White Theology, Part II

This is part of a series of posts on the topic of racialized theology. Start with part 1.

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We often look at Black theology as contextual theology, but fail to see that all theology is contextualized. It is all enculturated. White western theologians like myself present contextualized theologies, too. This statement is not intended to relativize a given theology or to say that it is unbiblical, but to say that there is no such thing as an unenculturated gospel.

Here I call to mind a statement by Lesslie Newbigin: “The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion.” (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986], p. 4). The Japanese Christian intellectual Uchimura Kanzo put the matter in the following way:

A Japanese by becoming a Christian does not cease to be a Japanese. On the contrary, he becomes more Japanese by becoming a Christian. A Japanese who becomes an American or an Englishman, or an amorphous universal man, is neither a true Japanese nor a true Christian (Kanzo Uchimura, “Japanese Christianity,” in Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 2, ed. Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene [New York: Columbia University Press, 1958]; reprint, H. Byron Earhart, ed. Religion in the Japanese Experience: Sources and Interpretations, The Religious Life of Man Series, ed. Frederick J. Streng [Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1974], 113 [italics added]).

Kanzo then proceeds to argue that the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther and John Knox “were not characterless universal men, but distinctly national, therefore distinctly human and distinctly Christian,” adding that Japanese saved as “‘universal Christians’ may turn out to be no more than denationalized Japanese, whose universality is no more than Americanism or Anglicanism adopted to cover up their lost nationality” (Ibid., 113-114).

It is critically important that we discern how culturally embedded we and our theological constructs are. If we are blind to this reality, we will be blind to the danger of imposing our theologies on others. Thus, it is important that we announce ourselves when we enter the room for theological conversations. Our own ethnic heritage, for example (and we all have one, not simply Koreans or Brazilians or African Americans, but also Anglos…), should be accounted for in the framing of our theological perspectives, as well as our socio-economic milieu, among other dimensions. As we enter into dialogue with theologians of other perspectives and cultural contexts, we will also become more aware of our presuppositions and situated theologies and be able to cultivate richer theological perspectives as a result of such conversations… To be continued.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • no longer I

    It’s very hard for us to announce ourselves when we come in the room. We see out, but we don’t see in – our eyes see out, but they don’t see well into ourselves. It is much easier said than done. As the preacher once wrote, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” Proverbs
    14:10 NIV.

    I think that all hope for relief from suffering and oppression is contextualized, not just black theology. The hurt is personal. Harvey Cox points out that liberation theology is active and vital because it lives and breathes and grows from the context upward, or from the “underside”, Cox, “Theology from the Underside”, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter 1900, 10.

    Your post addresses racial hurt, but it struck a chord in another area as
    well. Yesterday as a Jesus of Nazareth follower I defended the feelings of a Pagan couple who are friends of mine, who volunteer as social justice advocates. They were being openly discriminated against and said so. Those in charge denied it, and hardened their attitude instead of listening. My response was that conflict is resolved best when we understand the history and acknowledge the feelings. I said we need to respect that there is a reason why hurts hurt, and to bring about reconciliation and resolution.

    I bring this up as a corollary to your post about racialization, because I feel that a similar posture is necessary to hear and to engage in the pain of racial indifference or racial inequity. By listening to the hurt, individual hurts become co-hurts.

    Thanks for your steady stream of serious thoughtful posts

  • Guest

    “It is critically important that we discern how culturally embedded we and our theological constructs are.” Maybe that’s why Jesus calls us to be disciples, best understood as learners. Cross cultural missionaries did not always get this right but thankfully learned much about entering and engaging another culture. But that thinking has not filtered down to most American Christians, including most theologians.

    If “universal Christians” means that culture is eliminated on the basis of being a Christian than I would agree with Kanzo that is neither a true __________ nor a true Christian. There is no super-category of “Gentile” when you consider that there are more than 16,000 ethno-linguistic people groups now living on planet earth.Jesus is supra-cultural and the Gospel fits and redeems every culture, uniquely. Perhaps we need to learn that God loves diversity so much that he created cultures and that ours isn’t the best just different.

    On another note, have you read “The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity” by Soong Chan Rah?

    • Paul Louis Metzger

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. Yes, Jesus is supra-cultural. At the same time, given that he enters into Jewish culture in concrete particularity, through the Spirit, there is the certain hope that Jesus enters into each culture uniquely.

      Regarding the other item you raise, I appreciate very much Soong-Chan Rah’s work. In fact, he spoke in my Doctor of Ministry cohort this summer at Multnomah Biblical Seminary on the subject of cultural intuition.

    • pmetzger

      @20012e28b5cc9de58a898b4830fd48e0:disqus Thanks for sharing your perspective. Yes, Jesus is supra-cultural. At the same time, given that he enters into Jewish culture in concrete particularity, through the Spirit, there is the certain hope that Jesus enters into each culture uniquely.

      Regarding the other item you raise, I appreciate very much Soong-Chan Rah’s work. In fact, he spoke in my Doctor of Ministry cohort this summer at Multnomah Biblical Seminary on the subject of cultural intuition.