Hawaiian Theology, Part II

Hawaiian Theology, Part II July 22, 2013

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

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The study of Hawaiian theology is a very intricate and fragile affair. The intricacies are bound up in part with the multi-ethnic reality of Hawaii. One must also account for the oral nature of communication historically and presently. One scholar here in Hawaii shared with me how difficult it is to study Hawaiian theology since Native Hawaiians have so often resorted to oral means of communication such as songs and chants to convey theological concepts.

How does an oral form shape a theology? For one, it suggests that personal connection to an authoritative link in the tradition of oral communication is essential. This authoritative link is viewed as a trustworthy and wise elder, not simply someone who has technical mastery of a skill or discipline in a particular field. Moreover, it requires that one take all the more seriously the recipient of the message’s own personal integrity and capacity to receive the communication. I recall the story of a discussion that took place between an elder in an indigenous community and his nephew. The nephew wished to receive wise instruction from his uncle. Before his uncle shared the information with the youth, he sized him up to see if he was mature enough and worthy of trust to share such instruction with him. The same level of scrutiny does not go into written forms of communication in that the personal connection is often lost. There is often no transmission from person to person, as in the case of person to person oral communication.

Moreover, the oral framing of theology suggests that there is greater flexibility since the process of communication is more dynamic and evolves more than with written communication. This statement should not be taken to suggest that there is no concern for precision in that in some contexts teachers and students go to great lengths to convey accurately the tradition. Nonetheless, oral communication involves a level of spontaneity and organic development often lacking in written communication. Once communication is fixed in writing, there is the tendency to fossilize it rather than see it as part of a growing, dynamic tradition.

One would hope that greater attention to the growing, dynamic nature of such a tradition would guard participants and students of such dialogical endeavors from becoming ideological and argue that their interpretation alone has validity. Rather, it is hoped that they situate themselves in a manner so that they listen to others’ perspectives and articulations of tradition in the effort to preserve and develop the tradition and keep the conversation going. It is my conviction that the dynamics that go into the making of Hawaiian theology convey a more open, egalitarian and less authoritarian posture than is found in many other contexts, for example, in the continental United States, for the heart of communication is talking story together in an ongoing, dialogical fashion.

Theological dialogues are more intricate and fragile than monologues in that there is give and take and response and differentiation as well as synthesis as the dialogue proceeds. Any relationship that is truly relational is intricate and fragile and any textually based theology could learn a thing or two from a model of theology that is based in talking story. For theology to live it must be spoken and practiced in dialogical relation to others. I would much rather talk theological story around a table with people of one heart and unique perspectives than dictate from podiums to blank slate brains. Besides, the latter do not exist. Everyone has something to share. The real question is: will I take time to listen, learn, and enter into the conversation in a vulnerable and transparent manner that involves risk for all people at the table? 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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