Challenged to rethink theology

Dr Evie Vernon, Theological Adviser for the Anglican mission agency USPG, reports on two weeks participating in a course run by the Asian Theological Academy.

For two weeks I had the privilege of studying with a group of 23 clergy and lay leaders who had gathered in Sri Lanka to challenge their understanding of theology and mission.

We were undertaking a theological refresher programme run by the Asian Theological Academy (ATA), which is a self-titled ‘institute without walls’: a rolling programme set up to help Asian church leaders explore faith and praxis within the particularities of the Asian context.

Joining me were church leaders from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia – as well as representatives from the Seychelles and Brazil to contribute more perspectives, with me representing Jamaica, where I grew up, and England, where I now live.

It was important that the participants represented many denominations – because this reflects more accurately the reality of church life in Asia, which is so diverse.

Furthermore, there are plans to introduce an inter-faith element, so that Christians can share beliefs and experiences with people from other faiths. This is essential because Christianity in Asia is predominantly a minority religion, so understanding and negotiating with people of other faiths is a daily reality that must be grasped.Indeed, in Asia, no Christian endeavour can happen without the co-operation of people of good will from other faiths.

As seen in the news, the church experience in Asia can be very difficult. Some ATA course participants had seen or experienced violent oppression at the hands of extremists belonging to the majority faith communities in their countries.

It must be understood that much of this oppression is a backlash. Most of Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries was under colonial rule – and the church, with its missionaries, was often seen as synonymous with Western oppression.

Christian mission then and now could either be liberative and transformative, working with all people of good will to bring positive change – or could be racist and oppressive, with a tendency to denounce other faiths as forms of paganism or superstition. Now the church in Asia is paying the price. To this day, there is simmering resentment in Asian countries against the church and all things Western.

We discussed these matters on the ATA course. We noted that the behaviour of some Christian missionaries in the 19th century was not in line with how the early Christians behaved in the New Testament, when Christianity was itself a minority religion.

In the Acts of the Apostles, followers of Jesus negotiated with people from other religions and were able to see truth in other belief systems. For me, this insight was reminder that our theology and our practice of faith needs to be contextual, which means that wherever we are we need to be sensitive to the local environment, history and culture.

For many on the course, we concluded that faith needs to be conceived afresh in each generation. We need to be as practical and ‘real’ as possible, otherwise our faith runs the risk of becoming merely theoretical or, even worse, an unthinking acceptance of ideas passed onto us through traditions which are no longer applicable.

This need for us to be constantly ‘rethinking mission’ came out strongly when we discussed the sacrifice of Isaac. The traditional view is that inbeing willing to obey God’s command and sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham was demonstrating great faith. But would God really ask someone to commit child sacrifice?

Now consider the impact of this passage in a country where Christians are routinely killed because of their faith – where people of other faiths believe they are doing God’s will by committing human sacrifice. How can Christians in Asia object to their persecution if they themselves believe thatGod could sanction human sacrifice?

Perhaps another reading of the Abraham passage is that God provided Abraham with an opportunity to not obey. Rather than sacrificing his son, Abraham could have used common sense and applied his experience of God to understand that the divine being he had encountered would not request such an act.


Exposure visits

During the ATA course, participants were divided into three groups for visits to Sri Lankan communities living on the margins.

Some went to Port City, a mega city being built by Chinese investors that is going to be extremely modern and hi-tech. The city will affectthe environment destructively and have a massive impact on the fishing and agriculturethat sustains manyvulnerable communities. At the same time, the construction work generates employment and income – albeit that none of the local manual workerswill ever be able to afford to live or shop in this new mega city. What does this mean ethically?

Another group went to a fishing community, also on the poverty line, which has started producing illegal liquor to make ends meet, which has had unfortunate ramifications in terms of alcoholism, health and violence.

A third group visitedimpoverished workers on one of Sri Lanka’s tea plantations – the workers have few rights, yet their hard work undergirds the Sri Lankan economy: is this slave labour?

We met these communities and spoke to them through interpreters.

We realised there are no simple answers. These communities are living in complex, morally ambiguous, situations. While a simple theoretical theology might supply easy black and white answers, we realised afresh how real life is much more puzzling. As with the Abraham question, we found there are many ways to understand what we saw.

We concluded that if the church wants to offer meaningful responses to communities grappling with the complexities of modern life, then it is essential that we get among these communities and listen to their stories. There needs to be discussion – and the more perspectives the better. Otherwise we run the risk of merely regurgitating pre-conceived theological answers that are not fit for purpose.

Seen in this way, contextual theology means testing our understanding of God, theology andthe Bible in the furnace of real contemporary life.

I was very impressed by the work of ATA. The course I took part in might have raised more questions than it answered, but that is the point. ATA aims to encourage and equip church leaders in Asia with the skills to apply – and rethink –theology in context of real life in all of its confounding complexity.