Book Review of Ott and Netland’s “Globalizing Theology”

This was my favorite book from my Essentials of Christian Theology class. The book is about trying to grapple with the global reality of a movement that is primarily populated in the global South and East while still under the cultural control of the West and North. I highly recommend reading this collection of essays. The title of this review for my class is:

WEAVING THE THEOLOGICAL TAPESTRY OF THE 21ST CENTURY: A REVIEW OF GLOBALIZING THEOLOGY

Introduction

The challenge of reviewing Globalizing Theology (GT from here on) by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland is the multiplicity of authors and perspectives contained in the book. The conversation in GT serves to promote interconnection and correction between localized theologies that arise from specific cultural intersections, historical theologies of the larger body of Christ, and current expressions of those historical theologies. The intended audience of GT is the Western Evangelical academy and the content, structure, and methodologies of the book reflect this. (One crucial point Netland makes in the beginning of the book is that many who are not part of the Western world find the ways Western Christians organize and categorize theological information to be counter-intuitive or irrelevant.)[1] It is quite ironic that Western methodologies are used to deconstruct and call into question the universality of application of those methodologies.

This review will follow the organization of GT as it progresses through three areas: World Christianity and Theological Reflection, Methodological Issues for Globalizing Theology, and Implications of Globalizing Theology.

World Christianity and Theological Reflection

This section begins with an overview of the current global context, touching on current population densities of Christians, the current state of academic hegemony of Western Christians, and the growth of interconnection in the world in general. I especially appreciate that the first chapter was written by a non-Westerner, Tite Tiénou. Tiénou does a good job of expressing the important issues the global church is facing as it grows most rapidly in areas of the world that have neither economic nor academic power. From a non-Western perspective, “The shift of Christianity’s center of gravity is good news because it means that, as a global reality, the Christian faith is increasingly at home in many cultures and will not be imprisoned by any single culture.”[2] The challenges of overcoming cultural misapprehensions, disrespect and doubt need to be addressed as a Church trying to discern what it looks like to follow Christ in each culture.

The next article looks at the tool of anthropology for use in understanding our own and others’ cultural assumptions. Darrel Whiteman begins with the reminder “today we are confronted not only with differences in cultures, economic patterns, and political structures but also with a diversity of Christian expressions, and we struggle to know how the church in the West should relate to the church in the rest.”[3] Whiteman does not gloss over the dehumanization that Western anthropologists and missiologists have inflicted on non-Western peoples in the past, rather he tries to show a way forward. There is an insistence on a shift from attitudes of observation to attitudes of learning. This shift will impact the ways we allow ourselves to be shaped through our attempts to gain understanding of our own and other cultures.

Andrew Walls end this section by examining the difficulties inherent in a study of Christian History that ignores the non-European pieces of the history of our faith and the need to expand our study beyond the West. This wraps up the section well by underscoring the importance of bringing together our stories of the ways God has worked among us in our past. Walls reminds us that “All over the Western world, ministers are being trained…without any idea of what the church of today…is really like.”[4] Until we can look at the way Western faith has grown within the context of the church as a whole we will have a myopic view of the work of God in history. These hard hitting points are a much needed corrective to the Western church and we can only pray that God gives us ears to hear them.

Methodological Issues

While reading this section I noticed three distinct themes that ran through it: an analytical examination of the ways theological contextualization has (or has not) been done, an examination of the positive and negative uses of contextual methodologies, and proposes some ways forward in avoiding the negatives. These themes serve to highlight how overly connected we are to the systematic methods that have worked well for our cultural context but do not speak to the conditions found in other cultural contexts.

In order to contextualize theology it is important to recognize the existence of a context. While the existence of context may seem obvious to us, the common understanding in the West was that our theology was “normal” and that everybody else had a context. Kevin VanHoozer explains that what resulted from contextual myopia was: “Instead of pastoral instruction, theologians begat system after system, exchanging their ecclesial birthright for a mess of propositionalist pottage.”[5]  The propositionalist mess that resulted led other cultures who were not as directly influenced by the Enlightenment to reject the rationalistic systems as irrelevant to the task of living out the gospel in their culture.[6] At this point, conflicts arose and misunderstandings abounded because of the lack of self-understanding regarding the cultural assumptions present in theologians.

In order to fully appreciate the difficult hermeneutical task and get ideas on how to approach it there are two case studies. The first case study is an examination of the Jerusalem Council mentioned in Acts 15 which discussed the necessity of circumcision for the converted Gentiles. The hermeneutic was much different than the text-critical forms used in the West and held much more importance on connecting understanding of scripture to current action of the Holy Spirit. David and Cynthia Strong consider the process of using the current action of the Holy Spirit to direct the understanding and interpretation of scripture as “[the Jerusalem Council] did not seek an abstract, monolithic theological statement in the manner of Greco-Roman philosophy but rather built on the Hebraic view of knowledge as intimately personal and interpersonal.”[7] In the intimacy of relational knowledge of the Holy Spirit, we then can look for the activity of the Holy Spirit in those we may have disagreement with, and seeing that presence may find the strength to hold the cultural disagreements in tension while coming to common understandings on matters of substance.

The second case study follows the relationship between the Ethiopian Union Orthodox Churches and Evangelicals in Ethiopia as they discuss the nature of Christ. There is one insight that comes from this chapter by Steve Strauss which underscores the importance of not overestimating the ability of a theological formulation to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers:

Specific theological forms may accurately reflect biblical truth for many churches around the world but may still be inappropriate for a specific local context…When some forms carry either unbiblical meaning or inappropriate contextual implications, the preferred solution will often be to use entirely new forms to communicate the biblical truth.[8]

In our increasingly connected world, the potential for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and ecclesiological injustice has heightened incredibly. It has become increasingly important for Christians to learn grace, mutual submission and humility in our theological conversation. The last two chapters of this section underscore how important true listening and connecting what we say about God with the experienced actions of God while at the same time bringing our interpretations alongside those of the global hermeneutical community.

Implications

The implications of participating with non-Westerners on an equal footing in the theological process are staggering for Western theologians and the Theological Industrial Complex. One of the key difficulties shared throughout the compilation is that the average theological writing costs as much money as most non-Westerners engaged in theological tasks make in a year. Lois McKinney Douglas writes that “Far too many programs are being driven by pragmatic concerns related to accreditation, funding, recruiting, and the expectations of constituencies.”[9] While Douglas was addressing the concerns for theological education, she adequately sums up the thrust of this book and the discussion by challenging those of us in the West to set aside the idols of power, privilege and national identity to serve humbly in submission to Christ and our brothers and sisters.

In order for this submission to work out we will need to construct a meta-theological framework in which we may remain true to the essentials of the gospel while having freedom to express what truly is essential in our cultural contexts. This meta-theology’s development must take into account the economic depredations of capitalism and the extremes of responses to economic domination,[10] the idolatry that lies behind nationalism,[11]and a spirit of humility that welcomes all to the table as equals in the task of theology.[12] To bring in the analogy of a tapestry in the title of this review, meta-theology would be the invisible warp to which the multi-hued strands of contextual theological expressions are woven as the visible weft. When these strands are carefully woven together we can finally begin to see the beautiful results in the theological tapestry, until then we have to make do with piles of theological string.


[1] Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, eds., Globalizing Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 27.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Ibid., 53.

[4] Ibid., 78.

[5] Ibid., 93.

[6] Ibid., 127.

[7] Ibid., 139.

[8] Ibid., 152.

[9] Ibid., 285.

[10] Ibid., 211.

[11] Ibid., 231.

[12] Ibid., 329.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ott, Craig and Harold A. Netland, eds. Globalizing Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Creative Commons License
WEAVING THE THEOLOGICAL TAPESTRY OF THE 21ST CENTURY: A REVIEW OF GLOBALIZING THEOLOGY by Gilbert L. George is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at extrovertedquaker.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.facebook.com/quakergil.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s