From Kachai to Kentucky: Is my context really so different from yours?

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Statements such as “all theologies are contextual theologies,” “there is no supra-cultural truth,” “we can never read the text objectively, we always read through our contextual lenses” etc. provoked me to examine my own biases and implicit assumptions. At times such statements have made me question whether my theological understanding of the Bible, salvation, and God is a mere artifact of Western thought. I have wondered whether the theology that I learned in a church as a young convert or those that I learned at a seminary in India are still relevant for me here in the US. “How can the theology taught by my tribal pastors and Indian teachers who have never been to the States still be relevant?” I asked myself. But I have come to the conclusion that the statements of the limitations of theology stated in the beginning, while prompted by good intentions are misleading. Let me explain why and how.

I don’t doubt that we are children of our own contexts. We make decisions, choose options, and execute judgments based on our limited knowledge that is shaped by our context—cultural, linguistic, geographical etc. In fact, I want to argue that even some of the decisions we make on a daily basis are already predetermined by several factors—market, culture, financial limitations etc.—such that we can only choose what we are given to choose. For example, the limited choices (or unlimited choices) on the grocery shelf determine what we buy and consume. We think we are making ‘free’ choices but our free choices are limited by what we can see, experience, and obtain. Our jobs, institutions, ideas etc. etc. are no exceptions. I experience this contextual limitation and difference almost every day. My thoughts, experiences, education etc. are so strongly shaped by my tribal identity and Indian educational system that I often come to opposite conclusions from my Western friends. For example, when I see a bird of any kind, my immediate reaction is to take my slingshot (by the way, I always carry it with me in my car) and kill the bird for food. I wonder why my American friends do not like bird meat – one of the best meats. Since eating dog-meat abhors Americans, their reaction to cute, fat dogs is quite different from mine. But this difference surpasses food habits. Once we were discussing the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus when my Western friends began to wonder aloud why Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus house. “That was kind of inappropriate,” some remarked. To me, such a gesture was honor for Zacchaeus and something normal in an eastern context. I use this rather simplistic example to point to the fact that we tend to act and think according to how we are shaped by our context and how we understand reality. But that is not the whole story.

As much as I am able to learn and understand Western culture, my Western friends are able to understand mine. It didn’t take long for them to understand that my desire to kill any moving creature for food was due to the fact that everything (almost) that flies, swims, and creeps (except humans) was food in my context. They also quickly understood that Jesus inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s was not only acceptable but also was honoring Zacchaeus in that culture; they could grasp the significance of eastern culture upon some inquiry. If we would spend time together discussing and learning, we can see things more objectively. But what about my friend’s argument that some of us are able to come to a similar theological conclusion because we read similar books, go to institutions with similar structures and learning experiences? In other words, if we were never exposed to the same author or similar theological reasoning we would have very different theologies. The logic, therefore, is that there should be theologies such as African Theology, Asian Theology, Latin Theology etc. The assumption behind such reasoning is that there is no one theology valid for all people at all times. There is no Biblical Theology (BT) or Systematic Theology (ST). BT and ST are theologies that arose from Westerners who were shaped by their particular context. There are only theological perspectives from Westerners. But if such is the case, why not say theological perspective from Asia or Africa or Latin America rather than Asian Theology or African Theology or Latino Theology? But if we are left to formulate our own theology, who determines whose theology is more true to the Bible? How do we evaluate some of the erroneous teachings within these different theologies? On the other hand, if we can check the validity of others’ theologies through the Scripture then can’t we come up with what the Scripture teaches on specific issues?

Can there be an Asian Theology that is accessible only to/by Asians? Are the experiences of Asians so unique that others cannot see things from their perspectives? As humans, we share more commonality than differences. I have found that my friends from America, Nigeria, Korea, Myanmar, Philippines, Europe and many parts of the world operate on similar logic. At the core, we all share similar views on life, go through similar experiences of birth, marriage, death etc. There is almost nothing I cannot comprehend when it comes to why my Nigerian friends or American friends do what they do, and why they do. Of course, I need explanation. But the difference is certainly not always due to the fact we hold a worldview that is radically different from one another. In fact, I have more agreement with some of my Nigerian friends than some of the theologians in my hometown. Therefore, our differences cannot be merely due to our perception of reality conditioned by our culture. It is something else. Maybe it is our prior theological commitment, denominational difference, our fear of losing our position or even abandoning our deeply held conviction, one that does not hold water under the scrutiny of the text, or worse, our unwillingness to submit to the authority of the text. The point is that, even though our backgrounds shape our reasoning, we can see from others’ points of view. We may not come to the same conclusion about some issues, yet we can understand our differences. We can work together to eradicate our biases and submit to the claims of the Scripture. We are not trapped in our cultural cocoon such that we cannot escape its shield and learn from others.

But I have not answered the charge that some of us can see eye to eye or at least agree on a majority of the issues because of our similar exposure—education, culture, economy, historical timeline etc. This charge ignores two major premises, among others: We have a common Scripture that is authoritative and valid for all peoples at all times and we have the same Spirit of God that guides us in understanding the Scripture. If the Bible is equally authoritative and valid for all people, our aim must be to submit to the claims of the Bible. Of course, our aim is not to read the Bible in a way that is totally irrelevant to our context. Our aim is to read the Bible in a way that is relevant to our context and at the same time true to its intent. The interpretation of the Bible is not the monopoly of the Westerner, so also is it not the monopoly of the rest. We, Westerners and Easterners alike, stand under the authority of the text. We don’t impose our experiences on the text but we exegete the texts. We ask the help of the Holy Spirit in reading the text. The Spirit of Truth will guide us to understand the claims of the text.

The claim that all theologies are contextual theologies and that there is no transcultural theology arises from misunderstanding. Such a claim too quickly abandons the text understood in terms of its own horizon and that of the interpreter with the former serving as the controlling factor. To theologize, then, is first to ask what the text means within the textual, epochal, and canonical context before we ask what it means to us. We interpret the text on its own terms. Even though our own linguistic, cultural, and philosophical influences cannot be avoided in interpreting the text, we allow the biblical categories that are already embedded in the text to drive our interpretation. The NT writers utilized the prevailing cultural, linguistic, and philosophical categories to assist in constructing theology but they were not the foundational elements. It is true that our knowledge of reality, God, his Word, and the world around us, is always mediated by human linguistic, cultural, and moral limitations. However, it is not necessarily always mediated by our particular culture such that we cannot objectively and corporately grasp the truth. Our contextual theologies must arise as a result of our inquiry of the theology furnished by the biblical writers. While my quibble with some evangelicals may be eradicated by clarifying the meaning of theologization and contextualization, my disagreement with others who deny that there is such a thing as BT is harder to reconcile. I believe their position compromises orthodoxy in the name of relevance.

I belong to a tribal community call Naga and some of our tribal theologians are of the opinion that there should be such a distinct theology call Tribal Theology (TT). TT can be defined as an attempt to theologize using tribal resources and experiences by reflecting on the truth of Christianity as revealed in the Bible. TT has its merits, but where it errs is its attempt to place the tribal experience and worldview on par with the Bible. The text and the context are mixed such that the preeminence of the former is ignored. I see the same imbalance, or at least similar trajectory, in so-called African Theology, Asian Theology, or Minjung Theology. I am not convinced that “all theologies are contextual theologies,” “there is no supra-cultural truth,” “we can never read the text objectively, we always read through our contextual lenses” etc.

Orthodoxy is not passé. Contextualization is possible because the culture exists, to which something can be contextualized. Orthodoxy, however, is not the end goal; Christian orthodoxy must lead to orthopraxis. We are called not just to debate about theological orthodoxy but to live in a way that authenticates our belief. After all, actions speak louder than words.

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About Author

Sochanngam Shirik hails from Kachai village, Manipur state in the Northeastern region of India. He belongs to a tribal community called the Naga people. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. Upon completion of his degree, he plans to go back to India and teach at a seminary. He passion is to train young Indian church leaders and pastors in a biblically sound, cultural relevant manner.

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