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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Expanding Perspectives

Written by: on May 7, 2015

Theology. David Ford suggests that “(t)heology at its broadest is thinking about questions raised by and about the religions.” [1] Grenz and Olson narrow that definition down to “any reflection on the ultimate questions of life that point toward God.” [2] I might narrow it further to be man’s attempt to understand God. That definition itself raises an quandary: how can man, in our finite and limited context, understand God who is (based on some descriptions of God) infinite and not limited to context? How does the physical explain the supernatural which cannot be measured nor proven using our known methodologies?

From the beginning, theology is complicated.

Man lives in context. Our context includes our physical environment (where we live, where we are from), our social environment (our family, our work, our social status, our educational background), and our cultural environment (our collective values, beliefs, practices and traditions). Our individual contexts are familiar to us. The place where we grew up, the family into which we were born, and the traditions of our culture, inform our understanding of the world. And God. Sometimes, what is so familiar, becomes interpreted as correct, and not just a reflection of our context.

It is into this realm that Simon Chan suggests we should delve further. Chan suggests that in order to understand the Asian church and theology (in the most broad sense) one must also understand the cultural context. Chan also notes the challenge of this.

The brief foregoing consideration of Asia’s multireligious contexts shows that there is no one theology of God that suits every situation. Each religious context has its own set of issues that Christians must address. This does not, however, mean that the Christian view of God should change to suit each religious context. [3]

Chan compares what he refers to as elitist Asian theology, that grounded in the academy and more likely to be influenced by traditional Christian theology, to grassroots theology, that is what the local church actually practices as a living out of theology.

At times while reading, I found myself frustrated. Chan gives a thorough overview of many theologians and perspectives. But I got hung up on what I consider “the littles”: the minor nuances of human interpretation. In reality, I am simply frustrated by the finite attempting to define the infinite. Our words are too small; our understanding is too limited. All of our attempts will always fall short because the mind of man simply cannot grasp the mind of God.

Does this mean that we should not attempt to describe God, man’s relationship to Him, and our meaning and purpose? By all means no. Once I move past this, I begin to see how gaining a perspective from a cultural context other than my own can only increase my understanding of who God might be. The familiar creates a box. The unfamiliar, if I can allow myself to consider it, opens new insights and possibilities.

For example, I became particularly thoughtful when considering the perspective of a “shame and honor” culture regarding sin and humanity. The western perspective considers the individual, and our individual relationship with God. We enter into a personal relationship with Him when we become Christians. When we sin, we discuss this as being personally guilty. However, the impact of our sin is often seen solely in our personal experience. In Asian cultures that are more shame and honor oriented, my sin causes harm to another, namely God, and takes away both His and my own honor. Human beings tend to become more conscientious when they recognize how their behavior impacts others. Regarding sin:

We have dishonored the Triune God, brought shame on ourselves, and caused a breach in the divine-human relationship. As we become aware of God’s righteousness and our sinfulness, it should be experienced not only as an internal realization of guilt, but also as an increased awareness that we collectively stand ashamed before God. In other words, God’s righteousness not only declares us forensically guilty, it also places us as relationally distanced and shamed before the presence of the Triune God. [4]

Conversely, when God forgives us, He restores our honor. His relational gift is what allows us to forgive ourselves and move away from a life of shame and isolation. This perspective is perhaps far more healing and restorative than a perspective that focuses solely on the individual.

Chan intentionally sets the elitist theologians against or in contrast to grassroots theology. While at times I think he got a little stuck in the details, at the same time, I began to draw another important insight. I, personally, am not much of a denominationalist. But I respect and value what I believe is God’s command to be part of the church. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25). The concept of the church in the early days, was new and unfamiliar. But believers were encouraged to assemble together for teaching, shared worship, and community building. The church provides structure and accountability for human beings who, left to our own devices, have a tendency to wander. While I may not agree with every theological point or doctrine of any one denomination, the church is God’s chosen bride. How we live, collectively, communicates the gospel of Christ, that of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. How we live as the church communicates our living theology, or understanding of God. Being a part of the church means releasing part of my individual identity – and personal theological “littles” – to identify with Christ and His Church. This is certainly not always easy, but I don’t believe that it was intended to be. I believe that it was intended to transform us.

[1] David Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 3.
[2] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God, Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1996, p. 13.
[3] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking About Faith from the Ground Up, Downers Grove Il: IVP Academic, 2014, p. 65.
[4] Timothy Tennent, as cited by Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking About Faith from the Ground Up, Downers Grove Il: IVP Academic, 2014, p. 87.

About the Author

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Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

10 responses to “Expanding Perspectives”

  1. Julie…
    Well since you love coffee and warm summer days, though it is not summer I am thinking you are going to love these next couple days within the context of beloved Portland!

    First of all, I am tracking you in your experience of the reading. There are times when I felt Chan pulled certain contextual theologies and stuffed them into a box that reflected a limited perspective and I wanted, oh so much, to push back. But then I realized how would I understand these perspectives and insights if I were seeing out from within an Asian culture. Perhaps, even if I do not really like it, there is something very important in seeing the limitations of a particular theology.

    You wrote, “How we live, collectively, communicates the gospel of Christ, that of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. How we live as the church communicates our living theology, or understanding of God. Being a part of the church means releasing part of my individual identity – and personal theological “littles” – to identify with Christ and His Church.” This week the lectionary reading is John 15:9-17. I get to preach on it. Because of our reading this week I have been pondering afresh both the sense of the individual in this passage, but also collectively the invitation to abide, to remain and to love. Grassroots is taking on a much more localized understanding one that is drawn from awareness and listening, one of shared responsibility. Thanks for sitting with this and pushing us out of our boxes as well.

    • mm Julie Dodge says:

      I am indeed enjoying the sun, Carol. My heart is happy.

      I am thankful that you found something to ponder in my post. As Americans we often think we are far more relational than we are. When it comes down to it, we are those rugged individualists who concern ourselves with personal accomplishments. We TALK team, but we value individual. So I really find the perspective of other cultures refreshing and challenging. How can we better draw from that collective, familial identity, and celebrate the beauty of it? How can we incorporate the best of that into our own lives? I think the church is a good place to try that out.

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    Julie, thanks for the thought you’ve given to the interaction with this book. In many ways, because of the diversity of Asian culture, I felt that overviews stopped short of providing the needed depth required to truly appreciate the contextual realities Chan was relating to us. However, perhaps there was another reason, me – as you note well: “Sometimes, what is so familiar, becomes interpreted as correct, and not just a reflection of our context.” Being influenced by eastern thought and eastern religious views through my family, my familiarity may have skewed my capacity to truly understand what was being communicated. Your post certainly helps with clarifying some ideas and it causes me to wonder what would happen if we too, understood the depth of damage that sin brings to all our relationships – perhaps then we also we rediscover some healthy doses of “honour and shame”.

    • mm Julie Dodge says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, Deve. In contrast to you, I think I missed some of what Chan was trying to communicate because I don’t have a deep Eastern understanding. I missed some of the context which was probably quite familiar to Chan. So unless he spelled it out, at times I was adrift. But I love the opportunity to try to understand another perspective.

  3. Julie,

    I love reading your writing. This week’s post was no exception. Thank you for your post!

    You write, “The familiar creates a box. The unfamiliar, if I can allow myself to consider it, opens new insights and possibilities.” Amen and amen! So why do so many Christians stick to the familiar if what they need to grow is to get outside their little boxes? The best part of my faith is the part that I do not know. What I know is no longer a matter of faith. Thus, like you, I love to look outside the box. Perhaps that is why I find my Native studies on spirituality and leadership to be so fulfilling. It is outside my comfort zone. I consider this a very welcome adventure. And there is so much to consider, so much to learn!

    Thank you for your post and for your outside-the-box interpretation of theology. Keep up the good work!

    • mm Julie Dodge says:

      You remain far too generous in your critique, Bill 🙂 But I, like you, am trying more and more to pause and step outside of my box if only to catch a glimpse of the other. Whether it is another cultural, religious, political, economic, or whatever perspective, I am trying to understand the other so that I may communicate more effectively – starting with listening. It seems, however, that this is not a common step – to try and understand the other. It seems so obvious, yet remains so foreign.

  4. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Julie, Thank you for your insight! I like how you incorporated previous readings in this post. You’re right, we naturally view things through our cultural lens. Yes, the unfamiliar opens new insights and perspectives. I love your quote, “…each religious context has its own set of issues that Christians must address. This does not, however, mean that the Christian view of God should change to suit each religious context.” This also reminds me Chan’s quote from Paul Hiebert, “The foreignness of the culture we add to the gospel offends and must be eliminated. But the gospel itself offends. It is supposed to offend, and we dare not weaken its offense. The gospel must be contextualized, but it must remain prophetic. It must stand in judgment of what is evil in all cultures as well as in all persons”(Loc.106.May the Lord help us honor God and stay true to His word.

  5. mm Julie Dodge says:

    I liked that quote from Hiebert as well, Telile. The gospel DOES offend. It’s supposed to. The question becomes how do we effectively communicate the truth of that offense – of the gospel – in a way that has meaning to the hearer. I think that you have far more experience with this than I, which is why I love reading your posts. You regularly share your experience doing these very things. May God continue to lead you and provide you with wisdom.

  6. Michael Badriaki says:

    Great post Julie. You are excellent at providing an enjoyable logical flow to the readings. You post is insightful and thought provoking as well. It is great to run into Ford, Grenz and Olson in your post who are perfect for this week’ reading and discussion. Indeed “theology is complicated” as you put it. Both you and Carol ably emphasized the need for believers to acknowledge the impact of their environment on their theology. You write: “Man lives in context. Our context includes our physical environment (where we live, where we are from), our social environment (our family, our work, our social status, our educational background), and our cultural environment (our collective values, beliefs, practices and traditions). Our individual contexts are familiar to us. The place where we grew up, the family into which we were born, and the traditions of our culture, inform our understanding of the world. And God. Sometimes, what is so familiar, becomes interpreted as correct, and not just a reflection of our context.”

    Let me repeat one of the statements, “Sometimes, what is o familiar, becomes interpreted as correct, and not just a reflection of our context”. Julie you’ve beautifully identified a challenge for Western theology since most non-western theologies have suffered the accusations of not being “correct”.

    Thank you Julie.

  7. “Julie, you are not far from the kingdom of God my child.” No seriously, I so appreciate that you were able to grow through your struggle and see how gaining cultural insights that vary from our own might actually increase our appreciation and knowledge for God. I so much agree with you. As a man I venture into a woman’s world through Michelle and other close female friends. I am always mesmerized how the different sexes view God, and then to add cultures to the perspective of God, truly we see more and more of his character in those around us. 

    I love the aspect of how we can communally forgive ourselves and move away from the life of shame and isolation. As a priest I have conferred absolution and forgiveness on those who confessed sins with me. I say “with” me rather than “to” me, for I recognize in greater measure my own sinfulness when someone wants to confess their sinfulness with me. Together we confess our sins to God and together we, in Christ name, give absolution to each other of our sins as brothers in the faith and sons of the same Father. I have to believe, that in the community of faith, if we practice the forgiveness of other’s sins we might find an even greater amount of forgiveness for ourselves. There in lies the power of the collective culture as it represents God’s redeeming collective culture.

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