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.

Left Brain/Right Brain, Life, and Spiritual Knowledge

Towards the end of the last blog’s quote of N.T. Wright, Wright says “We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter…..  not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home.” It’s not hard to see why someone could say he is pulling a cheap end-run, trying to skirt the argument,  encapsulating science within a larger epistemology, like Hinduism encapsulating Christ within its pantheon, arguing for a both-and approach, when everyone with our Western Enlightenment mindset knows the question is really either-or.

However, I think Wright is actually expressing something thoroughly true to human existence. (Richard Rohr also does very good work in this area, among others, see his Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi). There are certainly more ways of “knowing” something than empirical science. I know that I love my wife, I know that I will be deeply content the next time I am surf-fishing, I know what musical transition will sound good, I know when I have done the right thing, I know my children, I know how much pressure to apply to jump the first step of our staircase, I know that that sunset will thrill my daughter. None of these types of knowing are based around empirical scientific evidence. Knowing that you love someone may be the most accessible example in everyday life. Humans know all kinds of things, all day, every day, which have nothing to do with empirical scientific proof. Western Enlightenment has acted like really only empirical evidence matters in the real world of grown-ups, but real life indicates conclusively that that is nonsense.

We have a left brain and a right brain, and I mean it literally, but more than literally as well, to say a person needs both sides of the brain to be alive. The left crunches numbers and facts, the right handles, music, art, beauty, intuition. The left handles science, the right handles spirituality. As the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathon Sacks, has said, science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean. And I would argue that human experience shows, that when we opt for simply one dimension, we lack a balanced, healthy, whole life.

Even within Christian spirituality this is evident. We can’t go on simply reading. We need to sing – it’s literally a different part of our brains. We need to get up and do something as an expression of the imago dei, because sitting and being only cerebral will distort, and sometimes literally kill, us. (Sitting too much is linked in numerous medical studies to early death). We need to interact relationally with other people. We need our imaginations fired, which is not the empirical part of our brains, to receive the benefit of exemplary causation, a much more powerful reality than “role model” and one medieval Christianity understood thoroughly in its attention to the role of the saints. One evidence of this is the number of evangelical protestant – oriented people who struggle so much with a male authority-figure image of God because of bad experiences with their fathers or other male leaders. Well, with our down-grading of Mary’s role in Christian spirituality, we’ve taken away from them a feminine aspect in Christian devotion that earlier generations had access to, and we’ve stuck people with only a get-over-it option, which other generations weren’t trapped in.

All of that to begin to say, though of course we can’t unwind it all in a blog post, that science, though it contributes wonderful things to our life and understanding, is not the only dimension of human knowledge which we need for a full, flourishing human life and civilization. Nor can science prove or dis-prove something like the resurrection of Jesus.

N.T. Wright on the Epistemology of the Resurrection

Here’s some interesting musings from N.T. Wright on the kind of epistemology one brings towards an event like Jesus’ resurrection. It’s in his fun little book Surprised by Scripture, in the chapter “Can a Scientist believe in the Resurrection?” The whole chapter is an enjoyable read, but here are some tidbits that point in some intriguing directions (bold and italics are mine):

“What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. Faith of this sort is not blind belief that rejects all history and science. Nor is it simply— which would be much safer!— a belief that inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment. Rather, this kind of faith, which is like all modes of knowledge defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator God, the God who has promised to put all things to rights at the end, the God who (as the sharp point where those two come together) has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving as I said evidence that demands an explanation from the scientist as well as anybody else. Insofar as I understand scientific method, when something turns up that doesn’t fit the paradigm you’re working with, one option at least, perhaps when all others have failed, is to change the paradigm, not to exclude everything you’ve known to that point but to include it within a larger whole.  

…. As I said, the resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world, though it is also that; it is the defining, central, prototypical event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus. If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing that involves us in new ways, an epistemology that draws from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-scientific research but the whole-person engagement and involvement for which the best shorthand is “love,” in the full Johannine sense of agápē.

My sense from talking to scientific colleagues is that, though it’s hard to describe, something like this is already at work when the scientist devotes him- or herself to the subject matter, so that the birth of new hypotheses seems to come about not so much through an abstract brain… crunching data from elsewhere, but more through a soft and mysterious symbiosis of knower and known, lover and beloved. The skeptic will quickly suggest that this is, after all, a way of collapsing the truth of Easter once more into mere subjectivism. Not so. Just because it takes agápē to believe the resurrection, that doesn’t mean all that happened was that Peter and the others felt their hearts strangely warmed. Precisely because it is love we are talking about, not lust, it must have a correlative reality in the world outside the lover. Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality. This is the mode of knowing that is necessary if we are to live in the new public world, the world launched at Easter, the world in which Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t.

That is why, although the historical arguments for Jesus’s bodily resurrection are truly strong, we must never suppose that they will do more than bring people to the questions faced by Thomas and Peter, the questions of faith and love. We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like someone who lit a candle to see whether the sun had risen. What the candles of historical scholarship will do is show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn’t look like it did last night, and that would-be normal explanations for this won’t do. Maybe, we think after the historical arguments have done their work, maybe morning has come and the world has woken up. But to find out whether this is so, we must take the risk and open the curtains to the rising sun. When we do so, we won’t rely on candles anymore, not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home. All knowing is a gift from God, historical and scientific knowing no less than that of faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.”

Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (p.60- 63). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

What have we been told about Pelagius?

My last five posts have been about the Augustinian iteration of Original Sin in Western Christianity and questions surrounding its usefulness in the postmodern world. During the same time, I was perusing a book called Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community, Ireland and to my surprise came upon this write-up about Pelagius, Augustine’s adversary on this subject. I am going to quote it in its entirety. When I was in seminary the ultimate trump-card in a dispute was to call someone ‘Pelagian.’ Once you did that, you won. But is it possible our take on Pelagius has been a bit truncated in the Augustinian-drenched theology we’ve been handed? Is it possible Christian theology needs a better, more fully Biblical doctrine of humanity than the version of Original Sin Augustine taught?

“Pelagius (c.350-418) August 28.   We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian teaching today!

Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer and soul-friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first – even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul-friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’

But soon he was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur.

Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy – on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, and declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 they persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church then was obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgement, and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.

Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view-point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!”*

There are quite a bit of things we could say about all this, concerning the affect of politics, cultural prejudice and personal dislike swirling around this debate between two early theologians. But I will limit myself to saying: we are 15 centuries out from Augustine. Do we really want to allow this one man to dictate directions in Western theology simply because he held sway in majority positions and the Protestant Reformers liked him?

*(Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. HarperOne: 2002. Northumbria Communty Trust Ltd.)

Postmodern Considerations on Original Sin PART FOUR: non-Western theology

Our discussion of Original Sin, Creationism, and literal interpretations of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” took a turn toward how different theology will look when written outside the cultural matrix of Greco-Roman thought, so common in Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian theology.

My friend:   I’ll give you that doctrine has changed or evolved through time, there are some pretty universally held truths that have been in play since shortly after the canon was established. Namely, trinitarian doctrine, incarnational doctrine and the doctrine of sin and salvation. Btw, I wouldn’t claim that the doctrine of creation, the fall, and original sin is merely a motif. They are doctrines that have historically been taught by the church.

Me:  I want to say that doctrines need to be enunciated/interpreted in ways that mean something understandable here and now. Original Sin and its ramifications look a lot different before – and East of – Augustine than after. And all those doctrines have been shaped primarily in the context of Greco-Roman culture and its fallout. So now, when Asian and African, and Native American cultures start wrestling with Christian theology, I want to be as aware of their right to work through doctrine within the context of their cultures as has already happened in “our” Greco-Roman culture. I don’t expect their theology to look nearly as Greco-Roman as ours. And I don’t think that makes it any less Christian. To do so would be to be stupendously emic and fail to apply any etic sense to our own situation.

My friend: Is that syncretism?

Me:   We’d be less than honest if we didn’t think our baptism in the early centuries with Greek Philosophy wasn’t a kind of syncretism. So, if you interpret the Bible through the matrix of non-Greco-Roman cultures, and you use their matrixes like we used Greco-Roman, some people would certainly yell syncretism, but I don’t think it is. If Christianity had moved predominately East into India instead of West into Greece/Rome in the early centuries, and if the creeds had been formed in India or Vietnam, we’d sure have nothing that sounds like the Nicene!  So, I think it takes some serious calm sitting back and watching and listening and waiting to hear a generation of non-Western scholars argue each other out before people like us start saying “syncretism.” Listen to what Clement of Alexandria (lived c. 150-215 AD) said about Greek philosophy. If a former Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist said this about their former religion, would we accuse them of syncretism?

Clement of Alexandria said this: “Before the Lord’s coming, philosophy was an essential guide to righteousness for the Greeks. At the present time, it is a useful guide toward reverence for God. It is a kind of preliminary education for those who are trying to gather faith through demonstration. ‘Your foot will not stumble,’ says Scripture, if you attribute good things, whether Greek or Christian, to Providence. God is responsible for all good things: of some directly, like the blessings of the Old and New Covenants, of others indirectly, like the riches of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy too was a direct gift of God to the Greeks before the Lord extended his appeal to the Greeks. For philosophy was to the Greek world what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ. So philosophy is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” (STROMATEIS 1.5.28.I-3)

If Clement can say this about Greek Philosophy (and certainly Christian theology written for centuries bore the express stamp of Greek philosophy in its wording and cultural matrix), then can’t we say the same thing about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and indigenous religions?  Constructing Christian theology within the matrixes of these worldviews is no different than what Western theology in the Christian tradition did with Greco-Roman philosophy. If it is syncretism, then western theology is entirely syncretistic. I won’t call it that. I think the more apt phrase is ‘culturally incarnational.’ And, we shouldn’t expect that all of them will be infatuated with Augustine’s version of ‘original sin.’

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART THREE

I meant to get back to this a lot sooner, but life intervened. This is Part Three of some thoughts on the doctrines of Original Sin and the Fall as they’ve come down to us in the West, predominantly with Augustine’s influence in mind, and how those doctrines are intertwined with Creationism, vs. evolution, etc. A Facebook conversation got this all rolling; here are some more of a sort of stream-of-consciousness response I wrote:

One more thing. I don’t want to suggest that evolution is the opposite of Creation. I don’t even think Darwin thought that. I assume any evolution that (perhaps) did occur, was set in motion by God. Also, I don’t want to assume that the world is how God made it nor wants it, of course not! I don’t see God using evolution in Creation is the same as saying the world full of violence, idolatry and rebellion is how God made it nor intends it to be. Many people have suggested that death’s entry into the subject refers to spiritual death, though this is nuanced, but meaning that natural death was an original part of the world. When snow geese eat grass, they kill it, because they don’t graze, they pull it up by the roots. Literalizing no death in the natural world in Genesis 1-3 would mean originally snow geese didn’t kill grass when they ate it. That seems a stretch regarding everything we know about the natural world. Rather than perfect, in the sense of flawless and deathless, this view goes, God made a world still in development, with the ultimate goal being perfected when even the physical death in the current world will be swallowed up. This take (not described very well by me in a small space) may not be one everyone wants to utilize, but if it helps people find Jesus, get over the hurdle of a view of the natural world they feel is as absurd as the medieval ascending spheres of perfection, I’m for letting people hold various views toward Creation etc so these things don’t unnecessarily bar them from coming to Christ. I’ve seen people stand three feet from me in intellectual anguish because they wanted to follow Christ but thought they had to be Young Earth 6 Day Creationists, and as scientists, they couldn’t be that intellectually dishonest with themselves. When I said, regarding the stories in Genesis 1-3, (true story) “It looks like a poem, I don’t feel the point is we need to take it literally, we need to learn what it says about us” their relief was visible. They’ve been happily and visibly serving Jesus ever since.”

At this point a close friend said: “I never espoused the idea that a belief in Creation is necessary for salvation. All I said was that disavowing a more literal interpretation of creation by God leads to some doctrinal hurdles that are difficult to overcome. If we’re talking about throwing doctrine out to save souls, I’m a bit Leary of that for a few reasons: 
1-if we toss out doctrine that makes people feel uncomfortable so that they are more easily reached, at what point do we stop throwing doctrine out? What about when they say, “I feel like I can’t accept the singularity of Jesus for salvation because that would be intellectually dishonest because I’m a comparative religions major”? Are we to accept pluralism and universalism? Are we to become Unitarians?”

This is a response I run into fairly often, the idea that if we work on any particular doctrine, everything will come crashing down. Or that working on a doctrine is the same thing as throwing it out altogether. I respond with this:

All of our theologies are in their 10th iterations, as they’ve been worked over again and again for centuries. And I think orthodoxy has been quite wide, so I’m not suggesting throwing out any doctrine necessary for someone to believe in Jesus, eventually there would be nothing left to believe of course! But I certainly don’t ascribe to the slippery slope analogy, as if nothing can change because everything might change! Fact is, “faith seeking understanding” has morphed Christian theology in radical ways over the centuries. If Augustine didn’t think Gen 1-3 needed to be taken literally, I think we can safely say someone considered orthodox can still believe in Jesus successfully without holding to a literalistic take on Adam and Eve and yet still not be accused of being logically and doctrinally inconsistent. As Steve Estep has written, the Apostles’ Creed states the Who of Creation, not the How of Creation.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest doctrine doesn’t matter. Though Jesus does indeed seem to indicate he offered “an easy yoke and a light burden”. What I think about doctrine is that we have habits of getting attached to specific iterations of them and sticking with that long after their meaningfulness in communicating the Gospel has passed for the culture. The continual re-work of the Atonement theories is the perfect example, Once one theory stopped being a viable explanation for a culture, they worked on another one that would make sense in their context. We are living in a stream of moving water, and doctrine has not been some once-for-all-passed-down-through-the-ages kind of thing. It gets re-worked, re-thought, amended and re-worded. In short, we learn. The idea that doctrine has remained untainted and unchanged for 2000 years and lately some liberals have attacked it… is untrue –  it’s been evolving all along! Since we still know Jesus is King, and Savior, and telos, I don’t see the problem. And when you let people of other cultures do theology without forcing them to pass through the Greco-Roman matrix, you’ll get theology that looks A LOT different than ours! More on that next time.

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART TWO

A facebook post by my son concerning whether Adam and Eve were literal historical figures, or mythic literary devices for teaching us something theological, evolved into a discussion of Original Sin. A beloved friend of ours asked the following questions:

1-if Adam and Eve were merely literary devices, and we all evolved, what is your doctrine of humanity, with specific regard to the biblical statement that we are created in the image of God, and thus the apex of creation (God clearly gives humans a place above all other creatures, but slightly lower than Angels). 
2-where does sin (specifically, original sin) enter the picture if there are no first parents to lead us in death?
3-if you can’t explain why we have sin, then you can’t explain why we need a Savior.
4-if you can’t explain why we need a savior, then why do we need Jesus?

These are questions that come to many peoples’ minds when we come to this subject. Here is part of my response:  I don’t have to have a cogent doctrine of Original Sin to know humanity has a sin problem. In fact, I don’t have to have Augustine’s doctrine at all, as neither the OT (according to the rabbis and the Calvinists) nor the Eastern church have. Eastern Orthodoxy has no problem explaining the need for a Savior to save us from sin, death, hell and ourselves without ascribing to Augustine’s idea, which I liken to punishing a kid for being born with Down’s Syndrome, morally repugnant. Humanity can certainly be made in the imago dei and God can yet do it via evolution if He wants. Augustine himself did not take Genesis 1-3 literally.

I don’t need “first parents” to lead me to sin, I figured it out pretty much on my own, which makes me ACTUALLY guilty, rather than something I inherited unsuspecting. Every OT scholar I can think of holds that the two creation stories in Genesis 1-3 appear to be hymns or poems, and surely  mythic origins stories designed to explain our dilemma. If Reformed guys complain that the OT is too Pelagian in dealing with sin, it’s all the more reason I think we need a serious re-write to our assumptions about ‘original’ sin. Neither Judaism nor Islam have a problem explaining human waywardness and guilt without a doctrine of Original Sin, and both recognize the need for God’s forgiveness. Atonement doctrines can survive without Augustine’s interpretation of Paul on inherited depravity.

So, OS and The Fall and all that work as motifs to explain what’s up. They’ve been tied virtually materialistically to various atonement theories. But of course we all know it’s not literally “seed” or we’d just laser that gene out of the genome, no big. All the various ways we could interpret Fall and OS and atonement aside, the part I am not clueing in on is the whole “gotta have this brick or the whole wall falls” piece. Everyone can look around and see we’re bad. Israel has a story that explains it. Paul uses those images to explain what Jesus did on the cross. It’s all good. Turning all those images into literal cosmic science seems unnecessary to me, as long as we “get” it. “It” being – we have a problem, we are estranged from God, we keep doing bad stuff, and Jesus sets us free and restores us, His Spirit enabling us to live new lives. From Isaiah on, there are all kinds of profound images for what that is… but taking any of those images, or picking a handful, and creating a 5 step doctrinal assembly line that starts with Fall or OS and ends with our accepting the atonement seems to, I don’t know, mistake the wineskin for the wine. We need set free by Jesus, we’ve done bad things (some worse than others), and need to stop and if the West’s particular arrangement of some of these doctrines gets in the way of people seeing Jesus (being confounded by some of the crazier aspects of Augustine on OS, etc) then I’m like why not do what Christians have been doing for 20 centuries… work out some new theology?

We’ll still end up with something that uses biblical images to explain what’s up, but it’ll end up with something that makes a bit more sense to people in this milieu. Instead of effectively saying “now to believe this, you’ve got to reformat your mind the way people were thinking in Geneva in 1550 or Hippo in 450.” Anyway, from where I’m currently sitting, since a being capable of morality and love has to have freedom, I think free will explains the presence of sin better than OS and the Fall. Adam chose to sin before the fall happened, and without being afflicted with original sin. We are all able to do that, just like Adam did. Perhaps Pelagius got a bad rap, railroaded politically. The Patriarch of Jerusalem heard him out and said “I got no problem with this.” Lest we suspect that the Church can’t overlook something for centuries, let’s not forget that neither the Apostles’ nor Nicene Creed mentions, for all their brilliance, that we believe in love!!!!! Iconography of Adam and Eve getting forgiven first  among humanity  is profound and beautiful, but that doesn’t make me take it literally.

More next time, in Part Three.