Talking about “Universal Particularities?”

My friend Sherman Kuek has a new surge of blogging energy before his engagement … which is a good sign, It’s concentrated here in Universal Particularities? for a start.

For me it’s interesting how this “contextual” bit needs to be stressed in his blog. Perhaps not so much for those who are already aware that all theology by any human being on this planet earth whether formally or informally is carried out in particular contexts. It’s plain honest admission and needed awareness.

I wonder is the unspoken problem being addressed here is that there are still many in our Malaysian context who struggle to see this fact? And the temptation is to jump into making assertions as if what we say and think IS untainted, pure and totally objective? And is there a fear of admitting that means we have lost confidence in the Gospel?

After walking out of a Christian bookstore this week, I left being thankful of the many good resources in English that we have in Malaysia (at least in the Klang Valley). But I couldn’t help see that we are still flooded with much material from the helpful as well as not so helpful which arise from contexts which are not from our soil. Now this does not mean we cannot learn from them, but I wonder in the long run are we unconsciously and even uncritically taking all if not most of what is contain in those pages as normative to our church, christian life and thinking?

Surely, being reactionary and ignoring these books for example would only make us “frogs at the bottom of the well” (to allude to a Malay saying). But have we not come to a place where we can write, produce and share our own reflections (albeit even in conversation with the best of thoughts from afar).

Of course, for me as a pastor, it came to a point where I needed to re-orientate my mind a little in this process. And even come to a place where when i say “I think we can understand this or that from our angle” not in any prideful reactionary mode but in a mode freed from a mind which may have allowed myself to be “colonized” by the agenda of those who probably never did have our context in mind when they penned those words into those pages (not that I expect them to all the time).

I know it can be painful for some of us when we allow for our beliefs to be re-examined (Note: this is a careful and respectful process for some of us, because it’s not mere intellectual exercises but genuine spiritual searching!). The context forces new questions for us, e.g. how is one initiated into the reign of God? How does one begin to follow Jesus? I was taught it begins with “saying the sinner’s prayer”, and today I still see value in encouraging people to pray no matter what stage they are in .. whether in the beginning, half-way or at the end of their earthly lives. But then once we go on a course of re-examining often with the practices, then we will soon ask questions about spirituality which leads to theology.

When all these questions surface, a hunger and thirst arises to be on a quest to find answers. In in some cases, re-examining even our questions. And this whole process is an expression of our love for God and life.

As a Christ-follower, I found myself returning to the Gospels again and allow Jesus to confront the ways I may or may not have domesticated him. I’ve always been delightfully kicked by the prophetic literature in the Old Testament. The wisdom books have grown in its relevance to a lot of the practicalities of our searching. I listened to the whole letter to the Ephesians in the car a while ago and was re-hearing afresh how the order of relationships in the family and in the workplace have been injected with new meaning because of the impact of the Gospel upon all spheres of life.

Early on in seminary, the desert fathers reminded me how early Christians wrestled with their context, and through out history we have stories and samples on how different people work our their responses in heart and mind. We continue in their line when we do the same here and now in our contexts. Regurgitating the past or having a nostalgic and naive view of church history isn’t going to take is far (in fact we might be drawn backwards)

There’s surely more that I’d like to say … but we cannot and must not “close our minds” before we’ve “opened” to all the best as well as the worst lessons we need to plough through. This is a self-critical process as well … which needs to be done in conversation and in community with friends along the same path as well as critics as well.

The problem I see is that we in Malaysia at least (can’t speak for Asia) may have often fallen in to the disempowering position of privileging theologies (as well as methodologies) risen from foreign contexts and lost the confidence in our own engagement with the Scriptures, discernment of the Spirit, and listening to our cultures and contexts seriously. I look at my own bookshelf and recognize how easily I’m also trapped in my own critique. And yet, I believe and imagine a new future invading our present.

I seem to hear the Spirit calling us … can we hear the voice of God whispering to us?

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One Response to Talking about “Universal Particularities?”

  1. Alex Tang says:

    Sivin, I cannot agree with your post more. One important point you have mentioned, and I will like to re-emphasise is “contextualisation.” Contextualisation of our faith is the key issue we must address. However, contextualisation comes with its accompanying danger. That is why many churches view the emerging church movement with suspicions. They wonder how far will the emerging church goes with their contextualisation.

    As you know, one extreme of contextualisation is liberal theory, allowing culture to define the Gospel and pan-theism. This is what they are worried about and is also my concern.

    On the other hand, not doing contextualisation and adopting theologies wholesale from the West is not healthy either.

    Another point you brought up is that local Christians need to write and publish their works. It is tough because no publishers wants to publish local authors and local Christians look down on local authors (Can anything good come out of Nazerene?). Those in the academia in Malaysia are not prolific in their output and neither are those in the pastoral or even laypeople. I know most of local publications are not up to the mark but we need to start somewhere.

    I pray that we …can hear the voice of God whispering to us.

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