Postcolonial Orthodoxy: A Response

>My friend Sherman wrote an excellent post here Postcolonial Orthodoxy I thought I’ll use it as a point of contact and stimulation for further conversations in terms of praxis. While distinguishing orthodoxy and orthopraxis might be helpful in terms of conversation or reflection, but in actual day to day reality or ministy personally I think the interaction is much more dynamic. My 2 cents in bold

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Postcolonial Orthodoxy

In the context of Asia, evangelicalism very much represents the body of faith propositions that has historically been bequeathed in all its orthodoxy by missionaries who arrived on our local shores during the colonial era. It very much consists of that which has been enunciated by the western community of faith.

To some people being an “evangelical” may mean you are safe or you are REALLY a Christian. Most Christians in the pew as far as I know might not be that aware of the historical-ness of evangelicalism in Asia. This would be the same like if I say I’m a Lutheran. There’s no way we can rewind the clock as far as our colonial past is concerned (or as far as how western Christianity has shaped us or still continues to shape us). But I think recognizing the dynamics that led us to where we are now as far as our theological and ministrial models is concerned in some sense critically is a good place to start. And we must start somewhere ….

There is nothing wrong with a body of propositions that has become a time-honoured legacy of Christianity in one’s nation. And yet, at some point of maturity, a community begins to question the absence of its own rhetorical constructions of the faith. It finds itself to have inherited much of the language, together with the resulting theological battles, of a community that lies yonder. And it wonders if perhaps it can find a manner of enunciation of its faith that is more resonant with its own cultural realities. Whilst most find greater security in persisting with familiar rhetorics and delineations, an increasing dissonance is seen emerging.

I think space is needed to re-examine the “constructions” or “formulations” (Thanks to Dr. Vinay Samuel for this helpful insight) of the Gospel we have inherited. And for me personally, the journey had begun when I re-examined my “Pentecostal/Charismatic” formulations of the Gospel, and then to some degree the “Evangelical” formulations … maybe a little bit on “Liberal” formulations (I recognize these “labels” may mean many things to many people but I’ll just use them as short hand descriptions of my journey). The immediate gut reaction is .. are we heading into an abyss of uncertianty and cutting off our “foundations” which the past has given us? but perhaps it’s more of a desire to move into some kind of maturity where we begin to shed some “formulations” and construct fresh “formulations” while engaged in our contexts. This might mean new language and thought forms and models of ministry or at least it will be a more nuanced understanding of past formulations. The will be some ambiguity in our quest but it’s a necessary valley to pass through … we simply cannot ignore it. This ambiguity forces us to place a greater trust in God, the Spirit’s leading and the relevance of the Scripture, the need for an accountability in community. While some may not see the necessity of walking this path, some of us are walking it anyway.

It is for this reason that some of us have now begun speaking of postcolonialism in our theological exercises. I would like to distinctly contribute a new concept to this enterprise: postcolonial orthodoxy. In skimming through much of postcolonial literature, it may appear that much of its ideas constitute replicated articulations of postmodern thought. As a result, this has caused aroused much suspicion within the circle of those more comfortable with familiar classical evangelical rhetorics. In the light of this reality, I am advancing the term postcolonial orthodoxy to emphatically point out two arguments: 1) that postcolonial theology and theological orthodoxy are not mutually exclusive; and 2) that orthodoxy is not a claim that belongs solely to evangelical theology. Furthermore, while the articulation of both postcolonial thought and postmodern thought may seem to employ similar ideas, there exists an undeniable and indelible historical context in which each of these moods arose. We are, inevitably, products of our times.

Taking seriously the critique of postcolonial and postmodern thought is in some ways scary because where does the critique end. Does that mean that there’s nothing left for us to hold on to (after the critique of modernity and colonialism)? However, the fact that “we are in the world and not of it”. We need not fear allowing some of our “treasured” formulations or rhetoric to fade away or in some cases take a back seat. e.g. just because my formulation on my trust in revelation of God through the Scriptures and how the theology discovered in 66 books of the Bible is not articulated in certain “evangelical rhetoric” like the classi inerrancy debate does not mean that I don’t take the Scriptures seriously or I have thrown it away as far as the norm of our faith is concerned. On a personal end, I find myself reading, studying, and meditating more of the Scripture than I had during the “safety” of previous formulations. I’ve also found myself more enriched by the interaction of the “text” with my current “context” widening my more “spiritualized” reading in the past. But, then seriously here’s my confession, I only knew about the “inerrancy” debate while in seminary. So, while I am beginning to understand why this an important discussion at some point, I believe in a variety on how we understand Scripture and it’s relationship to our theologizing and ministry outworkings not bound by the boundaries set by the above debate is necessary. My confidence in Scriptural revelation is not affected by this questioning. Of course, I found that putting a strong emphasis on the person of Christ and the ongoing work of the Spiritin community and history keeps my reflection anchored and not going off tangen (at least from my point of view).

Western evangelical theology is by and large the result of the western community’s experience of and engagement with the being of God. It is confronted by the sheer self-revelatory nature of God and seeks to speak of this confrontation by means of its cultural rhetorics. We in Asia must seek to do the same. This is essentially even more so when the Asian culture finds within its history a legacy of religious paradigms that speak of following a person rather than a mere body of propositions.

I think in my less organized way, I tried to allude above that I agree fully with Sherman’s statement here: “We in Asia must seek to do the same. This is essentially even more so when the Asian culture finds within its history a legacy of religious paradigms that speak of following a person rather than a mere body of propositions.” (emphasis mine). In my own preaching, teaching and ministry I found this most liberating from a spirituality level as the “personal” dimension of faith is accented strongly (without denying the body of propositions of course). I think this emphasis is crucial as I see it as a move that causes us not just to be more in touch with our humanity (and it’s sinfulness) but more so in touch with the reality of a personal God specifically in Christ. This move also affects how I relate to the people around me as well as the cries of the world. Perhaps it’s not so much of denying “content” as far as our following Jesus is concerned, but more of accenting the “relational”-ness more than the “rational-ness”. Or better, it’s a relational rationality. This helps me when I’m sitting in a Bible study and my young Christian friend is still learning to grasp the riches of the Scripture and see the value of their struggle and trusting in the Spirit’s work in this study process. Perhaps it’s plain patience and no hurry to have all the answers sorted out too quickly.

This is of course not to say that propositions are redundant. I am also not advancing the claim that western faith propositions are irrelevant for the Asian Christians. The primary concern here is that the western methodology of theological language has often been taken to be universal beyond question. Whilst propositions are gradually inevitable in a community’s engagement with the person of God, my concern is that we may have been riding on borrowed propositions as a way of evading the more tedious enterprise of constructing propositions that are more truly consistent with the Asian paradigm of faith. This problem presents the need for us to recover the Asian religious inclinations towards a relational faith so as to enable us to subsequently progress towards an authentically Asian propositional expression of the faith.

As Asians, it’s a start in reclaiming our heritage perhaps in terms of our paradigm of faith. Of course, in a global world, I also see my Western friends seeing the inadequacy of their own formulations and they are in some sense engaged in an enterprise of constructing propositions that are more truly consistent with their current context. This is where we as Asians must be careful not to become insular (in reaction to the our past or current influence from the west) and have confidence to engage our brothers and sisters from Africa, Latin America as well as Europe and North America (let’s not forget the Aussies and New Zealanders, etc). There’s no need to impose any of our formulations on anyone but we can share them as our gift to each other and see what happens.

Perhaps this lingering intimidation within some segments of Asian Christians arises from the fear of pandering to heresy if they were to embark on a creative journey of Asian theological constructions (which are often mistaken as “postmodern” efforts). This fear could perhaps be partially mitigated by the concept of postcolonial orthodoxy, that the almagamation of the two terms need not be perceived as being oxymoronic after all.

I applaud the need to “embark on a creative journey of Asian theological constructions” and I think part and parcel of this journey involves constructions (or even structural and concrete expressions) in terms of church life and engagement with the world because close to my heart at least I see a close relation with postcolonial orthodoxy and postcolonial orthopraxis. To me it’s more of I’m aware of how we inherited some of these structures or expressions but I’m also open to change them as I engage in my time and place of ministry more. This is not change for change sake (or some pomo fad!), but a desire to take ownership of how the Christian faith can be rooted and grow in our soil (or better to be claimed by God allowing God to plant us deeper where we are at here and now!).

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