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Constructing Contextual Theology in a Postmodern Asian Society

Paul Y. Siu

It is no exaggeration to say that Asia is in the process of bypassing modernity and settling into postmodernity.1 Postmodern thinking and lifestyle seem to pervade many, if not all, metropolitan cities in East Asia. In Asian Chinese communities there has been a surge of publications on the subject of postmodern thought and its impact on society.2 Daniel J. Adams, a seasoned contextualizer who has been a missionary-educator in Taiwan, Korea and Japan for a long period of time, made the following salient observation in illustrating Taiwan’s transition from modernity to postmodernity:

It took place on a rainy evening in the midst of a mammoth traffic jam in downtown Taipei. It was rush hour and the streets were jammed with cars, buses, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Nothing was moving and it easily took twenty to thirty minutes to move from one traffic light to another. As I looked out of the bus window I noticed that many of the cars caught in this traffic jam were imported luxury sedans. There was a Mercedes-Benz here, a BMW over there, a Jaguar to the right, and a Volvo to the left. Here were signs of economic development and great personal wealth. Yet it took longer to go from traffic light to traffic light than it did thirty years ago when everyone either walked, rode a bicycle, or took a pedicab. Of course in those days Taiwan was considered to be an economically undeveloped backwater. Standing on that bus in the midst of that traffic jam, I realized that I was, quite literally, caught between the times. Here was a chaotic contradiction between overdevelopment and an almost total breakdown of the transportation infrastructure.3

Robert Magliola, who has taught and researched for nine years in Taiwan, is regarded as a postmodern scholar. He also shares the opinion that Taiwan is settling into the postmodern intellectual and social movement. In his most recent book On Deconstructing Life-Worlds: Buddhism, Christianity, Culture, Magliola related some of his postmodern observations of Taiwan:

O Postmodern China—Gaudy Taoist shrines, laden with 2000+ years of ritual, and next door, a technicolor disco. Side by side. And ragtail assemblies of scabrous stray dogs—they’re frightened of their own shadows. From a corner a curmudgeon of a vendor hawks the latest craze, chestnuts roasted Italian-style in a black iron brazier. Germans and Frenchmen and Dutch and Arabs pass by, sauntering in clusters. . . . Artists, intellectuals, business people, they speak their own languages aloud.4

From these and other similar illustrations, it is obvious that Asia is settling into a postmodern mood. However, the form of postmodernism that is most influential in Asia is not the literary deconstruction initiated by Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lyotard,5 but the socio-political postmodernism espoused by Daniel Bell, Fredric Jameson and Richard Rorty. This socio-political postmodernism reacts against existing social and economic structures and severely critiques postindustrial society. In 1985 Fredric Jameson made a trip to Beijing University to deliver a lectureship on the topic “Postmodernism and the Theory of Civilization” in which he explored the critical theory and neo-Marxism in the context of postmodernism. The manuscript of the lectureship was translated and published both in mainland China and Taiwan.
This socio-political form of postmodernism is creating quite an impact on the intellectual community.6 This is not difficult to understand, since economic development for the past decade or more has become almost the sole concern in Asian countries.7 As John Naisbitt describes the Asian economic trend in Megatrends Asia, “We are witnessing a dramatic shift from labor-intensive agriculture and manufacturing to state-of-the-art technology in manufacturing and services, most pronounced in the rush to computers and telecommunications.”8
Such rapid economic changes, however, are undermining the societal values and traditional-personal virtues which have given Asian countries stability and self-identity. Asian countries are now experiencing the dark side of postmodernity and postindustrialization. Economic and technological developments have brought urban and environmental problems that Asian cities have never encountered before. There have been serious questions about whether Western-style democracy can ever work in Asian countries, which have never had a strong democratic tradition.
Disillusionment sets in when Asian countries begin to realize that economic growth may one day be dampened. In 1995—for the first time in ten years—Japan lost its top ranking as the world’s most competitive economy. The United States is now ranked first.9 Indeed, during the past year, Asian countries have been facing economic crises. Asian economies are not as strong as people may think. Rapid economic development has driven Asian countries into a deep spiritual vacuum.
How shall we then construct theology in Asian societies? I had the privilege of teaching theology in Taiwan for six years. I intend to focus on Chinese society and use Taiwan as a case study.


The Prelude to Theological Construction

While teaching systematics in Taiwan, I observed four theological and cultural factors in the process of constructing theology in the Chinese context:
First, there is the quest for an adequate definition of contextual theology to serve as the guiding principle in constructing theology. I agree with Stephen Bevans that an adequate definition takes into account four elements: the Scriptures; Christian church traditions; the local culture; and the social change of that particular local culture.10 Moving from modernity to postmodernity represents a distinct social change which is taking place in the cultural setting of Taiwan.
Second, the tendency in today’s Asian contextual theology is to overlook the content of biblical doctrines. Some contextual theologies have become so issue-oriented that they trivialize the doctrinal content of Christian theology; examples include C.S. Song’s Third-Eye Theology and Kosuke Koyama’s Waterbuffalo Theology.11 Their primary concern is to deal with preliminary issues, such as the relation of theology and culture, theory and praxis, social change and religious faiths. While these prolegomenous issues are important and worthwhile, they should not replace the exploration of doctrinal content, which is the substance of God’s revelation and the core of the gospel message. Daniel J. Adams’ remark is worth heeding:

One concern that many have about certain forms of contextual theology is the tendency to overlook theological doctrines such as the doctrine of the church. Contextual theologies may become so issue-oriented and localized that they lose sight of comprehensive Christian theology or forget that contextualization assumes there is something there to be contextualized. A firm grasp of systematic theology provides a balanced perspective that includes the totality of theology and serves as a safeguard against the ever-present dangers of syncretism and reductionism.12

Theological contextualization, I believe, is primarily concerned with the translation of the biblical message in its entirety into the thought worlds as well as the daily lives of people whom we are reaching in mission. As Daniel Adams pointed out, a firm grasp of systematic theology not only provides a balanced perspective in anthropological and cultural issues, but also serves as a safeguard against syncretism and reductionism.
Third, throughout its five thousand years of civilization, the quest of Chinese philosophy has centered primarily on man’s social and political well-being as well as his harmonious relationship to supernatural realities. To the Chinese, an individual’s relationship to the social order and the order of realities is of great importance to his existence. A harmonious relationship, it is believed, will give an individual meaning and existential fulfillment. Thus, in these terms, Chinese thought is exceedingly humanistic. It starts with man. But this form of humanism is not to be equated with the humanism of Renaissance Europe, which is characterized by autonomy and anti-authority.
Fourth, although “deconstruction” is a powerful tidal wave in postmodernism, Chinese culture, up to the present day, still has a peculiar veneration for the written word—the text. I think John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer are correct when they write,

In East Asian civilization the written word has always taken precedence over the spoken; Chinese history is full of famous documents—memorials, essays and poems—but lacks the great speeches of the West. The magic quality of writing is perhaps one of the reasons why the peoples of East Asia have tended to place a higher premium on book learning and on formal education than have the peoples of any other civilization.13

In other words, veneration for the written word has not been lost in these postmodern times. This may also partially explain why socio-political postmodernism has a greater impact on Asian societies than deconstructionist postmodernism.


The Integrative Approach to Contextual Theology

In the field of contextualization, both Robert Schreiter and Stephen Bevans are interested in the exploration of models of contextual theology. Their writings are both helpful and thought-provoking.14 Stephen Bevans, in particular, has collaborated on five models of constructing contextual theology. They are the translation model, anthropological model, praxis model, synthetic model, and transcendental model.15 Since each of these five models has its own strengths and shortcomings, they are not to be considered exclusive of one another. Rather, they should be utilized in conjunction with each other.16 It is undeniably true that there is no one way of doing theology that is in itself completely adequate.
My way of doing systematic theology while teaching in Taiwan can be characterized as the integrative approach, an attempt to incorporate some of the strengths and distinctives of each of these models. The integrative approach has the following distinctive features:

1. It breaks with the logical order of the traditional Western structure of systematic theology, which begins with the doctrine of Scripture and then discusses God, man, sin, Christ, salvation, the Church and the last things. This ordering of Christian doctrines seems to be the standardized structure of the West. The integrative model, however, starts with the “knowing subject” in the postmodern society of Taiwan.17 This starting point, I believe, goes well with the Chinese cultural mind-set which is person-oriented.
2. It takes into account the Chinese cultural values as well as the religious and socio-political context of the Taiwanese.18 It seeks to be relevant to the cultural context. It stresses the praxis aspect of the gospel message.19
3. It presupposes the gospel core which is not to be compromised. It upholds fidelity to the Scriptures and takes into consideration long-standing traditions of the Christian church in its formulation of doctrines.20 The Bible is used as the primary source for the construction of this local theology. It is used presuppositionally to formulate an appropriate anthropology that addresses the existential experiences of the “knowing subject.”
4. It uses hope as the integrative motif for the construction of theology, making it understandable and relevant to the people in Taiwan. It is the belief of the integrative model that the people in postmodern society in Taiwan need the hope which is clearly stated and promised in the Scriptures.21

Thus, these four features make this model of contextual theology congenial to Paul
Tillich’s method of correlation.22 It moves between the biblical text and the cultural context. It both seeks to listen to questions posed to Christian theology and to answer them according to the purpose that the gospel message may be received as the hope for the nation and its people. Hence, this integrative model is a contextualized answering theology, whose objective is both evangelistic and mission-oriented.


Contours of a Contextual Theology in Postmodern Taiwan

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1. Man in Religious and Social Context

With increased industrialization and modernization in Taiwan, spirituality is likewise on the increase and religious faiths are flourishing. Zen Buddhism, Taoism and other folk religions are thriving. The society, however, is experiencing the dark side of postindustralization, characterized by dehumanization, alienation and despair. A spiritual vacuum pervades society, in spite of the flourishing of religious faiths. A genuine quest for the meaning of life and the significance of humanity resonates in the hearts of the people. They realize that they are in a predicament. The cry of the people is, “Is there any hope?”23
The Christian answer is, “Yes!” There is hope for humanity. As a matter of fact, man is valuable and significant because man is created in the image of God. In man, there is an anticipatory consciousness. By nature, human beings are hopeful and anticipative.24 We are future-oriented, always looking ahead for possibilities. Here the doctrine of man is explored.


2. Humanity’s Predicament
Humanity is in a predicament because we are alienated from God, the Creator of the universe and of humankind. This alienation was brought about by sin. What is sin? We see sin residing in the human heart. We also see sin manifested in our society. Consequently, the dark side of postindustralization has gripped society. There is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. There is massive corruption in the bureaucratic government. People are disillusioned with political parties. Growing unemployment, the unstable economy, and increasing inflation weigh heavily on the people. They simply cannot get themselves out of the predicament. They feel that they are both helpless and hopeless. Here the doctrine of sin and suffering is explored.


3. The Gospel of Grace
The Christian answer is the gospel—the good news. Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, came to die for our sins. The just died on behalf of the unjust that people may be reconciled to God and be justified. Through His death on the cross, Jesus has provided humanity with new life and real freedom. There is genuine hope for humanity. We can enter into a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Our alienation from God is then removed and our status as children of God established. Here the doctrine of salvation is explored.


4. A Spiritual Family Established
In this life on earth, God has prepared for his children a spiritual family which we call the church. We worship God and fellowship with one another in this spiritual family, acknowledging Jesus Christ as the head of the family. We learn to love one another and accept each other’s differences for the purpose of establishing solidarity. We also encourage one another to be involved within society in hope of making a positive impact with our transformed lives and renewed minds. In doing so, we are spreading the genuine hope for humanity. We do this not by our own wisdom or strength, but by the wisdom of God and the power of the Spirit. Here the doctrines of the church and the Holy Spirit are explored.


5. The God-Man Jesus
This glorious and living hope mentioned above is actualized in the person of Jesus Christ. Who is Jesus Christ? He is the God-Man. He is fully God and fully man. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the grandest evidence for what He claims to be—God. Here the doctrine of Christ is explored.


6. The Triune God
Jesus is God incarnate. The Christian God is a triune God, who is infinite and personal and who is the Sustainer and Governor of all things. God in holy love has taken the initiative to reveal Himself to us in nature, in human consciousness, and in Scripture. Above all, He has fully revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ that He is the God of hope. Here the doctrine of God and Scripture are explored.


7. The New Humanity
The hope for postmodern society will fully be realized when Jesus returns to earth, ushering in the millennium and the new world order, which Marxist ideology has promised but failed to deliver. Marxism and socialism may deserve a place of respect for their emphasis on the need for the creation of a new man and a new society, but they have proven to fall short of attaining such a noble goal. When Christ comes, humanity’s perfect society of peace and justice will fully materialize. The tension between “things as they are” and “things as they ought to be” will be resolved, because the new world order with God’s righteousness as the center will be brought in. Thus, the genuine hope for mankind is realized.


Postscript

As mentioned earlier, the objective of this contextual theology is mission-oriented. The postmodern situation, now as ever, demands a rebirth of man. Without God’s gracious act of regeneration in the lives of postmodern people, humanity is still dead in sin and remains hopeless. We believe that this construction of Christian theology will serve our evangelistic purposes and thus participate in the completion of the Great Commission. The theological content of this construction is less confessional, but comparatively more dynamic and interactive, and, I believe, more relevant to the contemporary cultural setting, particularly to postmodern Taiwanese society. I had the privilege of teaching systematic theology in Taiwan for six years. In my last two years of teaching, I had used the theological content of this contextual theology. Students found it helpful and practical.

Appendix


The Content of The Integrative Model of Contextual Theology
1. Man in Religious and Social Context (The Doctrine of Man)
a. Confucianism stresses the authentic man
b. Taoism stresses how the individual person unifies with nature
c. Zen Buddhism stresses the human becoming God
d. Buddhism stresses personal experience of Nirvana
e. Biblical teaching on man made in the image of God—the anticipatory consciousness
f. Watchman Nee’s “Spiritual Man” explored and critiqued

2. Humanity’s Predicament (The Doctrine of Sin and Suffering)
a. A theological understanding of sin: personal and structural
b. The problem of pain and suffering
c. Kitamori’s “The theology of the pain of God” explored and critiqued

3. The Gospel of Grace (The Doctrine of Salvation)
a. The atonement of Christ
b. The personal application of salvation
c. Critique of the liberationist view of salvation
d. The liberation theologies of Gutiérrez and José Miguez Bonino explored and critiqued

4. A Spiritual Family Established (The Doctrines of Church and Holy Spirit)
a. The nature and function of the church as a spiritual family of God
b. The social responsibility of the family of God
c. The eschatological ministry of the Spirit in and through the family of God
d. Watchman Nee’s “Little Flock” explored and critiqued

5. The God-Man Jesus (The Doctrine of Christ)
a. The person and nature of Jesus Christ
b. The resurrection of Jesus Christ
c. C.S. Song’s “Third-Eye theology” and “Jesus in the Power of the Spirit” explored and critiqued

6. The Triune God (The Doctrine of God)
a. The nature and attributes of God
b. The mystery of three-in-oneness
c. The general and special revelation of God
d. The inerrancy and authority of Scripture

7. The New Humanity (The Doctrine of Last Things)
a. The second coming of Christ
b. The new world order—Marxist and socialist ideology explored and critiqued
c. The millennium and the New Heaven and New Earth—the hope for postmodern society


Endnotes

1It is instructive, at the very outset, to give a working definition of the terms modernity and postmodernity. Both terms are understood more in relation to the intellectual mood and cultural phenomenon than to the dating of any historical period. Modernity is characterized by its emphasis on the supremacy of scientific method and its belief in inevitable progress. Postmodernity refers to the cultural and societal consciousness that follows modernity.

2In addition to the writings on modernity and postmodernity authored by national Chinese, many foreign titles have also been translated into Chinese, including works by Foucault, Derrida, Daniel Bell and many others. Postmodern scholars Richard Rorty and Fredric Jameson have made trips to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China to deliver lectureships on postmodern society.

3Daniel Adams, “Doing Theology Between the Times: Modernity and Postmodernity in Asia” Taiwan Journal of Theology, 16 (March, 1994): 78.

4Robert Magliola, On Deconstructing Life-Worlds: Buddhism, Christianity, and Culture (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1997), 89-90.

5Deconstruction is a radical kind of postmodern philosophy, which originated from literary criticism in the field of literature. It is associated especially with the thought of the French literary critic, Jacques Derrida. Deconstructionism claims, among other things, that meaning is not inherent in the text. Meaning emerges as the interpreter enters into dialogue with the text. The text will have as many meanings as it has readers.

6The Chinese version of Jameson’s work was published in 1989. Jameson personally wrote a foreword to this Chinese edition. Moreover, Daniel Bell’s works, such as The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and The Coming of Postindustrial Society are frequently discussed in the academic community.

7It is instructive to point out that in 1992, Time made a prediction of the rapid Asian economic growth in the 21st century, saying, “On the other side of the world, the astonishing Asians will continue their success story, but with more diversity and less coordination than Europeans. Japan will not have things so much its own way in the next century. . . . [C]ommunism will collapse in China, clearing the way for the powerhouse of Taiwan to join Hong Kong as a special economic zone of the Chinese motherland” (see Time, vol. 140, no. 27, Fall, 1992, 36-38). See also Peter L. Berger and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, eds., In Search of an East Asian Development Model (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988); Gustav Reins, John Fei, and S.Y. Kuo, Growth with Equity: The Taiwan Case (London: Oxford University Press, 1979).

8John Naisbitt, Megatrends Asia: Eight Asian Megatrends That Are Reshaping Our World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 15.

9Ibid., p. 41.

10Stephen Bevans’ own definition is instructive. He writes, “Contextual theology can be defined as a way of doing theology in which one takes into account the spirit and message of the gospel, the tradition of the Christian people, the culture in which one is theologizing, and social change in that culture, whether brought about by western technological process or the grass-roots struggle for equality, justice, and liberation” (Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology [New York: Orbis Books, 1992], 1). See also his succinct explanation of social change in the cultural matrix, p. 113.

11C.S. Song, Third Eye Theology (New York, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1979); Kosuke Koyama, Waterbuffalo Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1974).

12Daniel J. Adams, Cross-Cultural Theology: Western Reflections in Asia (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 83-84.

13John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, East Asia—The Great Tradition (Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 43. See also John K. Fairbank, China: A New History (Harvard University Press, 1992).

14Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (New York: Orbis Books 1985). Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1992).

15According to Bevans’ description and analysis of these five models, the translation model is primarily concerned with translating the essential message of the gospel into another cultural context. It stresses fidelity to the Scriptures. The anthropological model intends to preserve the cultural identity of a Christian. The praxis model is mainly concerned with the Christian’s commitment to social action in bringing about social change for the good of society. The synthetic model primarily seeks to maintain an ongoing dialogue between Christian faith and cultures so that mutual understanding and acceptance may be achieved. The transcendental model believes the primary task of constructing contextual theology is to attend to the “knowing subject,” who is involved in the articulation of the Christian faith.

16Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 111-112.

17This is the emphasis of the transcendental model in Bevan’s five models.

18This is the emphasis of the anthropological model.

19This is the focus of the praxis model.

20This is the emphasis of the translation model.

21I am indebted to Jürgen Moltmann who first skillfully utilized this biblical theme to construct a theology of hope in 1964. He was inspired by Ernest Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung. For a critique of Moltmann’s theology of hope, see this author’s dissertation Hope Deferred: A Critical Examination of Jürgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Justification, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1993, 51-93.

22Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951), 1:1-8. Although I disagree with Tillich’s theology, I find his method of correlation useful in constructing contextual theology.

23In Taiwan people are increasingly interested in Zen meditation in hope of finding a way to cope with the hustle and bustle of city life. There is a trend to incorporate popular psychology into Zen meditation.

24This aspect of human need has been explored by theologians of hope, such as Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, John Macquarrie, Carl Braaten, and Aves Rubem.


Editorial: Hypocrisy- The Malpractice of Religious Leaders

The Laws of Clean and Unclean and Their Relationship with the Concept of Sacred Space, Joe M. Sprinkle

Does a Soul Have Wrinkles? Evangelism and Mature Adults, James A. Davies

The DNA Factor of Church Growth, Peter Hay

Constructing Contextual Theology in a Postmodern Asian Society, Paul Y. Siu

A Critique of Charles Nienkirchen's Book, A.B. Simpson and the Pentecostal Movement, Paul L. King

From Eden to the Christian Counselor's Couch: Humanity's Loss and Recovery of Wholeness, Craig W. Ellison

Nonverbal Communication and Spiritual Discernment, K. Neill Foster

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

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©2006 by K. Neill Foster