I believe in a global theological accountability. We are all shaped by our contexts, personal and communal concerns, anxieties, questions and capabilities. This shapes how we read the Bible, how we develop theologies, what tools of interpretation we utilise, which metaphors we use and what topics we cover.
This is not relativism, not a denial of universal and absolute truths, but the humility of knowing that God and his truths are often beyond our man-made creations and perceptions. That is why we need the experiences of the global and historical Church, with all of its shades and colours, to be with us if we are to advance his Kingdom and ignore pitfalls of our own bubbles. Church history is full of episodes where a particular country and the Church in it gets carried away with its own social and political constructs, all along thinking that 'God wills it'.
Thus, as I try to develop a theology for today’s Middle East, I need Christians from Latin America, East Asia and North America as well as Europe to keep me accountable; to challenge me where I need to be self-critical and to learn from my experiences. Simply put, without such a theological accountability, we are vulnerable to confusing our own constructs, culture and nationalism with the truths of God.
This, however, is not happening and, where particularly Western Evangelical Christians are concerned, is truly far from this ideal.
Allow me to give two symptomatic examples of this. The first is the sloppy phrase of 'contextual theology' used for the writings of non-Western Christians. Works of African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern theologians are designated as ‘contextual’ whereas works of British or American theologians are marked as ‘theology’, as if they were not also products of their context, as if they do theology outside of parameters of a language, culture and preferred methodologies of interpretation and application. This grants Western theology a supra-contextual status and relegates non-Western theology to an inferior, semi-theology status. Obviously, such a classification is not empirical, but merely a sad reflection of how Western Christians see themselves in relation to the rest of the world.
Second is the never-ending warning of ‘syncretism’ that comes up whenever we, the non-Western theologians, speak of our desperate need to develop theologies that engage with our issues and communicate God's eternal truth within and for our reality. The worried Western Christians almost always raise the grave concern that somehow we, the non-Western Christians, are either not mentally capable of (or, worse, not willing to attempt) understanding or sticking to Biblical truths. This not only insults the non-Western Church, most of which is paying a heavy price for following Christ as persecution increases, but also the Spirit of God who promised to enlighten and guide us as we do our best to follow him.
It is ironic, though, that the same people who sternly warn us would never think of going to a Bible college in the US or UK and asking them to stop writing new books and addressing challenges faced by Christians due to risk of syncretism.
From where we see the world, we often find Western Christian books and worship songs to be truly culturally syncretistic, confusing their ‘way of life’ and national perspectives on the world and church with the truths of the gospel.
We desperately need one another on this journey, but only when its starting and end point is humility.
By Nour Armagan
A Middle Eastern theologian (using a pseudonym)