East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

Although Kipling’s famous poem, The Ballad of East and West, begins by highlighting difference, his main theme is mutual respect, as the second line reveals, ‘But there is neither East nor West…when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!’

I have been involved in teaching theology for the last eight years or so, for six years in Singapore and since early 2014 at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. My main areas are contextual theology and mission.

Singapore symbolises the young, expanding Church, while Oxford represents the great heritage and uncertain future of the Western Church. The two places illustrate the movement of Christianity towards the South and the East, away from “Christendom”. Yet, while the majority world is now home to the body of Christ, my teaching experience on two continents suggests that the brain is still primarily in the West.

Although “Western theology” is seen as the norm, there is often a disconnection between what is taught in majority world seminaries and the cultures and worldviews of the students who learn it, and the congregations they serve. The non-western church is now seeing increased interest in local or glocal theologies. Reflective foreign missionaries and local pastors are now asking if the message we take, the theology behind it, and the churches formed by it can really fit into non-western culture and transform people’s lives.

The West and its Church are undergoing a crisis in confidence. Our economies are not as strong as before and our influence not as great. In today’s world, East Asia is rising and the “BRICS” nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are emerging. In the former Christendom we now live side-by-side with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and many others. So is the increasing interest in contextual theology, and its explicit or implicit criticism of Western theology, simply an expression of the West’s crisis of confidence and identity? I don’t think so.

Theology, the study of God and that which is associated with him, is primarily a human endeavour. Christians affirm the inspiration of the Bible, God directing human authors to ensure that his message arrived on paper faithfully. But the distillation of Scripture into a thematic system of thought which can be taught and applied results in theology inherently limited by our minds. Western theology has shaped and been shaped by two thousand years of Western philosophical and intellectual tradition.

Andrew Walls tells us that theology was developed as the gospel crossed cultural boundaries and answers had to be found to new issues. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about meat sacrificed to idols would have required innovation on his part; likewise, his integration of Jew and Gentile in Galatians. Paul used his knowledge of Gentile culture to facilitate a Jewish gospel’s engagement with and transformation of an alien civilisation. This process of extending our theological understanding and approach continues to the present day at the frontiers of mission.

theologians from East and West…must work together

Clearly, contextual theology for East Asia is not syncretism, Christianity merging with East Asian religions. Neither is it the renegotiation of core doctrines accepted by the church for almost two millennia. Perhaps we can draw a dotted line between essential and peripheral doctrines; naturally, the position of the line may vary with denominational background and individual personality.

East Asian theologies will not challenge traditional views about the Trinity, for example. However, we may derive new insights and fresh understanding. The theologian Miyahira reflects on the Trinity using Japanese notions of space and harmony; the individual members create spaces for each other and for us, while harmony is a metaphor for the overall unity.

Arguably of greater significance are peripheral issues and applications, which enable Christians to respond and bring transformation to specific contexts in East Asia. Consider some classic, albeit rather black-and-white polarisations of Western and East Asian cultures. Westerners tend to be individualistic, while Asians emphasise community.

Western logic and science produce statements of fact whereas many majority world cultures employ narrative. Some might distinguish between written word and experience or tradition. Although the Bible is mostly narrative, theologising results in some propositional statements. While rich human experience and long Christian tradition are rightfully recognised as helpful, without the anchor of the written word we could slide into questionable territory.

As we question the suitability of Western theology for East Asia, rather than reject centuries of Western reflection and scholarship, we can explore how the East Asian context can contribute to what we already have. This is what Korean theologian Lee Moonjang means by reconfiguring Western theology. This is a task for the whole Church in East Asia; theologians from East and West and local pastors and believers must work together on theologies which draw from and speak into the Asian context. May God send us Kipling’s strong men and women to stand face-to-face and work hand-in-hand to his glory.

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