Water Buffalo Theology

One of the singular, greatest pieces of theology I have read in the last 20 years, hands down, is Kosuke Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology. Koyama (1929-2009), a Japanese Protestant theologian, was a prolific writer of 20th century contextual Asian theology – and gave us some of the best designs for how to do such work – during his years as professor of theology in Singapore, New Zealand and America. Koyama was several decades ahead of the rest of us, thinking about culture-and-gospel in ways it has taken most of us in the U.S. right up to about now to even start thinking about. In the 1960s Koyama was a missionary to rice-paddy villagers in Northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai.

During those Thailand years, Koyama came up against a reality that flustered and unraveled his Western-learned Princeton theology. Here he was explaining the gospel to Buddhist rice farmers who spent their days with water buffaloes, and there was an utter and total disconnect in understanding. First of all, none of the categories matched! He was talking atonement, wrath of God, sin, and salvation  while they were talking arhat, detachment, nirvana, unsatisfactoriness, and tranquility. Christian categories sounded so strange to their ears. They wanted to know if God was hot or cold!

The lack of severe storms, earthquakes and volcanos, the utter dependability and trustworthiness of the annual monsoon rains bringing the rice harvest made the idea of “wrath of God” totally mystifying to them. They said, “There’s fish in the river and rice in the paddy.” Life is circular, harmonious, tranquil. What in the world would ever give you the idea that God was mad about something?! They couldn’t understand why he thought so.

One of the things Koyama came to conclude was that the Gospel needed to be word-incarnated in Buddhist thought forms. Paul stole and re-defined words from Greek philosophy religions, so now we ought to in Buddhism as well, Koyama argued. His thoughts on where and how we needed to proceed across Asia in a host of contexts and cultural-religious backgrounds, stand as a seminal collection of works in a field critical to the 21st century.  Everyone knows we don’t need to export Americanism with the Gospel. Many people also realize we don’t need to export Western Greco-Roman theology developed in the West when we are inviting people to Jesus in the East.

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