eMo 2006.6 Notes: A Post-Colonial Kind of Christian

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Alwyn Lau is always the fastest and well-articulate participant and blogger of our conversations thus far. Here is his blog post A Post-Colonial Kind of Christian for yesterday (check out the comments too).

“Well, that’s two firsts for me today at the Emergent Malaysia meeting in BLC.

I’ve never met an Orthodox monk before, so it was a pleasure to hear Father Daniel Toyne’s succint outlining of the Orthodox position and distinctiveness. I plan to blog more on this later, but this post will be more about the second ‘never before’ of my Saturday: Listening to Sherman Kuek speak on post-colonial orthodoxy.

Post-colonial orthodoxy is about rethinking what it means to live, think, work and witness as Christians in post-colonial territories (there was one British and two Americans among us, which added to some of the humourous dynamics cropping up here and there), yet doing so within the acceptable bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

Sherman explained upfront – after showing some eye-catching slides of depictions of Jesus throughout the world, very nice! (see the Chinese and African depictions above) – that he intends to raise more questions and problems than give concrete answers and solutions, given that post-colonialism is very much an evolving consciousness far from any hint of a final form, especially in theology. He also noted that post-colonialism is itself not exclusively Asian i.e. African and South American theologians will doubtless think differently. And even within Asia itself, we find a kaleidoscope of beliefs and worldviews (which forms the basis of why Sherman thinks that focusing on post-modernity may be somewhat premature in Asia: How can one talk about what comes after the phenomenon called “modernity” when this phenomenon is as superficial, “washed ashore on Asia’s coasts” as Sherman puts in, as it’s manifestations are manifold?)

But to get straight into the discussion, Sherman offered three guiding principles to rethink theology within an Asian context (and at this point I’ll note that whilst I wish to see how “Asian post-colonial theology”, as Sherman has introduced it, differs from “Asian theology” or the significance if these are in fact two synonymous terms, I still appreciate the term and look forward to its further development) :

1. The first principle is pluralism, almost a ‘bad word’ in evangelical traditions, but a necessary (missional?) trajectory if one is build bridges to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists and Confucionists with their unique understanding of monotheism, karma, enlightenment, cosmic balance, social order and so on. If nothing else, perhaps this is a call for us to frame our questions and answers in ways which makes sense to the worldviews (and worlds) of our listeners.

If I could throw in a pence or two here, I recall reading Joel Green and Mark Baker’s insightful Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in Contemporary Contexts, where the authors suggest that the ‘Western’ account of sin would have received far less attention in Japan, than would the Asian idea of shame. Pitching Anselm, Calvin or what-have-you in the Land of the Rising Sun may be akin to trying to convince sushi-eating people that fish-‘n-chips is what they really should be going for (maybe that’s a bad analogy but I think you get the idea).

I’m manipulating (helpfully, I hope) some of Sherman’s thoughts here, but I’d like to suggest that the call to incorporate (cautiously, no doubt) pluralism into Christian theology resonates well with the call to reexamine evangelicalism’s evangelistic paradigms and scope of engagement (two of four points on ‘Evangelical Shifting’ blogged by Sherman earlier).

Over against an over-emphasis on conversion, numerical growth and factory-like efficiency which tend to objectify persons as mere ‘souls’ to be won, Sherman proposes a comeback to dignifying people. I recall a non-Christian friend telling me many years ago that he doesn’t want to become an evangelistic project. Wow. That such terminology could arise from people outside the church ought to be cause for reflection and, maybe, repentance on our part.

The Christian offer of salvation also should go beyond, well, the ‘Christian’ offer of salvation which has usually meant being saved for heaven and little else. Reconciliation with God also entails reconciliation with creation and community. Positive moves here might include combining a talk on Jesus’ Lordship and the call to surrender to it with a strong ecological message? Or moving social, health or political concerns (instead of personal sin) to the top of the agenda of an evangelistic rally?

2. Sherman then talked a little about the multi-faceted nature of Asian thinking. This is the part which resonated most with my post-modern explorations (despite the dissimilar priorities he and I have regarding post-modernism). Western thinking is more linear, either/or; Asians think in circular, parallel manner, accepting both/and. The West treasures propositional dogma and system over and above relational authenticity and intuition. Asian values the latter over the former.

Whilst such pairings are controversial and doubtless some would say that Sherman is dealing with false dichotomy here, I found myself nodding, especially given the boundary-making tendencies prevalent in Western theological mindset: “A Christ-like life isn’t worth much if you don’t believe the right things, we’ll still consider you a heretic.” (along with the requisite appeal to Galatians, no less) On the contrary, I suspect it’ll be difficult to find Buddhists or Hindus ex-communicating each other over a matter of doctrine, as long as the requisite rituals and festivals are observed. (And yes, I am over-simplifying matters somewhat but I think often one must ZOOM OUT in order to get a good view of the differences, even at the cost of sacrificing some granularity and detail).

I think this factor aligns well with the rexamination of evangelical epistemology. A milestone suggestion by Sherman here, IMO, is that truth is universal whereas truth-claims are not(!). I think this creatively emphasizes the post-propositional nature of truth and how little attention evangelicalism has given to it, whilst acknowledging, as Sherman did throughout his presentation, that logic and proposition are necessary even in proposals to go beyond this).

As an example, Sherman echoes my views on the near-irrelevance or non-necessity of the doctrine of inerrancy, which he believes dies the death of a thousand qualifications (to be fair, he limits this to an Asian context whereas I think it plays throughout the world. I’m also beginning to think that what Sherman says about Asia I tend to view as more or less true globally given the advent of post-modernism. But this is another story…*smile*) Yet, thank God, an Asian Christian like him doesn’t NEED this doctrine for him to accept the authority of Scripture. It’s intuitive i.e. no strict logic or proof or argument needed. The certainty arises from the community – why insist on less secure footing such as logical argument?

3. The third factor a post-colonial orthodoxy should bear in mind is what Sherman called the Great Tradition. I suppose this is the ‘anchor’ to ensure that however far one explores the territory away from one’s historical roots, one ought to remember the value and contributions of not only one’s predecessors, but also the others who have ventured into new paths of their own. We journey to the ends of the world, but we do not severe ties with Judea and Samaria, much less Jerusalem.

I think this is another way of saying that whilst we’re living waaaaay ahead in the story of God, we would do well to remember that we’re still IN and PART OF a wonderful story and so our lives must reflect all the beauty, power, love and truth of God’s people throughout time i.e. all the characters since the first chapter. The spiritual life is a storied life and the storied Christian life is a dramatic unfolding and pushing forward to a glorious climax of God’s victory in full learning and humility about what came before, what promises were given, and what it means to ‘progress’ along the narrative.

Post-colonial (or Asian?) orthodoxy is about digging deeper (into our culture and our spiritual history) to find new resources we need to navigate the world’s challenges and fulfil our God-given mission. This can be scary as it often requires rethinking and reconstructing our identity, the core of who we are in Christ.

At the very least, it’s a strive, almost a pilgrimage, towards authenticity. And this, one hopes, is always a good thing, no matter where you are. East or West.”

thanks Alwyn for being our “official-unofficial” emergent Malaysia scribe.

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