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Developing a Local Theology – Asia and Beyond

Written by: on May 9, 2015

In the preface to Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the faith from the ground up, Simon Chan heightens one’s reading expectations. Although the title implies a study on Asian theology, Chan holds out the spectra of developing an “authentic” and “vibrant” theology “that will yield a better theology for the Asian church and perhaps the global church as well.”[1] Chan notes the perspective of an ancient church father, St. Prosper of Aquitaine, that belief is expressed through worship and prayer. The church’s participation in prayer and worship is the articulation of their belief or theology. Aquitaine’s Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, is the church engaging “belief in a way that simply thinking about God or studying the faith does not naturally do. In other words, in an act of worship, the faithful are in dialogue with God and are engaged in an active and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”[2]

It is significant that Chan provides more than a perception or an interpretation on Asian theology. The author’s approach to “thinking the faith from the ground up” expresses well the concept of a “grassroots” theology made up of “lived experiences.” This is true in the context of Asian culture but in other world cultures as well. Chan states “Contextual theologies emerge as the church lives out its given script in new situations. In other words, theology is first a lived experience of the church before it is a set of ideas formulated by church theologians.”[3] The practice of prayer and worship should determine the statement of belief.[4]

Chan’s presentation on and application of methodologies opens an abundance of concepts that relate to contextualizing the gospel in local culture. How do we develop a local theology? What has theology and local culture to do with each other? We live in an era of globalization where culture, multicultural, crosscultural, multiethnic and contextualizing the gospel are concepts that communities of faith (the local church) encounter in everyday ministry. Theology must engage people in everyday life. To paraphrase Chan, “a local theology is the Christian Faith in a local context.”[5]

These concepts are reminiscent of the faith and theology concepts in Who needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen. Grenz and Olsen recognize that “anyone who reflects on life’s ultimate questions … is a theologian.” In addition, “theology is seeking to understand with the intellect what the heart … already believes and is committed to.”[6] In a similar manner, Chan notes that “Theology comes as much from the Laity … as it does from the theologian.”[7] In Who Needs Theology, the authors present theology on a spectrum from folk theology to academic theology; authenticity is determined by the extent of deliberative reflection coupled with the willingness to pursue the goal to deeply understand one’s beliefs.[8]

Spectrum of Reflection--

Deliberative theology leads to constructive contextual application. Theological beliefs are relevant to contemporary culture. “Good theology is never content to remain on the theoretical level; it always affects life.”[9]

Chan presents a similar concept in relating “lived theology” and “elitist theology.” He notes that the ecclesial experience (meaning the lived-out beliefs of the church) ought to be central to primary theology. “The task of the professional theologian is not to tell the church what is good for it but to listen carefully what the Spirit of truth who indwells the church is saying through the people of God.”[10] Chan characterizes the Spirit’s work in the lives of everyday Christians as “perhaps the most successful contextualization of the gospel the world has ever seen.”[11]This is the application of a “Folk Christianity” that defines theological belief and tradition as the Spirit practice of the gospel in culturally diverse communities. “Christianity as a lived reality among ordinary folks has the unique characteristic of both preserving tradition and also changing it as it adapts to new challenges.”[12] Grenz and Olsen express this same concept when they state, “Theology does not invent beliefs; it finds beliefs already among Christians and critically examines them.”[13]

In chapters 2 through 6 Chan engages in presenting a grassroots Asian theology. Although not inclusive of all Christian belief, he presents the context for the following: God and the Trinity, humanity and sin, Christ and salvation, Holy Spirit and spirituality, and the church. He engages belief/faith, lived theology, culture and context using the processes of “ressourcement and aggiornamento.”[14] By ressourcement, Chan is referring to Christian tradition as the guiding resource in developing an authentic Christian theology. He cites his sources through the book as “catholic and orthodox.” Perhaps this source gives creditability as an elitist (academic) bases for his Asian theology. He defines aggiornamento as the “adaptation and updating in light of the new situations in which the church finds itself”[15] in a postmodern deconstructionist era. Perhaps this gives creditability to the contextualized theology that is lived by the church in every cultural circumstance. It is through maintaining a tension between these two processes for developing a theology that Chan provides a model for local church theology. He concludes, “This way of construing theology is not only closer to the Asian spirit at the grassroots level but also consistent with the larger Christian tradition. It is this correlation that validates its claim to universality. An authentic Asian theology is not just for the church in Asia but for the worldwide church.”[16]

[1] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thin king the Faith from the Ground Up  Kindle ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic Press, 2014),

[2] Fr. Rick Hilgartner, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Word of God in the Celebration of the Sacraments,” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (accessed May 6, 2015) http://usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catechesis/catechetical-sunday/word-of-god/upload/lex-orandi-lex-credendi.pdf, 1, emphases mine.

[3] Chan, Ibid., 189

[4] Ibid.

[5] Chan, Ibid. 80.

[6] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God Kindle ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 75.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 1430.

[9] Ibid., 1200.

[10] Chan, Ibid., 423-424.

[11] Ibid., 432.

[12] Ibid., 436.

[13] Grenz & Olson, Ibid., 680.

[14] Chan, Ibid., 45.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 3355.

About the Author

mm

rhbaker275

7 responses to “Developing a Local Theology – Asia and Beyond”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    Ron, as always, a wonderful and very well written post! You covered the book thoroughly and thoughtfully. Well done!

    As I read this book and recently finished a book by Veli-Matti Karkkainen called “Christ and Reconciliation (A Constructive Christian Theology for a Pluralistic WorldGlobal Theology”, I am left with my head spinning. It seems in our modern, globalized world, our growing awareness of theology being done from Asia, Africa, the Americas, from feminist and Marxist, from villages to cities, it seems that theology has opened the door to so many voices. Chan does a masterful job of giving us a taste of what grassroots Asian theology looks like, where Karkkainen goes further in dialoguing with Asia, Africa, Latin Hindu, Confusion, Buddhist, Jewish and Islamic thinking. My question is this: Will we get to a place that theology is just too big and complicated for anyone to do as Chan proscribes? Is it possible to listen to so many voices?

    Here is the challenge I found in reading Chan. I know little of Asian tradition or religions. There were times when I wasn’t able to follow as much as I would have like. How can anyone be so knowledgable to adequately hear all these voices? Is there a danger that with the need for so much knowledge that theology again become elitist? What are you thoughts on this? Thanks Ron!

  2. Ron,

    What a wonderful post. You do such a great job of intersecting our texts and the theologies we have studied in our program. Your articulate exposition of this book makes me want to go back and read it more carefully.

    I think that we all have elements of “folk theology” in our beliefs, particularly Western theologians who should know better. Those, in my view, who perceive theology in the “name it, claim it” persuasion fail to take in the whole council of God and forgetting that God’s will is bigger than our desires for stuff and for “abundant blessings.” This is immature thinking and immature theology in my view. Unless we understand theology globally and inter culturally, we will never give it justice.

    Thank you for always bringing a mature and balanced perspective to our readings. Always a pleasure to read your work!

  3. Richard Volzke says:

    Ron,
    You stated, “a local theology is the Christian Faith in a local context” – I agree with you. With more and more multicultural groups living together, how are the established theological undertones of a specific culture (like America) changing? Globalization has allowed cultures from all corners of the earth to come together.
    Richard

  4. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Ron, I admire how your ability to reach back into books of yester-semester and apply their principles to our current reading. Wow. Perhaps if we had read the books aloud and told them as stories around the campfire, I would have processed, and the books and concepts would have stuck! 🙂 Seriously, I love how our theme this half of the year has centered on not only context, but cultural understanding and common ground. These are such important principles for not just missionaries, or travelers, but for all Christians, no matter where they are based. Listening is crucial. And while all of this is important, how do we keep from watering down the Gospel message? How, instead, can we use cultural understanding to enhance His love and our relationship to Him?

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Brilliant Job done here Ron. I too enjoyed Chan’s book and your post has certainly added to my delighted about Chan’s work. I believe that is important for believers to know their theological posture and allow God to continue the process of shaping and formatting one’s theology. Your note:
    “It is significant that Chan provides more than a perception or an interpretation on Asian theology. The author’s approach to “thinking the faith from the ground up” expresses well the concept of a “grassroots” theology made up of “lived experiences.” This is true in the context of Asian culture but in other world cultures as well. Chan states “Contextual theologies emerge as the church lives out its given script in new situations. In other words, theology is first a lived experience of the church before it is a set of ideas formulated by church theologians.” The practice of prayer and worship should determine the statement of belief.”

    I agree a hundred percent!

    Thank you

  6. mm rhbaker275 says:

    Hey, John

    Thanks for your response. A great deal of our reading, especially this term has left me spinning – especially this this past term and now Chan’s book has created a great desire to spend more time on the area of thought. “Christ and Reconciliation is on my wish list – I have never read Karkkainen although I have read some of the reviews on Amazon. I think I have an article that relates somehow to Pentecostal theology… What do you know about writing and theology perspective?

  7. Ron, great work you have done here with regards to the text and contextualization approach of Chan. I appreciate Chan’s work here as he dives into the development and the need for others, more grassroots less elite theologians, to be about the work of converting theology from a western perspective to an Asian perspective. May we be part of the solution in cooperation and not confrontation against such constructing theology.

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