Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Third World Theology" or just "Theology"?

This week I'm writing my thesis.  It's got to be done; this is the final hour.  If I want to graduate, that is.  (Aside: I can't believe three years of MDiv work is already over!)  The thesis I am arguing is that theologians in the West increasingly need to take into account the work of theologians in the Global South or Third World for their work to be credible.  More simply, Christian theology, if it is to represent Christianity at all, has to present the voice of the world's actual Christians, the majority of whom - as it turns out - live in the Global South.  

But in research and writing I was disappointed to find out that I'm not the first person saying this.  Others before me have pointed out that as more and more of the world's Christians live in places outside of the West, more and more of the world's Christian leaders will also live in places outside the West.  William Dyrness, who will be giving a keynote address at the University of Chicago's 5th student ministry conference (see the facebook page to attend for free!), wrote this in his book Learning About Theology from the Third World
"If theology is to be rooted in the actaul lives of Christians today, increasingly it will have to be from the poor to the poor, in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  And theology done in the West, if it is not to become increasingly provincial, will have to be done in dialogue with the theological leaders in the Third World."
Dyrness is echoing here the words of Andrew Walls who wrote in an article years earlier that if Christian theology is supposed to be the theology of the world's actual Christians then
"theology in the Third World is now the only theology worth caring about."
But why am I disappointed that others have written down these observations before me?  Pride and vanity?  No.  I'm bummed out because Dyrness was writing in 1988 and Walls in 1976 - 20 and 30 years ago and nothing has changed!  "Third World Theology" is still not "theology proper" but instead a sub-field of totally different disciplines like anthropology or missiology!  

In the meantime, Christians of the West are becoming increasingly out of touch with the majority of the world's Christians.  The Anglican Communion - historically a denomination that prized unity above doctrine! - is now breaking apart.  Christians in Africa and Asia are facing and responding to the presence of other world religions in unique ways, way foreign to the Western ideal of "let's just get along."  And, to highlight one of the biggest concerns that has animated the theology of the Global South, poverty is a reality of the human person in a way totally foreign to many in the West, and one result of this is very different understandings of private property, consumption, personal identity and social commitment than Western Christians have.  

I am not suggesting that Christians of the Global South understand theology better (or worse).  I am only pointing out that they are more and more becoming the new Christianity - embodying what Christianity is in the 21st century - and they understand Christian faith in some significantly different ways than Western Christians do.  All theologians today - and not just those who are "interested in that topic" -  must take this into account if it is to have any credibility at all as theology.


  1. I agree. We need to take into account the Christians in the South and East who are increasingly becoming the leaders in the faith. But i wonder, in what ways is their theology different? I'm sure it is, but what have they brought to the table that we have totally missed, being from the prosperous West?

  2. One challenge to Western Christians coming from the South is a conviction that salvation is not a solely "spiritual" notion but it involves in some way a physical act of deliverance. Things "spiritual" are understood to be "physical." In this light, Jesus' words that it is hard for the rich to be saved hit closer to home. Poverty is not therefore desirable, however. I'm not aware at least of Christians saying salvation is only physical or that it is within the reach of humans themselves. Anyway, this is one example. Another example is an opposition to consumer capitalism in some quarters on theological/Biblical grounds. Yet another example is an attribution of revealed knowledge of God in other religions (vs. natural knowledge only), even if it is not "complete" or something like that. There theology is indeed very different in some cases. Good question.

    And, last thing, I would point out that a lot of Christians in the West do "totally miss" the fact that their theology is different because the assumption often is that if African or Asian theology is different then it's not actually theology; it's underdeveloped or still uninformed. This kind of thinking is very detrimental to our understanding of Christianity around the world.

  3. The west and the south is divided along the line of standard of living. How does that affect the theology of the south? It tends to drift the practitioners to practical faith than the west, thus indepth examination of Christian faith without answers to faith prayers may be lacking. We witness a new dimension in third world theology - a rise of propserity faith, as a symbol of commitment. To globalise Jesus theology or rather centralise His theology, the west need to promote indigenous theologians in 3rd world and contextualise it in their setting.

  4. I agree with Mathew in our commitment to the Third Word Theology. When someone in the Global west wonder what the Global south theology will bring to the table,,,i am surprised. The fact that God reveals himself to people within their on social economic and cultural contexts tells you that the understanding of his revelation in the west is totally different from the south. hence the need to allow the south to come to same table and express their encounter with God.
    The divide between the rich and the poor, the literacy level between the west and the south, political in/stability between the the global west and global south is clear indication that a round table with people from Asia, Afria, Latin America sitting together with the people from Europe and America is necessary to be in a position to understand the economic domination, exploitation and injustices brought about about systems and structures that have been developed by the so called powerful.

  5. It is true that "Third World Theology" (or any described theology) should supersede theological science as such if and only if truth is known only through embodied (i.e., cultural) experience.

    But this is not true, for truths such as those of the mathematical sciences are not known only through embodied experience, but are apprehended directly by the mind.

    Therefore, your argumentation is flawed.

  6. But thinking and reasoning, too, are embodied experiences.

    Some more extended thoughts...

    To what kind of realm (to a realm of what ontological status) do truths of the mind correspond?

    My wife, who - funny enough - happens to be a mathematician, sometimes comments on the debate in Math over whether new math is invented or discovered. Is there a "complete" set already in existence of all mathematical truths that can be known? Something like Plato's forms? Or, do mathematicians build up new mathematical understandings on the basis of what is already known?

    Doing new math must be at least experienced as building, though in "reality" it might actually be discovery. But I'm not sure there's a way to know for sure.

    Back to theology. You're getting at the very important question of revelation: How does God reveal himself to the world? Does God reveal himself via some means independent of the human condition (e.g. immediately and mystically to a soul)? Or does God reveal himself in and through the human conditions of history, the experience of being in specific times and places and relationships.

    My opinion is that for revelation to have traction, it has to come via the historical, cultural, relational and rational experience of being a human being.