Autor: aung htoo
Contextualization as An All-Embracing Theme for Christianity: A Myanmar Christian Perspective
“By living, no – more – by dying and being damned to hell doth a man become a theologian,
not by knowing, reading or speculation.”
“Theology is about questions which also affect us existentially.”
The word “contextualization” is not a recent or brand new ism that emerges in 20th and 21st centuries; it is tacitly as old as the hills in the fields of missions and theological contributions. This paper is an attempt to discover the notion and the scope of contextualization in light of Myanmar context in order to deepen and extend it.
Exploring how the gospel came into being helps Christians see that the gospel is not an incorporeal message. Jesus Christ as the bringer of the Kingdom of God became human – ethnically as Jew, geographically at Palestine, in the Roman Empire. The gospel itself is wrapped with Jewish cultural form. This shows that there is a specific context where the gospel was born and spreading over across the globe. In order for the gospel to come alive, Jesus incarnated as human. However, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is by and large interpreted in soteriological dimension among gospel-oriented Christians, called themselves as evangelicals in Myanmar. For them, the incarnation demonstrates the immeasurable love of God. In Christian history, it was Anselm of Canterbury who put the question on table – Why God Human? Anselm’s attempt to tackle this question is soteriological in the sense that “Jesus as divine-human or God incarnate offers satisfaction for the sins of all humankind through his suffering and death.” This view is known as “satisfaction theory” which is an antithesis of “ransom theory,” that was “laid out in its clearest form by Pope Gregory the Great around 600.” Anselm’s theological contribution was not ended in Medieval Era, but “its influence eventually became standard in western theology.” Does this interpretation, however, do justice enough of the biblical teaching? In fact, this understanding of incarnation defines only its vertical dimension. What still needs to be done is horizontal dimension of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. To specify, not only does the incarnation show how Jesus fully identified with humans in order to save them, but it calls Christians to follow his example. As Christianity is Christ-centered, whatever Christ did is for all who receive him in order that they might follow and witness (which is μάρτυς in Gk., literally meaning martyr) the Kingdom like He did. For this, the Bible also teaches that “…you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” This is why, the incarnation of Jesus should not be limited only within soteriological lock-up; its implication goes beyond because it is a model to pursue.
To have a closer look at its scope, incarnation is not just the moment when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary and born; it is the whole process which started from the moment of conception to the birth, from the birth to the death on the cross, from the cross to the resurrection, and from the resurrection to the ascension. Therefore, the incarnation of Jesus includes full identification of human being, the cross, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension. In the same way, if contextualization is an essentially adapted notion from the incarnation of Jesus, it can no longer be a moment, but a whole process of the messenger of the gospel to share it with people in a particular context. In this sense, contextualization is a lifetime process because experiencing God’s love through the incarnation in turn brings Christians to life-long identification with the people they serve.
Contextualization is more than learning modus operandi of theological and mission studies. In other words, it is not just a business of doing, but also about being. Today’s world is the age that everything is gauged in and through proficiencies, savvy, hands-on, and concrete skills that how-to educational programs are what the majority of people want. If contextualization is considered only as a study of techniques of know-how, theology or mission might be nothing less than a sort of professionalism. As a consequence, doing swallows being. Considering the incarnation of Christ again, it is more than way of doing; it is a way of being because incarnation confirms that Jesus became a human being that he might fully identify with humankind. In other words, Jesus through the incarnation became human being, not human doing. In this regard, the incarnation of Jesus is about being human, not doing human. Studying the “sermon on the month,” especially “beatitude” elucidates that Jesus focused more on how to be the person than to do (techniques, skills or methods) in order to join the Kingdom of God. To understand contextualization from this perspective, contextualization is more than studying technical, methodological know-how; it is a matter of heart, mind and will since contextualization is deeply rooted in the notion of incarnation. Therefore, what matters most is not just how to contextualize the message (the gospel) for its clarity, but how to become a person whose life is identified with the gospel and contextually incarnated with the hearers.
Since the notion of contextualization is an implication of Christ’s incarnation, doing contextualization is far deeper than simplifying the message. Simplifying the message (the gospel) is indeed crucial in the sense that responses will depend on comprehensibility of the message presented. But, the message and messenger are inseparable because hearers will hardly believe in the message proclaimed if a messenger does not identify with the veracity of the message. This is what really happens in Myanmar today. One respected Christian leader once said that Buddhist people are saying, “We don’t want to listen to what Christianity is because we’ve had enough of it, but what we want to hear is about Christ – so, tell us more about him.” What a badly striking comment! This points out that what matters to the hearers is not just the message presented (the gospel), but how the messenger has identified the message in and through his or her life. It also challenges Myanmar Christians to re-consider the interdependence between the message (the gospel) and the messenger. Looking at one vivid example of Jonah in the Old Testament, God was not pleased with the prophet Jonah who preached the good news reluctantly because the message is separately distant from the messenger Johan. Therefore, contextualization is not just finding local resources and skillfully tackling these in order to contextually share the gospel with non-Christians.
Further, contextualization includes both outward and inward identification. Outward identification is an attempt to live appropriately like the people in a particular context in terms of clothing, speaking their dialect or languages, valuing their customs and traditions. However, contextualization does not halt there; but it goes beyond. Outward identification should be an outcome of inward identification. Here to inwardly identify means to enter into the people’s world (their social, cultural, political and economic struggles) that the one who identifies with may share the gospel with them in the incarnational way like what Jesus did.
To what extent does the notion of contextualization encompass? In the first place, it is one criterion to evaluate to what direction a particular theological seminary is going. Mushrooming numerous theological seminaries in Myanmar, especially Yangon, gets many Christians ambiguous whether it is a promising prospect for the churches in Myanmar in the future. What criterion would be appropriate to assess the quality of a certain theological college? The answer depends on the way to tackle another pressing question - to what extent are the subjects offered, teaching-learning process employed in the class, and administrative types operated, relevantly dealt with in the context of Myanmar? Theological educators for twenty-first century are surely encountering these questions in such a way that theological schools empower the churches and missions in Myanmar. Among the issues Myanmar Christians and non-Christians face these days can be simply specified as follows: social injustice, grinding-poverty, religious and ethnic discriminations, moral corruption, quasi-corrupted education, etc... Do theological schools have anything to do with those issues? Do the subjects offered deal seriously with these issues? Buddhists have strong philosophy of suffering upon which their lives strongly depends in times of suffering. What about Christians in Myanmar? Do they have a theology of suffering which is typically biblical? Who will be more responsible for that? What needs to keep asking for theological educators is, hence, whether theological education in Myanmar is necessarily contextual in dealing with the issues facing today.
Secondly, contextualization also integrates mission and theology. Looking at the historical inauguration of contextualization in mission studies clarifies that it is the outcome of mission enterprise in cross-cultural settings. This historical backdrop implies re-discovery of the interrelationship between theology and mission. However, the word theology has been mistakenly considered as intellectual and academic business from the twelfth century onward when cathedral schools became the center of theological activity. In the Medieval period (about 1200), the universities were first founded “to develop the study of theology for serving the interests of the church by preparing students for service in it, not for service in the fields of science and industry as the modern university does.” But, “from the era of the Enlightenment, the West lost her confidence in reason from its biblical foundations. As a consequence, universities that were built to help students find truth and become servants of God and neighbors, turned into factories producing workers for a technocratic age.” The Enlightenment paradigm has impinged that theology becomes a purely academic and professional studies averting to “rational cynicism which is the hallmark of the universities.” Theology which was purposely to serve the interests of the church is shifted into intellectual or professional business and happens to be extraneous to a particular context. Contextualization as a product of mission enterprise in cross-cultural settings rejuvenates theology with mission-mindedness.
For the third point, contextualization calls to re-structure a new hermeneutical principle. Biblical hermeneutics is more than an interpretation of the text alone; it is a struggle between two contexts – original and contemporary contexts. Here original context includes the linguistic, the cultural, and historical contexts of the Scriptures. Contemporary context is the place where the reader stands. In the history of hermeneutics, scholars and theologians in the West have given much emphasis on the original context of the text through mainly higher and lower criticisms at the expense of being conscious of contemporary context and its impact upon the reader. As a result, the theological formulations developed there are not attuned to the context of the Eastern Christianity. “Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with the eyes of the man with a full belly.” Therefore, contextualization challenges a reader to read the Bible in both original and contemporary contexts. In this regard, the Bible should not be a text to be treated like a mere object; it is to be read and treated as both object and subject in order that the relationship between the Bible and the reader will come alive. Ray Bakke critically says to theological seminaries in his exploration of urban missions that “we are given enough tools such as hermeneutics, linguistic studies, the study of the Bible backgrounds to interpret the text (the Bible), but we are given less how to interpret the society where we are in.”
Fourthly, Christianity itself is communal in its nature that theology, whose task is to empower the church, should not be understood as merely individual’s endeavor. In this sense, contextualization is a communal endeavor. Therefore, Lesslie Newbigin said that “true contextualization happens when there is a community which lives faithfully by the gospel and in the same costly identification with people in their real situations as seen in the earthly ministry of Jesus.” Thus, contextualization asserts that the gospel can be deeply ingrained in the soil of Myanmar in such a manner that Christians work together, struggle together, pray together, and depend one another. In other words, it is the unity where each person can share their diverse experiences, perspectives and opinions so as to discuss together and argue together with the mind of Kingdom expansion. Eventually, the united spirit will come out, the power of the fellowship will strengthen the churches in Myanmar, and theology will be a team-game. What contextualization encourages is, thus, all Christians regardless of differences of denomination, doctrines, and beliefs are to seek modus vivendi with one accord in and through the humble mind of Christ that truly contextual theology will spring up in the soil of Myanmar.
Lastly but not the least, genuine contextualization exacts sacrifice. In today’s world, the call for sacrifice does not appear to mesmerize people. In business, politics, and international relations, people look for the way to success without failure, gaining without losing, triumphing without suffering. However, examining how Jesus Christ incarnated as a human convincingly assures that sacrifice is unavoidable to all who believe in him. For this, Jesus clearly said:
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
True contextualization should be deepened and broadened to all Christian dimensions such as ways of evangelism and doing mission, and lifestyle in the age of success obsession. The death of Jesus on the cross is the acme of his identification with humankind. Understanding contextualization aside from the cross where sacrificial love is best displayed would be nothing less than circumventing the essence of the gospel. In order to re-root the gospel in the soil of Myanmar, all Christians (full-time ministers or lay Christians) are called to re-consider whether their sharing of the gospel relevantly in the context of Myanmar is based on the cross to which all are called to bear. Looking at the Myanmar Christian history notifies that sacrifice for the gospel’s sake is what Christians in Myanmar desperately need to.
As a conclusion, contextualization is complex process that it is tough to pin down its methods and principles in a simply way. But do Christians in Myanmar have to leave it behind because of its complicated process? “Preserving the purity of the Gospel on the one hand and making relevant it to a particular context on the other is a necessary but complicated and risky task. Nevertheless, it must be done.” The vital question to ask is, “how firmly are Christians determined for the gospel to be re-rooted in Myanmar soil regardless o
This paper is just an abridged exploration on how deep and far contextualization can be scrutinized, and not a detailed explanation. Within six and seven pagers, it is hard to thoroughly spell out the broad concept of contextualization.
Justo L. Gonzaelez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the dawn of the Reformation, vol. 1, (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1984), 313. For more details, see Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Leicester: IVP, 1999), 322-325.
See Stephen B. Bevans, SVD, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 7; Hwa Yung, Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology (New Delhi: Regnum, 1997), 62; Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD. The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1998), 69 That contextualization is conceptually rooted in incarnation of Jesus is not a new idea coming up recently, many mission or contextual theologians agree with that. But, what is still needed to think deeper and develop broader is in-depth study of why and how contextualization is rooted in Jesus’ incarnation.
The origin of the term “contextualization” is credited to Sheki Coe and Aharoan Sapsezian, directors of the Theological Education Fund of the WCC in their 1972 report, Ministry and Context. There authors suggested that the term contextualization implies all that is involved in the term indigenization but goes beyond it to take account of the process of secularity, technology and the struggle for human justice which characterized the historical moment of nations in the third world, see New Dictionary of Theology, s.v. “contextualization.” See also, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), s.v. “Contextualization of Theology.”
Ray Bakke, The Urban Christian: Effective Ministry in Today’s Urban World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1987), 51.
The coinage of the word “team-game” is cited from the introduction of the book of: Vinay Samuel & Chris Sugden, Mission as Transformation: A Theology of the Whole Gospel (Oxford: Regnum, 1999), xiv.
“The Holy Bible, New International Version. Pradis CD-ROM:Jn 12:24-25.
Rodrigo D. Tano, “Theology in the Philippine Context: Some Issues and Themes” in Lee Wanak, ed., Theological Education in the Philippine Context (Metro Manila: OMF, 1993), 17.