Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Rich Past for a Positive Future for Theology



with Professor John Cobb
As an Asian postcolonial feminist theologian, my relationship to the Christian past is multifaceted and ambivalent. My reading of the Bible and the long theological tradition is never a “natural” reading, arising out of a living tradition that shaped my culture. For example, I wondered how the terms ousia and hypostases in the debates on Trinity could be translated into Chinese and whether there would be equivalent concepts in Chinese philosophy. 

So why do we have to study the Christian past? Sometimes my students put this even more bluntly, “Why do we have to study the dead white guys?” 

We study the past because we want to learn different models of how theologians addressed social, political, and ecclesiastical issues of their time. Take for instance, this year we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses. The questions that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Münster raised for the church and wider public remain with us to this day, such as, the source of authority, the shape of liturgy and the meaning of sacraments, the visible and invisible church, the relation between the two kingdoms, and the relation between the established church and radical reform impulses.  

A highly relevant question for today might be “How can the Church be reformed so that it might respond to the challenges of the Trump era?” Although the Chinese may not have an event equivalent to the Reformation, the Reformation provided a mirror through which to look at the relation between religion, politics, and power at a watershed moment of the early development of capitalism and modernity. 

Without learning from the past, we impoverish ourselves because we are left with the tyranny of the present. We can easily lose hope and fall prey to cynicism and despair. This is especially important in the United States because historical literacy is low and people seek immediate relevance. Facebook and social media outlets can make us obsessed with the immediate present. Learning from history allows us to maintain a certain distance and to have a broader perspective when examining our present time. 

Given that we have such a long and rich theological tradition and so many theological giants before us, there is also the danger of the tyranny of the past. We might become so immersed and inculturated into certain modes of theological thinking, patterns of argument, and the common vocabularies of a certain theological tradition and our minds be so colonized that we are unable to see the horizon beyond or dare to take the road less traveled. 

Theological innovations often begin by posting radical questions to the past. The feminist theological movement wrestled with the validity of past tradition. Mary Daly argued that the Christian tradition is so sexist that it is irredeemable, while Letty Russell spoke of a usable past. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza offered a revisionist history of Christian origin, and Rosemary Radford Ruether recovered the lost voices of Christian women in history. 

Many theologians who have found their cultures and traditions left out from the dominant theological tradition have recovered their histories through the use of slave narratives, alternative archives, oral history, literature, and myths and stories to create a colorful tapestry of theologies. Today, theology is a global enterprise and we must pay attention to the global contexts shaping human lives and our theological imagination. Theology is contextual, but our contexts are deeply intertwined today. We need to find ways to educate ourselves about how others are developing theologies to respond to common concerns of our time. This must be a sustained and deliberate effort and not something to do only when we have time. 

I wish I knew when I began to study theology that this would be a life-long vocation with many twists and no easy answers. Our work is harder because, unlike Luther and the reformers who stood in the vanguard of the intellectuals of their time, we as contemporary theologians have to defend our existence in the academy and larger society. When Christian theology is in a defensive posture, the marginal voices within it could be even more marginalized or suppressed. A danger for theological movements is that they become reactionary or ossified over time and fail to respond to new challenges. There is often much excitement when a theological movement begins, but as it becomes institutionalized or domesticated, it needs new reformers and discussants to keep it alive and on the cutting-edge.  

Facing the future, theologians have important roles to play in the Trump era. Latin American theologians reminded us that we must distinguish between the worship of God and the worship of idols. When people are mesmerized by populist claims such as “Make America Great Again” and the representation of the President as pseudo-Messiah, theologians must challenge idolatry and alternative facts. In the battle for truth, we stand on the shoulders of giants such as Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Y. T. Wu, Oscar Romero, Mercy Oduyoye, Tissa Balasuriya, Desmond Tutu, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Ivone Gebara, and others. When the country begins to look inward, we need theologians and leaders of faith communities who are cosmopolitan in theological outlook, astute about world politics, and have a deep sense of American multiracial and multicultural history.  

We must develop a culture of resistance in the churches and rid ourselves of Constantinian Christianity in order to see clearly the life and ministry of a postcolonial Jesus. Americans have not been comfortable seeing the connections between empire and Christianity. Middle-class American Christianity has so successfully adapted to the individualistic culture that religion has often become a private affair.  

The Christian message of sin, atonement, justification, and salvation has been thoroughly individualized, if not psychologized, such that they have relatively little social import. We look at Jesus as primarily a religious figure, separated from the highly politicized and volatile situation of his time, an era filled with periodic popular revolts and protests against Roman colonial rule. We must recover that the Jesus movement was a resistance movement against Pax Romana. Jesus was not a passive religious leader, but took an uncompromising stance against the Roman Empire and its client Judean and Galilean rulers. Jesus’ revolutionary message is relevant to our time more than ever as we struggle against pax Americana. 

Do I think theology will have a positive future? My answer is yes. When I began to study theology in the early 1970s, Gustavo Gutierrez has published A Theology for Liberation Theology for a few years. Mary Daly has not published Beyond God the Father. As a doctoral student, I witnessed the development of Womanist theology, Mujerista and Latina theology, Asian American feminist theology, and gay and lesbian theology. Today we have such a plurality of voices arising from racial and ethnic communities in the U.S. and from faith communities around the world.

In the 1960s, some of the avant garde theologians launched a series of books with the title “New Frontiers in Theology” and their aim was to facilitate “discussions among Continental and American theologians” and the discussants were all male. Here at this conference, we have such diversity of theological voices, and this should give us hope for a positive and more inclusive future. 

(Presented at the “New Frontiers in Theology” Conference at Claremont School of Theology on February 17, 2017)

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