Thursday, October 14, 2004

Water Buffalo Theology: Introduction and Chapter 1


During Spring 2003 on the old United Church of Christ forums we discussed a trio of books about missiology; on this blog I've already posted some of my thoughts upon reading

The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality by Alan J. Roxburgh was the last book of our missionary trilogy.

water buffalo theology coverWater Buffalo Theology by Kosuke Koyam, published by Orbis Books), was the first book we talked about, and since I've already referred to it several times on this site, over the next few days I'll post some of the chapter-by-chapter ideas I had when we read it and, because now I'm reading the book again, maybe I'll have more ideas! The thumbnail description of WBT would say it's about the Christian-Buddhist dialogue and would describe it as both liberation theology and ecological theology. Since these days I haven't done much on the other ideas I'm currently thinking about, I'm planning to share some of our discussion of Lesslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture as well. Our discussions, all expertly moderated by Marian Conning, were wonderful, and I'm taking advantage of having the time to revisit these books as well as taking advantage of the convenience of what's essentially online file storage.

Part I: Interpreting History

Chapter 1: Theological Situations in Asia and the Mission of the Church

1. Part 1

As we keep learning all the time, "contextualization" is the jumping-off point in "doing" theology! And should be where we begin as practical and as academic theologians, anywhere and at anytime...just as the prophets, Jesus and the disciples combined theory (the written Torah) and urgent, passionate activism. Of course a few of them acted first and thought afterwards

The Hong Kong situation appealed to me mightily both as a "case study" - must be that one-time wannabe social worker in me :p - and in terms of my own tendencies and propensities. The Jeremiah 29 passage Professor Koyama cites is one I frequently quote to myself! It's both the original source of "bloom where you're planted!" and it's practical, down-to-earth direction for living shalom-ly with self, with neighbor and with stranger. He speaks of making "life meaningful and Christian (=slow) in the context of time running out" and oh, how that does apply to a hasty people like the people of Hong Kong and many developing, modernized cultures and societies and economies (is "modernization" still a viable concept?).

I also love his emphasis on the groundedness of a truly biblical lifestyle...although Singaporeans were his illustration of the people living ungroundedly high in the sky and out of reach of earthiness (humility?), the very same rationale could be made for the denizens of Hong Kong!

Where can Hong Kong celebrate their "slow" (=Christian) thanksgiving / homecoming liturgy? Not in the parking lot or heliport, Koyama asserts, and with that I agree. But in some ways it doesn't get any more post-urban-industrial or even more post-modern than Hong Kong, so is a physical return to the earthiness of soil necessary or even possible?

1. Part 2

One specific, contextual issue in my own life and ministry? Well, yes...I'll mention a couple things. First, Koyama's observing that doing the Word doesn't begin with Augustine, Barth and Rahner (though I've long been a major fan of Barth's), but you gotta "discard abstract ideas" for "immediately tangible" objects...IOW, to paraphrase the author, it's about enabling prophetic encounter between God's Word and God's World! I gotta get out of the way, because it's more than about history and about culture, more than about simple accommodation to where my people are: I'd call it sacramental, though he doesn't express it so.

When I served in the inner city I found getting out of the way far easier than I do here in San Diego, possibly because the inner city setting was more congruent with my own life and experiences and understandings. Here in San Diego, all too often I find myself self-conscious about emphatically making my point about everything. As I frequently mention, God takes us out of our comfort zone so often, it can be helpful if the basic situation is comfortable, since it's guaranteed not to remain that way for long!

Again from my own experience: although compared with the lives of our 3rd and 4th world sisters and brothers I've always had a relatively abundant diet and, by grace, despite some financially and otherwise precarious times I've never lacked physical shelter, some time ago I experienced a series of significant losses and subsequently for several years I sensed what felt like a real loss of self as well as a lack of the life giving and life enabling refuge, shelter and sanctuary of Christian community.

Although several years have passed since that time, I'm a way different person than I was before then!

His question on page 18 regarding the relationship of accommodation to proclamation, syncretism and "iconoclasticism" (iconoclasm?) is something we all need to be considering, all the time.

Part 1

...the relationship of accommodation to proclamation, syncretism and "iconoclasticism" (iconoclasm?)...

Regarding the "symbols" of a culture - whether we're in Thailand or in Nebraska, somewhere in California or Amsterdam, learning, knowing and appreciating those "symbols" (both ours and theirs) and having at least some clue about their meaning is essential before we even begin dialogue with anyone "not like us." Here's a place to note when I think of the courses I've formally taken in school that have been most useful and influential to me, my two semester of cultural anthropology (Introductory and Anthropology of Religion) at UMassBoston definitely are up there in my top half-dozen.

Before writing about
...the relationship of accommodation to...
I want to say something about cultural symbols, because before we can recognize any kind of relatedness, we need to know what's relating to what!

As Christians and as the Church we live in a Christian context and our official, formal symbols are the scriptures and the sacraments. But how about the symbolic meaning of potluck dinners, church council meetings, committees, talk and talk and more talk, social and political activism? An individual Christian's or congregation's symbols also may include a particular social, political or theological image within or vis-à-vis the community; it may include friendliness or even exclusiveness. You catch my drift! The list is long, and many times we're not remotely aware of what to outsiders may be the most obvious and evident symbols of our culture - or our church - which is one reason studying cultural anthropology can be so helpful

In Thailand it's sticky-rice, bananas, rainy season; in Maine maybe it includes blueberries, lobsters. For San Diego: Big Box retailers (like the rest of the country), surfers and surfing, our rainy and dry seasons, desert, ocean, sun, sky - and a tremendous concentration of material wealth.

Attached to every symbol is a corresponding meaning. If the meaning ceases to be important, the symbol itself will fade and die, as well.

Part 2:

Proclamation: every entity proclaims and declares something, if only be the fact of its existence, but our Christian kerygma tells about our holy God's incarnation into the longitude, latitude and linear time of human history and of a particular culture and the ensuing reality of the death of death itself in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the One we know as the Christ of God. And the same God Whose passion from the beginning has been to journey with the people, continues incarnate in the Church, the Body of the Risen Christ, and still accompanies the people on their journey in the longitudes, latitudes and linear time of human history and now within many diverse cultures.

Syncretism: In his preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition, Koyama says a couple of extremely revealing things: everyone everywhere inevitably read the Bible from their own experience's perspective (he was citing the situation of folks who knew the Upanishads), and he insists the gospel demonstrates its power in the pluralism within Christianity. There's little or nothing original within Christianity, but I've long been convinced the synthesis is unique! But the "syncretism" concern is how far can our basic proclamation extend? We know Jesus promises to draw all to himself, but one of the major problems in evangelism everywhere is to what extent the new Jesus people need to divest themselves of their former allegiances.

"Iconoclasticism" (iconoclasm?): I'll stay with the more familiar "iconoclasm!" As computer users we're really familiar with icons, but originally an icon was a static, fixed representation worthy of veneration. God's proscribed against image-making in order to lessen the likelihood people would worship the fixed and unmoving rather than the lively and dynamic. But, as you probably know, any society's or cultures icons hold a great deal in common with their symbols, and like Israel's Golden Calf often need to be shattered and destroyed, which brings us full circle back to:

Proclamation! Because for us, as Christians, Jesus Christ is over all, in all and with all.

More thoughts about Hong Kong, homecoming and us:

Where can Hong Kong celebrate their "slow" (=Christian) thanksgiving / homecoming liturgy? Not in the parking lot or heliport, Koyama asserts, and with that I agree. I've already said it doesn't get any more post-urban-industrial or post-modern than Hong Kong, and I am unconvinced a physical return to the earthiness of soil is either necessity or possibility.

To respond to this I'll start with the author's claim (page 18), "Jakarta is as central as Jerusalem and London in the mission of the Risen Lord." And he says this immediately after insisting on Jesus' charge recorded in Matthew 16:24 - we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, IOW, live with the "crucified mind," in order to "participate in authentic contextualization." Though initially it may sound astounding to make Jakarta or anywhere else "as central as Jerusalem," if the person and work of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is not for Jakarta just as much as it is for Jerusalem, he truly is not and cannot be Lord of all.

Hong Kong will be able to celebrate homecoming (after all, isn't homecoming the ultimate thanksgiving?) within a community gathered not only to perfunctorily and ritually evoke the presence of the risen Christ in Word and Sacrament, but when that gathered people attests to the presence of the Christ in each another: having gone slowly enough to know and to call each others' names, having gotten sufficiently grounded to ignore at least some of the babble of commerce and consumerism, having decided to "seek the welfare of the city" (city="civilization") where they are rather than seeking the wellbeing of their purses and properties: looking outward to the other's interests and inward to an authentic, relational and re-creative self. The "crucified mind" can be as basic as looking to others' interests rather than our own…seems elementary, but in my own life simple inconveniences can cause me considerable distress.

We're baptized into the cross, and must never, ever forget that reality.

Truly knowing and calling another's name happens only when a person has slowed down…if you're going to live in Hong Kong, an actual return to the soil won't be possible, and some people may decide to go elsewhere, go where they can touch and smell and feel the good ground. Although I always, always try to avoiding over-spiritualizing Jesus' life and mission - and the Church's life and mission - still, I believe earth, soil and ground can serve well as metaphors for the individual's attitude and that of the community, for a spiritual earthiness, realness and groundedness. Recall that what we're reading is ecological theology as much as it is liberation theology...

Though I said I wanted to respond to the question on page 18 about the relationship between accommodation and proclamation, syncretism and "iconoclasticism" (iconoclasm?), when I looked at my notes and the book's text, I noticed Professor Koyama also asks, "How do we understand accommodation in the mission of the church: in the church structure, in liturgy, in theology?" I won't attempt to answer that now, but it sounds like a subject for a series of books!

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