Back in February I posted about the missional church’s task of being both relevant and resistant to popular culture (The relevant/resistant tension). I was doing some theological reading today and found the exact same concept in G. Kaufman’s book The Theological Imagination (albeit in more technical terms). After arguing that theology is the task of theology in each generation is "reconceiving and reinterpreting the concept of God in terms that are indigenous to a new situation" he states:
If indigenization were to mean that the idea of God became so completely adapted to the concepts and norms and practices of a new culture that it no longer could serve as a radical standard of criticism for that culture, and thus failed to exert tension toward significant transformation of that culture in the direction of fuller humanization, full indigenization of the idea of God would be its destruction.
Fortunately, he goes on to say, full indigenization does not mean that the idea of God simply reflects culture. Nor does our idea of God remain a fixed, finished thing – something our ancestors figured out and handed down to us. Theology needs to be done in each generation in order to speak about God’s truth to a new situation (relevance to culture), but this must be done in such a way that God remains God, and can speak prophetically and critically to the new idols and destructive practices of the new situation (resistance to culture).
It seems to me that few people right now are emphasizing both. We see people who emphasize resistance to culture, and fear that any step toward relevance is a step toward compromise. We also see people who are so afraid of being irrelevant that they have completely capitulated to the culture, creating a theology that cannot critique, only coddle.
But what we really need are some people who embrace both relevance and resistance (and I think there are a few out there), who dare to re-imagine theology for our new situation.
It seems to me that the emerging/missional church people are trying to indigenize theology for a new situation
sacred vapor says
since the Jesus message transcends culture, the relevance to culture comes from that which embraces the message while the resistance from that which is hostile.
This sounds a bit simplistic and there are certainly grey areas in our culture which need to be properly re-discovered. The emerging community is correct to prioritize ‘conversation’ as the proper medium. For we are not asked to fight with hostile resistance, but simply shake the dust off of our sandals… or in this case… our Nike shox.
RC of strangeculture says
I totally agree with you here!
David Swink says
Unless a believer exhibits the relevance of Christ in his life, the message is not only useless but destructive. “My Name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”-God
Gabriel Sanchez says
I know that this is an older post, but the topic caught my eye when I was dinking around. I won’t take up too much space with a lengthy discussion, but I believe there are a few points to consider that you may have overlooked.
First, you say (or at least agree with) the proposition that “[t]heology needs to be done in each generation in order to speak about God’s truth to a new situation.” This appears extreme, since literally it would mean “rewriting the book” every twenty-five to fifty years. Does the “situation” change that much in that period of time? A more radical question that seems to get skipped over in considerations like this is, “Has the human situation changed at all in 2,000 years?” Certainly we can point to shifts in the conventional ideas, practices, innovations, etc. of the human race across the globe, but does any of that effect—for lack of a better term—the “human condition” in such a radical way that we, the men of the twenty-first century, are radically unrelated to the men of the first, tenth, fifteenth, etc.? I don’t mean to assert that the categories of human thought today are the same as the categories of human thought in the early centuries after the Incarnation, but it seems that we also have to ask whether or not those categories of thought were superior to our own and therefore any communication of the Faith needs to be done in such a way that it does not impinge upon the integrity of the former in order to meet the lack of the latter.
Second, you say (or at least agree with) the view that theology “must be done in such a way that God remains God, and can speak prophetically and critically to the new idols and destructive practices of the new situation.” But how can we identify those “idols” and “destructive practices” if the basis of that identification is made subject to the new categories which, presumably, also gave rise to those same “idols” and “destructive practices”? It seems that, at the very least, we need a “pre-cultural” or “pre-conventional” theology that transcends these stifling horizons. Now, some are naturally incredulous towards that even being a possibility, though if pushed too far (or even minimally far), we wind up with Play-Dough doctrine that can be shaped to fit any whim or fancy. Again, it seems necessary to return to the categories of thought that are contained within the Scriptures themselves and the mind of the Church as the foundational ones and go from there. In that way, there is an immovable pillar upon which we might stand to survey the current situation and conceive of how that situation should best be addressed with the unshakable Faith that has been delivered to us.
I would correct your second-to-last paragraph and say that what we need—what the human race has always needed—is a Church that understands that the Gospel is always relevant, that resistance to the excesses and evils of humanity is always necessary, and that these situations have been and will continue to be with the world until the End. If the mission of the Church is communion with God (and I certainly believe it is), then that mission has no need to “relevant” in a conventional sense; it will be relevant perpetually to any human being who has not closed off his soul to the divine. As for the theology of the Church, certainly it should be open in a language that people understand if they so desire, but fundamentally it should be protective of the Truth of the Faith, not the basis for a never ending discussion where compromises perpetually loom and obscurities are inevitable.
Benjamin Sternke says
Thanks for the comment, Gabriel (I have been on vacation, so here’s a late response to your late comment 😉
You bring up good points in your first paragraph, and perhaps in my brevity my position seemed more extreme than it really is. I am not advocating that we throw out the old and start over every 25-50 years. Instead I am arguing that we build upon the theology done in years past. What I am advocating is that instead of assuming that all the good theology got figured out during the Reformation, realizing that theology is an ongoing task, and needs to be done in every generation in order to speak to the new situation. I don’t think our situation is too much different from people who lived hundreds of years ago (although with the Internet and globalization, one could argue we are living in totally new times), but language and images and symbols need to be updated so we are speaking the language of the people we are trying to reach. I’m not arguing we ought to change things willy-nilly based on culture’s whims, but we definitely should be seeking to address issues our culture is concerned about, to tell people in plain language how God is present and real to modern people and situations.
On your issue of the gospel always being relevant, I do agree with you, but I would argue that the preaching of the gospel always needs to be “indigenized” – not changed, mind you, but the gospel is always preached in plain language, and thus always carries cultural elements with it. For us to preach the gospel in Latin would of course be silly, because normal people don’t speak Latin. In one sense, then, the act of translation is an act of indigenization, but it’s just one example – lots of other cultural baggage gets attached to the preaching of the gospel, and if we just take the words of preachers from the past and put them in our mouths, we will be in danger of preaching a gospel that sounds like “Latin” to some… see where I’m going on this? It’s like Paul, when preaching to Jews, he sought the common ground of the Torah and the Prophets, claiming that Jesus was the fulfillment of all their hopes and dreams. When speaking with Greeks, he didn’t mention the Torah once, even though it was “gospel truth” – instead he started with their situation and talked about the “unknown god”. That’s the kind of indigenization I’m talking about, figuring out where those talking points are, where the common ground is.
I read a book a long time ago called Peace Child, where a missionary was struggling to preach the gospel to a cannibalistic tribe in Papua-New Guinea. He translated the gospel story into their language, and they thought Judas was the hero, because their culture highly valued treachery! He finally learned of a practice they had of stopping the endless cycle of bloodshed and murder: one tribe would offer the other tribe a child. The child would grow up in the other tribe and as long as it was alive there was peace between the tribes. So he said, “Jesus is the peace child between you and God, and he still lives!” – that was the key for them – he had to “indigenize” the gospel for them before they could digest the finer points of the story (and eventually learn that Judas wasn’t the hero!)