Constructing Local Theologies

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 Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004)

Constructing Local Theology by Robert J. Schreiter provides an in-depth overview of a definition of local theologies, processes towards, and results of local theologies.  One of the many strengths of the book is Schreiter’s discussion on the failures to construct a local theology, which are syncretism and dual religion systems.  Schreiter also enhances other discussions of contextualization, with the inclusion, and explanation of, tradition and the wider church body in the process of contextualization.  The book progresses from a definition of “local theologies”, how to “map” a contextual theology, the process of studying a culture, the context of tradition, forming a part of the larger Christian identity, popular religion, and finally the problems of syncretism and dual religious systems.  The book not only insightfully discusses church tradition, but also leads one to analyze the form in which a local church, and its theology, must become a part of, and provide feedback to the global church.

 In defining “local theologies” Schreiter first points out three key items which, in his opinion, lead towards the need of “local” theologies.  This need arises from the asking of new questions with no traditional answers, old answers being impressed upon new situations, and a new Christian identity emerging from traditional theological reflection.  (2004:2-3)  Schreiter also points out the change in starting point for contextual theology, which strongly echoes that of Kosuke Koyama, “Rather than trying… to apply a received theology to a local context, this new kind of theology began with an examination of the context itself.”  (2004:4)  The chapter continues with a definition, and discussion of varying models for local theologies including the translation, adaptation, and contextual models.  The question is then asked, “Who is a local theologian?” (2004:16) The author argues that the community, professionals, prophets and poets, and “outsiders and insiders” all play a role in forming a local theology.  A local theology can only occur as a result of the dynamic interaction between the gospel, culture and the church in both the spirit of the context, and traditions.  (2004:21)

The second chapter continues the discussion of contextualization forming out of these three roots, each raising its own set of questions.  The gospel raises questions about the community, the church about the local church in relationship to other churches, and the culture in its interaction with the gospel and church.  (2004:22-23)  The author argues that the beginning point for local theologies is one of three possibilities: the development of theology confronts itself with theologies already in place (2004:25), “an event overtakes a community and most be responded to immediately” (2004:26), or resulting from a community forming a response to a larger theological effort.  (2004:26)  While one might, for example, be tempted to discard earlier theological efforts, the reader is reminded that these previous theologies “remind us of what a local church has struggled with in the past.”  (2004:27)  The overall process of developing a local theology is outlined in various steps.  Following the starting point, there must be a commitment to see tradition as a series of local theologies, and an encounter between church traditions and local themes followed by analyzing the impact of (1) the tradition on local theology, (2) local theology on tradition, and (3) local theology on the cultural situation.  Through this process a local theology basically completes a closed feedback loop, both giving and receiving feedback to the larger church, and tradition; a process which allows for the evaluation of the ability for this local theology to fit into the boundaries of the “Christian” church.

The third chapter focuses on the starting point of local theologies, which is the study of culture and context.  The reader is reminded that this process is more than simply theological, and in its warning provides a concise explanation of dual religious systems.  “Without such an attitude, based on the theology of the incarnation, on consistently runs the risk of introducing and maintaining Christianity as an alien body in a culture.  The word of God never receives the opportunity to take root and bear fruit.  What results in many instances are dual systems of belief, wherein the older system continues alongside Christianity.”  (2004:39)  Schreiter presents four underlying questions that must be answered in the study of culture: (1) how to listen for Christ present in a culture, (2) how a foreigner can understand a culture in its own terms, (3) how a native can reflectively think about their own culture, and (4) how a community can use its experience to form fertile ground for a local theology.  (2004:40)  The bulk of the chapter provides a discussion of tools for listening to culture, where functionalist, ecological and materialistic, and structuralist, and semiotic approaches are considered.  The preference is clearly that of the semiotic study of culture.  The author argues that such an approach is holistic, allows for a closer look at a culture’s identity, and has a strong concern for patterns of change.  (2004:52).  After an extended discussion on the semiotic study of cultures, the author presents two important dimensions in the dialogue between the religious domain, and other semiotic domains.  First, determining the proper mode of discourse, and secondly how to determine whether the theological result is faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  (2004:74)

The answer to this second question, fidelity to the Gospel, is undertaken in the fourth chapter, couched in a discussion of church traditions and local theologies.  Within this discussion, is also included a sociology of knowledge and theology, focused on allowing one to analyze their own, and cultures, perspective on these topics.  Highlighted within this discussion of theology is the Western tendency to view theology as sure knowledge, as opposed to theology as variations on sacred text, wisdom or as praxis, “to free us from thinking that theology as sure knowledge is the sole, legitimate form of ‘real’ theology.”  (2004:93) Additionally the author suggests the view of tradition as series of local theologies, each responding to their own cultural situation.  The subsequent chapter deals with the interaction of the local theology with tradition and Christian identity.  Schreiter espouses the importance for this interaction, stating that, “Any local theology that is truly Christian has to be engaged with the tradition… without that engagement, there is no guarantee of being part of the Christian heritage.”  (2004:95)   For Schreiter, and his Catholic background, the ability to ensure a continuity in the Christian heritage ensures the continuance of the unity of the Church, and such a demand requires early consideration in the process of forming a local theology.  Failure to do so until the end, would result in a “yes or no” situation, having already formed a theology and only investigating its ability to be folded into the larger church.  In contrast, an early consideration of tradition and Christian identity allows the local theology to be strengthened by these past experiences of the church while ensuring a conformity to fundamental Christian beliefs.  One critique of this chapter lies in the criterions laid out by Schreiter in determining a local theology’s faithfulness to the Christian tradition.  These criteria are (1) cohesiveness, (2) the worshiping context, (3) The praxis of the community, (4) The Judgment of other churches, and (5) the challenge of other churches and Christian performance.  Such a set of criterion seem to be existential, based primarily on the actions of the said community, and the evaluation of that community by other churches.  Such a criterion would have certainly judged the Reformation as a local theology that does not fit within the Christian tradition.  While it would be fair to say Luther’s theology may have been disruptive, that does not necessarily mean that it was untrue to the Gospel.  One may make the same comments regarding Christ’s teachings and actions in the light of the Judaic beliefs.  While Schreiter argues that these criterion, “would give a reasonable guarantee of Christian identity,” (2004:121) one wonders if it would be more accurately stated that these criterion provide a reasonable guarantee of a local theology’s fitness for continuity within the Roman Catholic church.

The book continues with a discussion of popular and official religion.  The author specifically focuses on “rural forms of popular religion and their survivals in urban contexts.”  (2004:128)  The author provides basic characteristics of popular religious movements and seven approaches to evaluating them.  The author concludes the chapter with suggestions on pastoral approaches to popular religion.  He writes that, “in respecting popular religion in a culture, letting the people be is not the same as letting them alone… some sort of pastoral intervention is likely.”  (2004:141)  The purpose of the section is to help the reader evaluate, and understand, local religious movements as an important component of the development of a local theology.  “Local theologies are, in many ways, the expressions of popular religions.  To develop local theologies, then, one must listen to popular religion in order to find out what is moving in people’s lives.”  (2004:143)

The final chapter deals with syncretism and dual religious systems.  Syncretism is defined as the “mixing of elements of two religious systems to the point where at lest one, if not both, of the systems loses basic structure and identity.”  (2004:144)  Syncretism is a result of the failure of a local theology to take into consideration, receive feedback from, and be judged by tradition, the Gospel, and the Church.  In other words, syncretism is a failure to maintain fidelity to the Gospel.  The author states that the popular response to syncretism is “to take a rigid line on the question of any cultural accommodation whatsoever” (2004:145), which itself results in the development of a dual system.  A dual system is best explained with the example of Asia that, “conversion to Christianity has usually meant putting all other religious systems aside, but in these instances significant parts or even the entirety of a second system is maintained.”  (2004:145) Such a phenomenon is certainly not limited to Asia.  Once, of many, such examples would be a Bolivian attending mass but also continuing to make annual sacrifices to the Incan sun god.  One important consideration raised by the author is, “What is the nature of conversion to Christianity, and how long does it take?” (2004:149)  The author points out that often we fault poor evangelism for syncretism and dual systems, while this may be part of a longer process of a full conversion to Christianity.  While a pastor may understand “receiving Christ” as a point of conversion, to the believer this may be seen as the start of their conversion process.  After further discussion on how these situations arise, the author turns to suggestions on dealing with syncretism and dual religious systems.  Due to their importance, they are briefly quoted here.  (2004:157-158)

1)      Good evangelization will also bring about culture change.

2)      Syncretism and dual systems are ultimately not about theology, even though that may seem to be the case on the surface.  They are about the entirety of the religious sign system.

3)      Connected with the second principle is a reminder that what “religion” means varies from culture to culture.

4)      For whom is syncretism or a dual system a problem?

5)      The conversion process, we now know, is much slower than we had first thought.  While genuine and sincere commitment can be made on the part of those baptized, there are many other factors involved which take longer time for resolution and incorporation into a culture.  Thus what appears to be syncretism or a dual system may be but reflective of the stages of the conversion process.

The reader is reminded that, “the firm foundations we experience today were not easily achieved.  No doubt they may have looked like a dangerous syncretism to an earlier generation.”  (2004:158)

Constructing Local Theologies provides an in-depth, and insightful guide, to the development of local theologies, contextualization.  While the discussions on incorporating tradition, and forming a closed feedback loop with the global church, is helpful, one wonders how it applies to an evangelical or charismatic church where such tradition is not as easily accessible (nor as highly esteemed) and there is no official church body or structure to report back to, or receive feedback form.  Additionally how does such a view on local theologies account for, or deal with, the failure of reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics since the Reformation?  One can see how this process may occur within the Catholic Church, or with the mainline Protestant churches, but that still leaves a major gap between the two churches.

I am beginning to wonder about the novelty and newness of contextualization itself.  In Models of Contextual Theology, Stephen B. Bevans argues that all theology is contextual theology since all theology arises out of specific concerns, beliefs, and world views of a specific time and place.  Schreiter himself argues that tradition is a stream of local theologies that continue to be developed to the day.  Is it that contextualization is new, or only that the validity of theology arising outside of the North American and European contexts is being affirmed?  Is contextualization new, or is decentralization of theology new?  One might argue that contextualization is simply a new awareness of the global church, and missionaries, of the prophetic voice of the churches they serve providing feedback, and becoming a formative member, of the global church.