Friday, September 04, 2009

Theology from Western, white context

As I continued reading Soong-Chan Rah's The Next Evangelism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, I echo what he said about doing theology from Western, white context. I recall two classes I had.

The first was on Theory and Method of Comparative Religion. I had to write a final research paper of which 25% was on definition of religion. Most of the reference books I could find defined religion mainly from American/European, theistic perspective. It was upon encounter with Buddhism that the definition started to shift from reference to a Being to a transcendent reality. But if that is the case, how about Confucianism? Is it a religion? How about Chinese folk religion where you have a mixture of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism? Is it a religion or three religions? If it is a religion, would that alter the definition of religion? If it is three religions, what kind of borrowing took place that could synthesize the three systems to co-exist side by side for a practitioner, and which works well for centuries? In the end, I stick to a definition characterized by sacred practices or rituals that produce long, lasting effects on civilization. At the moment, I am still open to a better definition.

Theological and Economic Ethics of Globalization was the second class. In giving a definition of globalization, the professor narrowed it down to the distribution of production mode from America to overseas. I immediately proposed a different perspective "If globalization were characterized by the exchange of goods and services between countries, and which results in flow of information and culture across continents, shouldn't globalization begin long ago along the silk road, with active trade between China and the Middle East way before America existed?" Well, if we were to go back to the common notion of what is globalization, of course my professor would be right, because most people assume globalization from Western, white perspective. It is something like the concept of GMT. Where is GMT 0? In Britain. The rest of the world has to take reference from Britain in setting their time zone. The time zone was set in place when Britain was the world superpower. Similarly, why is it that only US registered website does not have extra suffix in their internet address? For e.g. the Google homepage in US is; but in Singapore, it is The answer is the same as the previous one.

I would like to quote three paragraphs from Rah's The Next Evangelism which express my sentiment as I learn to do theology in US context:

Because theology emerging from a Western, white context is considered normative, it places non-Western theology in an inferior position and elevates Western theology as the standard by which all other theological frameworks and points of view are measured. This bias stifles the theological dialogue between the various cultures. "Attendant assumptions of a racial hierarchy that assumes the intellectual and moral, superiority of the Caucasians, has hampered our understanding of the text by unnecessarily eliminating possible avenues of study."[30] We end up with a Western, white captivity of theology. Western theology becomes the form that is closest to God. "It is a pretentious illusion that there is something pure and objective about the way theology has been done in the Western church, as if it were handed down directly by the Almighty to the theologians of the correct methodology."[31]

This marginalization of non-Western theology is reflective of Edward Said's description of "orientalism." Said examines Western perceptions of the Orient (in Said's case, he focuses on Arabic and Middle-Eastern cultures when referring to the Orient) and reveals how the exoticizing of "oriental" culture allows Western culture to create a sense of otherness for these cultures. "Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, structuring, and having authority over the Orient."[32]

Creating "the other" allowed Western culture to express its power over non-Western cultures. Inferiority is inferred when a culture or people are categorized as "the other." "European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even an underground self."[33] In the same way that Western culture diminishes non-Western culture through the creation of an "otherness," Western Christianity diminishes non-Western expressions of Christian theology and ecclesiology with the creation of "otherness."

Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity Press, 2009), 78-9.

[30] Peter T. Nash, Reading Race, Reading the Bible (Minneapolic: Fortress, 2003), p.58.
[31] Ibid., pp. 25, 26.
[32] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 3.
[33] Ibid.

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