Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Neither Eastern nor Western

Written by: on May 7, 2015

Asian Jesus

I have been in school for a long time, not only as a student, but also as a teacher. Knowledge and information runs through my academic veins. I like to know things. But the more I know, the less I realize I know. And this is particularly true with the study of theology. What do we really know? Who is right? Who is wrong? Who makes it into heaven? Is it one’s theological orthodoxy that makes that happen? The older I get the more I tend to reject that notion. So when I see another book on theology, you can just imagine my excitement – or lack thereof. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that this is not important grist for the mill; rather, I am just wondering how much good theology alone does the human heart, the human soul. Are there better things that Christians should be doing with their time than grappling with theological ABC’s? I wonder if anyone else feels this way? Am I just a lazy thinker? Or am I just tired of mulling over trivialities? Lest I be misunderstood, I thought this week’s reading by Simon Chan was an important read. It was refreshing to step outside a Western paradigm for a change. However, I still felt that I was reading a Western theologian at times.

One line of thinking that was interesting in the reading has to do with the issues of divine immanence and transcendence. How far or near is God in relation to the world? I have wrestled with this question for decades and have been on both sides of the spectrum on this issue – both as a conservative and a liberal Christian for 50 years. Chan makes an excellent point about immanence when he writes about context in Chapter 2.

Context plays a critical role in deciding which side of the contrast is to be preferred. In a culture of optimism in the nineteenth century, fostered by material prosperity and military power and supported the theory of evolutionary progress, the accent fell heavily on God’s immanence: God must be present in our world, perhaps even on our side! This was how European colonial expansion was justified. But by the mid-twentieth century after the shattering experience of two world wars, optimism turned into despair. Immanence was now replaced by an absent “God,” who for many meant no God at all.[1]

For Asia, Chan says, the theological issue is not whether or not God exists; rather, the issue is “how to make sense of the Christian understanding of God in contexts filled with a plethora of vastly different conceptions of deity.”[2] Chan then looks at these various views. In particular, he looks at God from both Islamic and Hindu perspectives. He also looks specifically at God in Chinese contexts and God in a primal religious context. This discussion of pragmatics, in particular, caught my eye. Chan says that in this context the gods or spirits are not only worshipped but are sought after especially for prosperity and for general protection.[3] As I read this, a question crossed my mind. Don’t we Christians do the same thing at times? Don’t we share these pragmatic impulses? Don’t we tend to rejoice when God answers our prayer for a close parking space? But do we thank God for the exercise we get if we have to walk from the far corner of the Costco parking lot since there were no spaces in front? Was God present then, when my prayer wasn’t answered? And what about healing? If we pray for healing but do not get our “wish,” does that mean that God is not there? Or might it mean that my faith is deficient? Or might it mean nothing at all? These issues of immanence and transcendence are all around us. And whether we realize it or not, the most orthodox Christian theologian has elements of “folk Christianity” in his or her system of theology. None of us has this all figured out. And if we think we do, we are only fooling ourselves.

I thought it was interesting that Pentecostalism was having such success in Asia. This form of theology reminded me of the Vineyard movement from our final text during spring semester. But even in Asia, Pentecostalism has its problems. According to Chan, it is not likely that an educated Buddhist would find Pentecostalism that attractive, although that person might be unable to escape from its primal religious context.[4]

Chan then covers other theological concerns, namely: humanity and sin, Christ and salvation, the Holy Spirit and spirituality, and ecclesiology. Again, there are particular ways of understanding these doctrines in an Asian context. For example, in cultures that are sensitive to issues of shame and saving face, how are personal sin and the substitutionary atonement of Christ understood? And what about the Eucharist? What about personal conversion? And what about the essence of the Trinitarian God that is so much a part of Orthodox Christian belief? These are all issues that take time to unpack, to understand, to commit oneself to. None of these are easily imputed to one who does not think in Western paradigms. But is Christianity Western or Eastern? Or is it neither? Is there only one way of understanding these matters? Can an Eastern mind conform to a Western construct? Or does it need to? These are issues that I believe are beyond a theologian’s abilities to fully grasp or explain. Some of this must be relegated to the realm of great mystery, to a realm only understood by the Holy Spirit. For many Christians, this is hard to do. How much do I have to have “figured out” for me to be a Christian? Perhaps we would have to seek wiser theologians than I to find the answer to these questions. What are your thoughts on these matters?

[1] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014) 47-48.

[2] Ibid., 48.

[3] Ibid., 59.

[4] Ibid., 61.

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

7 responses to “Neither Eastern nor Western”

  1. Deve Persad says:

    Hey there professor, that is quite a list of question that you have posed. So challenging is each one, it’s hard to know where to begin. I particularly gravitate toward this one though: “How much do I have to have “figured out” for me to be a Christian?” – I am continually challenged by Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well (John 4). She is so changed by her discovery that God is present that she returns with joy to tell her community! Much like one of the blind men healed by Jesus, “I was blind but now I see.” Sometimes I wonder if we have placed theological mountains that are unscalable for the average person; when it may be that what God wants is for them to simply understand that He is present with them and that they have a story to tell out of that presence….those are my thoughts…thanks for the questions.

    • Deve,

      As always you have a gentle way of bringing things back to truth and simplicity. Thanks for sharing here. Very encouraging!

      Heaven, I believe will be filled with people at different levels of theological knowledge. But the reality will be that all of them will realize how little they know. Seeing Jesus will be the final spiritual equalizer. What a great thought. Will there ever be a day that all our questions are answered or will there always be more questions? I personally doubt very much that we will suddenly have all the answers, even in eternity, since we will still be created beings. Just my thoughts.

  2. Julie Dodge says:

    I, like you, struggled with much of this book. I like your comfort in mystery, because I think there has to be mystery or God is too small. I rest in the knowledge that He IS, and that there will come a day when everything will be clear. Until that day, I think that is inportant to understand how to live out faith in God knowing that He is understood in different ways indifferent cultures. I think these perspectives can enhance or increase our understanding of who God is or might be. Nice work, Bill.

    • Julie,

      Thanks for relating to my post. I appreciate your words.

      Yes, I too am resting in the knowledge that He IS. What else can we do really anyways. We have such a limited perspective as humans. I am glad that God has given us minds to think and minds that can ask all the questions we have and that God does not freak out when we do have doubts. Ultimately, I do not doubt Him, but I doubt theologians who have it all together. Perhaps that is why theology books sometimes get under my skin.

      Have a good week. Would still like to get together sometime. Any days but Tuesday usually work well. Let me know.

  3. John Woodward says:

    Bill, I always love your posts because you are so darn honest! I appreciate your take on the book in general, and theology specifically. You sound tired to me!

    I guess I have a whole different take on theology — possibly because I have always felt like an outsider (never having taken Bible or theology courses until this program), so have been a life-long learner. It is a part of my nature, I guess. So, viewing things from different perspectives, hashing over new ideas and being challenged in my perspectives is always a fun exercise for me! In answer to your question, “How much do I have to have “figured out” for me to be a Christian?” I don’t think we need to have a whole lot figured out – then the Gospel would only be for the “elite” (as Chan calls them). But like anything else, the more we know the richer will be our experience (like with Art, Literature, Relationships, and a lot of other areas of life). Since most theology is new to me…I am like a kid in a candy shop, I can’t get enough! Maybe some day I will get overstuffed and need a break (a diet?) from theology! But, understand where you are coming from! And always love your posts! Thanks!

    • Thanks for your comments, John.

      We are on opposite ends of theological education. I would rather be where you are than where I am on this subject. Once theology becomes too familiar is when there is danger. I would rather be you, where I want more. I must admit that I do feel that way about my Native studies, especially about Native spirituality. I want more every time I study this, especially when I study the Great Mystery. This fascinates me.

      Can’t wait for us to talk about all of this next month. It will be a very enlightening time.

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Bill, great post. You have stayed real and true to the importance of asking questions. I believe that Chan is also encouraging people who are from the elitists side of theology to consider the same questions you’ve put forward since most of the time theologians tend to have an answer, what Mitch is his post called a “pre-fabricated” theology.

    Thank you

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