Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context
The renowned American essayist Joseph Epstein once made the following assertion:
Reading is experience. A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length and in detail with what he/she read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read. At the same time, we read what we are. We use books like mirrors, gazing into them only to discover ourselves. We also use them like larders, extracting from them those items we need to satisfy our hungers of the moment. The mystery and the wonder of it is that, somehow or other, the books one needs are the books one finds.1
I was pleased to find the book Majority World Theology recently because it is a book that I need as a theology professor at a Christian liberal arts university located in a small town in rural Indiana; but even more so, it is a book that I need as a member of the global church—a church whose majority population today resides in the Global South (a.k.a., the Majority World) but whose theological voices in recent history have primarily resounded from the West. My experience reading this book opened my eyes to see familiar theological topics in ways I never have before.
Majority World Theology is a timely resource for those who desire to broaden their perspective on theological issues by getting more acquainted with the increasing number of scholarly voices from around the world who are contributing to what one of the editors refers to as the “kaleidoscopic lens of the Easter reality” (13). As readers make their way through the 699 pages of the book, they are invited into a global conversation with forty-eight scholars (thirty-seven males and eleven females) from twenty-nine different countries, with only six of them from the United States. The editors explain that the initial goal of the project was to develop a cross-cultural theological resource that was “catholic in its composition and dynamics, cross-disciplinary in its method, and evangelical in its orientation toward Scripture as the ultimate source of divine revelation” (xii). And while the contributors certainly lived up to this threefold objective, what is also notable is that the contemporary contextual theologies they produced are all anchored in scripture and rooted in the creeds and conversations of the church throughout history.
This “honoring our parents” approach (as the editors describe it), combined with contextualized theological insights that have emerged from a new generation of global scholars, is what differentiates this book from other theological resources available today (xii). For example, I’ve read numerous accounts (by authors writing from a Western perspective) of the Council of Nicaea and the ontological debate about God’s essence (that is, the one iota difference between God the Son being “of a similar substance” or his being “of the same substance” as the God the Father). But reading again about this historical trinitarian controversy from the Native American viewpoint of “God as community” in the chapter authored by Cherokee scholar Randy Woodley sheds new light on a centuries-old debate and calls for a different way of thinking about God’s ontological essence and a deeper understanding of the mystery of the triune God (37).
Another example of this approach can be found in the chapter authored by Chinese biblical scholar Elaine Goh, who writes from her collectivist cultural perspective about the salvation history that has been traced throughout the Old Testament texts by numerous biblical scholars. I’ve read these scholars as well, and I’ve read and taught through the Old Testament several times throughout my career. I’ve also traveled to China with students over a dozen times and I teach theology to leaders currently serving in the Chinese church. I thought I had a fairly informed understanding of Chinese culture, and I thought I had a fairly informed biblical worldview. But reading through Goh’s chapter on “Qohelet’s Gospel in Ecclesiastes” and how this text informs the Chinese Christian understanding of salvation was profoundly enlightening and personally challenging to my presuppositions (457).
A third example of this approach can be seen in the chapter authored by Kenyan theologian James Kombo. The unit I teach on Eschatology is one of the most challenging for students in my Theology of Christian Life course, and admittedly, I typically approach the topic from a predominantly Western theological perspective, focusing primarily on the cosmic dimension of how the story of God will end one day and usher in a new beginning. But Kombo’s emphasis on the personal dimension of eschatology for Christians today, and his reflections on death and the intermediate state and how African Christian eschatology emphasizes the ongoing life of our ancestors, provides new insight to the very familiar words of the Nicene Creed: “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (615).
In terms of its genre, Majority World Theology is more of a reader or a textbook than a light read someone might enjoy over a weekend or on a long plane ride. With its 699 pages, the book is dense to be sure, but the writing styles of the authors are not so scholarly that a college student or a person with a college level education would not be able to digest it. Yet the insights throughout the text are rich and deep enough to cause a theologian of any caliber to pause and reconsider presuppositions that have been gleaned from a predominantly Western-oriented theological education. The editors arranged the book according to six common theological units: the Trinity, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology. It is curious why each of the first five units includes eight chapters, but the last unit only includes seven, especially since one of the editors points out that “in too many arrangements of systematic theology, eschatology functions much like an appendix, awkwardly affixed to the core of Christian teaching like an unnecessary limb” (593). Nevertheless, the last unit of the book is just as strong as the first five, even if it is seemingly missing an eighth chapter. Each of the six units includes an introduction written by one of the three editors. The words of one of the editors, Chinese scholar K. K. Yeo, in his introduction to part one, summarize well the unique contribution this particular book offers to the plethora of theological works available today. Yeo explains that the challenge when we speak or write about God is that we are “using a limited linguistic tool to depict God, who is incomparable” (6). In response to this challenge, Majority World Theology offers a plethora of contextualized perspectives on God from forty-eight scholars living in twenty-nine different countries.
In her chapter titled, “Learning to See Jesus with the Eyes of the Spirit,” Brazilian theologian Rosalee Velloso Ewell writes that “all theologies are contextual” (60). If there was a phrase that best captures the essence of Majority World Theology, it would be this statement. Every section of the book is filled with contextualized theologies that are biblically anchored, historically informed, and culturally relevant; and that is what distinguishes this particular book from the numerous others I have on my shelves that are written primarily from Western, homogenous theological perspectives. One of the editors summarizes the contributors’ approach well when he writes that “we always read from and to a place” (479). That is to say, we begin our study of God from a particular cultural context and ask the question, how do we understand God here and now in this place we are living? In order to answer this question, we look back to biblical times and to different eras in church history to discover what God’s word says and how our ancestors understood God’s word in their time and context. Then after gathering these biblical and theological insights from the past, we return to our context today and grapple with them in our present circumstances. What Majority World Theology offers readers is a kaleidoscope of theological perspectives from numerous places around the world.
If Joseph Epstein is correct that “we are what we read” and “we read what we are,” then Western Christians would do well to peruse through our theological libraries and reevaluate our recommended/required reading lists in order to determine if we have been reading primarily through a Western cultural lens, or if we need to broaden our understanding of God by reading more widely through the lenses of our sisters and brothers throughout the global church. A good place to begin this journey would be to pick up a copy of Majority World Theology and start reading.