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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"Theology Without Borders" (William A. Dyrness and Oscar Garcia-Johnson)

TITLE: Theology without Borders: An Introduction to Global Conversations
AUTHOR: William A. Dyrness and Oscar Garcia-Johnson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (182 pages).

Theology must be cross-cultural. In order to understand how the gospel is relevant to different cultures, different societies, and different borders, we must incorporate more contextual theology, which is what this book is about. While many Western churches are declining and dwindling in numbers, the overall number of Christians worldwide are not getting smaller. In fact, it is growing, if not maintaining its sizeable numbers. Why? It is because outside of Europe and North America, the Church is booming in South America, Asia, and other continents. In the area of missions, it is increasingly less about missionaries going from the West to the rest. It is increasingly more about the reverse instead. In this book, readers will be pleasantly surprised that there are more dimensions to the growth of missions and Church. In an age of globalization, the influences are multi-directional.

This is a book about contextual theology. Far too often, theology has a Western slant, viewed with Western eyes, and applied with Western biases and sensitivities. Put it another way, the way we do theology is directly affected by the backgrounds and worldviews of the theologians. Whether it is Eurocentricism or American-centric theological analysis, if we truly want to develop a global understanding of how theology relates to the world we live in, we need to think, study, learn, and theologize in a multicultural, trans-border, and intercontinental manner. The two authors have put together their thoughts on rethinking theology in a global context.

Oscar Garcia-Johnson, Associate Dean at the Center for the Study of Hispanic Church and Community at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues for a continued conversation between the global South and the global North. For him, theology has to be built in the service of the global population rather than using population for the sake of theology. This means decolonializing efforts that re-reads history; and delinks theology from Western perspectives. It means Christian identity needs to be formed from the Spirit rather than cultural norms. It means embracing transnational conditions and resisting colonialism. He introduces "transoccidentality" as a term that encompasses postoccidentality and transmodernity, to transcend all forms of colonial influences toward a new imaginative level of blending. This is even more urgent considering the rising secularization of the West, which in themselves need the rest of the world to correct.

William A. Dyrness, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, offers a little pushback from Oscar's essay, that while many things Oscar points out is true, it is perhaps more helpful to learn from the Western legacies and to improve on the model. One needs to look at Western theology critically but at the same time, to affirm what is good. The location from which we do theology is important. For instance, a student living in the squalid quarters of a third world country would think differently than a student studying in comfortable environments and richly funded libraries.

Oscar and Dyrness than look at the indigenous traditions, and affirm the Trinitarian God who has created and blessed every tongue and nation. Due to the different cultures, people will always be conditioned from their cultural perspectives. If there is a way to incorporate more conversations between all these many voices, we will get a better sense of global theology. Apart from indigenous cultural factors, there are religious differences as well as theological issues pertaining to violence, poverty, and creation. Some believers suffer more persecution and their theologies are shaped by their life experiences. There is a chapter on Christology, on the Church, and on Eschatology. There could have been more but the point has been made. Moving forward, doing theology has to be increasingly global. For me, there are three big implications:

First, Western theological institutions have to catch the waves of opportunities to encourage students from other cultures to enter their places of study. The bigger the international mix, the better for contextual theology and understanding. This may mean the change of traditional GPA expectations from a Western curriculum standards. After all, how can we disadvantage a student with a lower GPA, who comes from a poor neighbourhood that does not even have a theological library to begin with. Perhaps, things like the language requirements need to remain high due to the importance of the medium of instructions used. At the same time, just because someone cannot express himself or herself well in English, does not mean he/she is a poorer theologian! For all we know, a Spanish theological student or a Chinese Bible School student have sharper theological perspectives when they are allowed to express themselves using the language they are most comfortable with.

Second, the Internet is a big opportunity not only for online learning but for global and contextual interactions. Not everybody can travel to the expensive West for a theological education. Maybe, the West can supplement the education by working together with local theological schools in the other countries outside America and Europe. With the Internet, theological resources and support personnel can be used to facilitate learning across borders. I feel that online education is still relatively new, and more thinking and strategizing need to be put into this area. One resource I can recommend is Joanne Jung's excellent book. She has many tips on online learning matters.

Third, I think the West can still take the lead in trans-border contextual theologies. While I acknowledge the non-Western suspicions due to the history of colonial influences, it is also true that the Western institutions and structures are far more developed than many parts of the world. Even good universities and theological schools in Asia, Africa, and the global South have stocked up lots of resources coming from Western sources.  Having said that, this lead should be done together with some members who comes from a non-Western background. There are ample opportunities besides simply relying on foreign students or overseas scholars. With the rise of immigration, inter-marriages, and international exchange programs, many of these cross-cultural resources are already in our respective countries!

Overall, I think the subtitle of this book, "An Introduction to Global Conversations" really reflects the state of such theology in the first place: That we are only at the beginning. The good news is that we can begin now, for the benefit of many generations to come. We can still pioneer this initiative and to lay the groundwork for others to catch the wind and sail forth. The opportunity is here.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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