Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Robert Schreiter: Constructing Local Theologies

Some time ago I heard an evangelical professor make comments in a video resource that articulated his theological concerns about the beliefs of a new religious movement in terms that drew upon classic and ancient Christian creedal expressions. This was appropriate given the Christian audience to whom his comments were directed, but it made me wonder why we haven't developed theologies that are contextualized for the cultural and subcultural concerns of the new religions that we interact with. Why do we continue to present theological formulations from the early church that are not brought into dialogue with contemporary cultural circumstances? I am not at all suggesting that we ignore the ancient creeds, but our historical reflections must also take into account diverse cultural circumstances of the present.

These reflections, coupled with my desires to develop contextualized theologies for the post-Christian West, led me to purchase and recently finish reading two volumes, Dean Flemming's Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (InterVarsity Press, 2005), and Robert J. Schreiter's Constructing Local Theologies (Orbis Books, 2002). I was familiar with Flemmings work due to my exposure to an academic journal article he wrote on Paul's preaching at the Areopagus as a paradigm for cross-cultural communication, but I was not familiar with Schreiter's work until recently. Flemming's work serves as a helpful reminder that the New Testament writers practiced not only a contextualization of the gospel in their proclamation within Judaism and then beyond it as the gospel crossed cultures, but that the early apostles also developed various theologies that were appropriate to the local circumstances of various Christian communities and the cultures in which they were embedded.

While both volumes are worthy of extensive commentary, with this post I'd like to share some aspects of Schreiter's book, and a few reflections that came as as a result of reading it. Schreiter is a Catholic theologian who is part of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. I found his Catholic perspective, as well as his theological and cultural savvy to be extremely helpful in reflecting on theological contextualization. In his view contemporary pluralism presents a "multiplicity of new pastoral and theological problems unprecedented in Christian history." Schreiter discusses some of these unique challenges that arise in a variety of forms, such as the asking of new questions in differing cultural contexts, questions that impact even the most routine issues of church life often taken for granted in the West:
"Indeed, so many new questions were emerging that the credibility of existing forms of theology was weakened. For example, questions about the eucharistic elements: How was one to celebrate the Eucharist in countries that were Muslim theocracies and forbade the production of importation of fermented beverages? What was one to do in those cultures where bread products such as bread were not known, in which the unconsecrated bread itself became a magical object because of its foreignness? Or how was one to celebrate baptism among the Masai in East Africa, where to pour water on the head of a woman was to curse her with infertility? How was one to understand Vatican Council II's opening to non-Christian religions in countries in southern Asia where Christianity seemed destined to remain a minority religion?"
In order to address these questions in ways that are theologically and culturally responsible, Schreiter suggests that we need to develop local theologies. He defines this as a form of theology that "begins with the needs of a people in a concrete place, and from there moves to the traditions of faith," and which involves a "dynamic interaction among gospel, church, and culture." Schreiter sees this starting place with culture as a strength as it begins "with the questions that the people themselves have" rather than the concerns of the church that often result in a theology and ecclesiology disconnected from local cultures.

As Schreiter develops his thesis he not only defines local theology, but also includes discussion of mapping local theologies, the need to understand local cultures (where he includes an emphasis upon listening), as well as a consideration of the context of theology as church tradition interacts with local theological perspectives. In discussing the latter topic he includes a helpful reminder that our perspectives for understanding are strongly influenced by culture, including church tradition in its forms and formulations. He reminds us that in spite of our assumptions they are not supracultural and are "always born in some cultural context." With this insight we are reminded that "the great theologies of East and West have drawn upon philosophical systems elaborated in their respective cultures to frame their questions and their answers."

In the chapter that discusses theology and its context I found a particular question Schreiter raised most interesting when he asked: "What is the relation of the form to the local culture conditions?" This question is deceptively simple, but in my experience I am not aware of many evangelicals consciously reflecting on this question either in activities among new religions, or among church planting efforts or the day-to-day existence of well established churches.

Schreiter also discusses the issue of Christian tradition and identity, popular or folk religion and its relationship to "official" religion, and a chapter devoted to syncretism. His discussion on syncretism is especially helpful as he distinguishes between various types of "dual religious systems," and then raises a series of issues and questions related to the topic. Along the way he states that "Syncretism and dual religious systems raise the question for Christians of how serious we really are about contextualization." Indeed, with the seeming trend in evangelical missiology toward increasing conservatism as it approaches the issue of contextualization Schreiter's query seems to prod us toward a balance of careful reflection as well as daring experimentation in the contextualization process.

Near the end of Schreiter's chapter on syncretism he raised some issues that echoed my seminary experiences in my reflection on folk religions in the world's great religious traditions and how this relates to dramatically and foundationally different religio-cultural ways of understanding the world. Schreiter asks, "Is there a Buddhist way of being Christian, or a Hindu way of being Christian? Those two great traditions have been able to accommodate Christianity, but Christianity does not seem able to accommodate them." He notes that these are not easy questions for Christians to answer not because they deal with Christian doctrines as many evangelicals might assume, but rather because they touch on "Christian exclusivist thought patterns." He then asks, "Are those thought patterns essential to Christianity, or do they represent certain cultural categories only?"

I recognize that Schreiter raises issues that will cause many conservative evangelicals to shudder, perhaps even reject his basic thesis outright, as demonstrated by an email conversation I had with a Christian professor not long ago who questioned whether it was accurate to speak of Christian "theologies" in the plural. Added to that, the connection of contextualization to the process raised even more red flags. But in my view Flemming and Schreiter are on to something. The biblical material includes numerous examples of contextualization of not only the proclamation of the gospel but also in the development of various local theologies for differing Christian communities. It seems to me that Western Christianity has lost sight of this and it is time to bring theology and culture together as ongoing dialogue partners so that the Jesus story and Christian spirituality might be told and lived in ways that draw upon the lifeways and concerns of local populations.


Rev. Sivin said...

Schreiter's book has been one of the most "liberating" books I have ever read on the question on contextualization. His concise and sharp presentation together with his provoking questions gave new language for me to reframe old questions into new ones, and provide a useful framework to do ACTUAL local theologizing rather than just talk ABOUT it.

David BG said...

thanks for the summary. I'm making my way through the book now. I have to say this is one of the most deliciously subversive theology books I've ever read. His section on boundaries and how they work in culture is particularly insightful, and it resonates with this guy I've found helpful:

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks, David. You'll find my thoughts on bounded and centered sets here:

David BG said...

thanks. Schreiter has a section in his book about what boundaries accomplish. While Hiebert doesn't exactly disavow boundaries when he talks centered set, I wish he did! I'm sure this demonstrates my "liberal" bias, but I'm all for forsaking the boundaries for the sake of those left out. Leave the 99 and get the 1. I don't think the "who's in vs. who's out" dialogue is helping people bear good fruit. It's not helping "the church" or anyone looking at the church thinking, "wow, they judge a lot of people."

I do hear Schreiter at least pressing the envelope of how far can we go--how far can we go to take people and culture as seriously as God takes people and culture? Can we tend to the real needs and concerns of people first before we impose our anxiety-driven need for right beliefs and moral behavior (or however we define "discipleship")? I seldom hear missionaries, evangelists, church goers, and pastors ask themselves the question, "Why do I need my neighbor to come to church?" Sure, they say it's because they love their neighbor so much and want them to know God as much as they do. But if that's true, why don't their neighbors receive it that way? It doesn't _feel_ like love - it feels like an anxious parent trying to get toddler to "be good" for the sake of the parent. And the world is not buying it.

To me, boundaries reinforce the anxiety-driven system rather than inviting increasing wholeness, life, and fruit of the kingdom of God. When we stop being so anxious about boundaries, we can actually listen to where people are really at - actually take them seriously on their own terms. That's exactly what the Spirit is doing with each of us if we'd take the time to talk to Him.

I'm a pastor - I'm not saying get rid of the church. I'm saying, make church a centered set - people responding to the invitations from Jesus and doing the life-long work of conversion as Schreiter suggests. I need to be converted. daily. that's why I'm in this thing. If people want to come along with me, fantastic! Let's do church and enjoy it. And anyone--- anyone --- is welcome. right where you're at. LGBT and every other letter under heaven.

Anyway, I'm getting preachy. thanks for your work on summarizing these really important topics. I hope I haven't assumed too much of you or your goals.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for your further thoughts, David.

I "hear" you and I'm with you on boundaries. We also have to keep in mind that there are boundaries for the Christian movement, even while we should be emphasizing the center of Jesus and the Kingdom message. I've discovered we have to publicly acknowledge the Evangelical concern over boundaries, even while arguing for the need to be center focused, lest we be seen as liberal, postmodern, other in other ways suspect by our brethren. Even so, it is a stigma worth bearing given the seriousness of these issues.

For me it was my seminary education in intercultural studies, and my experiences with people in new religions, world religions, and places like Burning Man. All of that caused a shift in my understanding that often is at variance with how we tend to "do church." I wish more pastors had training in missions and theological considerations like Schreiter's.

By the way, where do you pastor?

David BG said...

yeah, thanks. Acknowledging boundaries can become more a "tactical" choice of complying with other's needs and concerns rather than an authentic expression of what will actually be helpful.

I too wish pastors and leaders would be trained to think like Schreiter and the missionary endeavor. Andrew Walls. Newbigin. Hiebert. I have an MDIV and didn't read ANY of this in seminary.

One more thought-- have you read much Wendell Berry? I think his anthropology closely intersects with Schreiter's. Or at least Berry would endorse Schreiter's goal of taking local culture seriously. For Berry, a farmer and writer, every acre is different, and every acre may be more or less fruitful depending on the specific, particular practices of farming on that acre. What's fruitful on one will not be on another. What's fruitful in Brooklyn's trendy Park Slope churches may not be fruitful in rural Alabama or the south side of Chicago. etc....

I pastor in the Iowa City, IA area.

John W. Morehead said...

I haven't read Berry.

Thanks for letting me know where you're trying to impart some missional pastoral work.