Hawaiian Theology, Part I

Hawaiian Theology, Part I July 18, 2013

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What is Hawaiian theology, and what goes into the making of it? The answers to these questions are far beyond my comprehension because there are so many facets to them. Still, they are worth exploring. This post begins to explore them. Along these lines, it is worth addressing questions of cultural preservation as well as transformation and the contextualization of the gospel in the Hawaiian culture, as with any culture. Not that one ever answers fully such questions, but if one is not addressing them, it is quite likely that by default dominant and even hegemonic cultural forces that may be alien though present to the Hawaiian context (or any context for that matter) end up co-opting and reframing the categories in service to empire so that what is distinctively Hawaiian is lost.

These are not esoteric issues to me that have no pertinence to my life and work, or those for whom I care. I constantly reflect upon them wherever I am—whether in places like the Pacific Northwest, England, Japan, or in Hawaii, where I am teaching a class on comparative theology presently. In this course, I am analyzing categories and themes present in many forms of Western theology and Black theology, as well as giving sustained consideration to theology developed in distinctively Hawaiian terms. My ethnically diverse colleagues and I in the class are wrestling through these issues in a robust manner. I have found our discussions very enriching and thought-provoking.

We have noted the complexity of getting at a distinctive Hawaiian theology, and for numerous reasons. For one, there is the multi-ethnic texture of Hawaiian culture. It is not uniform. Given that such diversity is not separated out into various remote spheres, but is lived out in close proximity to other ethnic heritages on a small group of islands, one has to be able to articulate how the various ethnic strands distinctively contribute to the making of a uniquely Hawaiian theology where their particularity is accounted for in synthetic and dialectical relation.

Some Hawaiian jokes and songs reverberate with generalizations that speak to the cultural particularities and how they come together on these islands, such as “Mr. Sun Cho Lee” by Keola and Kapono Beamer. The song closes with words getting at how amazing it is that the various ethnic groups can live together given how much fun they poke at one another.

One cannot develop a theology based simply on such songs, although they do shed some light on the situation. Theology has to move beyond sound bites. As Hawaiians themselves say, people need to “talk story with one another.” In other words, people need to enter into dialogue to unpack the meaning of such songs’ lyrics, even challenging the generalizations where appropriate. People and their cultures are more than generalizations. While generalizations have some staying power because they get at certain dynamics that are present in a given culture, they are often reductionist in outcome. Thus, it is important to immerse oneself in people’s lives in given cultural settings, getting to know their stories and the songs and chants that arise from within their souls and what gives rise to them. Such inquisitiveness and curiosity do not convey weakness and an infantile mindset, but rather an expansive spirit. Moreover, such qualities are essential to the development of contextualized theologies against the backdrop of amorphous and hegemonic theologies of empire. 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.

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