Studying and Doing Theologies in the Life of the Churches

By Isaak, Paul John | Currents in Theology and Mission, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Studying and Doing Theologies in the Life of the Churches


Isaak, Paul John, Currents in Theology and Mission


Introduction

Over the past one hundred years, Christianity has experienced a profound Southern shift in its geographical centre of gravity. In 1893, 80 percent of those who professed the Christian faith lived in Europe and North America, while by the end of the twentieth century almost 60 percent lived in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific. "Christianity began in the twentieth century as a Western religion, and indeed the Western religion; it ended the century as a non-Western religion, on track to become progressively more so." (1) Today, the churches of the global South are more typical representatives of Christianity than those in North America or Europe. In the midst of such a demographic shift, churches are asking themselves, "How well will Christianity navigate its increasingly diverse composition and Southern majority?"

In order to address such a question I shall in bold humility provide two answers. First, I will focus on one of the programs of the Department for Theology and Studies (DTS) of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), namely the Theology in the Life of the Church program, which was designed by Karen L. Bloomquist and several other theologians, to interpret the signs of the times in light of the demographic shift in world and global Christianity. (2) Second, such a reading of the times requires a focus on the relationship between studying and doing theologies, or how to bridge the dilemma of the perceived [Lutheran] tension between faith and good works or what might be considered to divide a more classical from more contextual approaches to theology. The aim here would be to promote a more engaged and critical role of a specific theology in the life of a specific church. We now turn to these two aspects:

Theology in the life of the church

At the outset let us reformulate the name of the theological program as follows: Studying and doing theologies in the life of the churches. One should avoid creating the impression that there is a universal [Lutheran] theology and one united [Lutheran] church. However, in the best tradition of Luther's theology (3) one should accept diverse theologies that do not necessarily exclude each other; they form a multicolored mosaic of complementary and mutually enriching as well as mutually challenging frames of reference. (4) This fact is affirmed by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in its Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (5) which identifies seventeen distinct theologies including African theology, Asian theology, Black theology, Feminist theology, Womanist theology. Liberation theology, and Min-jung theology. All of these are attempts critically to reflect on the praxis in light of the word of God. At this critical point, studying and doing theologies in the life of the churches most disturbs classical or what is known as "academic theology." (6)

The demographic shift of studying and doing theologies in the life of the churches means that the time has passed when Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific sat at the feet of Europe and North America in order to learn theology. Instead, the partner and addressee of theological reflection became much less the non-believing and secular person than those involved in the struggle for human dignity. To put it differently, Matt 25:31-46 answers the important question: Who and where is Jesus Christ for us today?

Jesus comes to us in those who are hungry, homeless, sick, and imprisoned. Basic human needs are listed here--food, clothing, shelter, health care, and, by implication, the basic political need for human dignity and integrity. In other words, studying and doing theologies in the life of the churches tells us the good news that in a very real yet mysterious sense, the poor are "proxies for Christ." (7) To put it differently, loving the Triune God and loving our neighbor is a single, not a sequential act. We should remember that the new thing about Jesus was that he mentions the two commandments in Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18 in the same breath and gives them equal weight. …

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