstances, expressing their feelings towards God. If any house church today arrange their seating in a certain way or sing songs creatively we fall into the same category.

In conclusion, while Viola’s research and ‘Pagan Christianity’ has been helpful in many ways, it is clear that they suffer from what Snyder calls fallacious syllogism – ‘It holds that because much church practice is pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned.’ Instead, as Snyder pointed out, the whole issue of Contextualisation needs to be taken into account. The very fact is that, we do not live in the New Testament times! The Western church is as such because it went through a process of interaction of faith and culture. It may need to further undergo more contextualisation for the postmodern world but lest we are able to consider the issue as a matter of culture we will never be able to progress.

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