Monday, October 24, 2022

Henk Pieterse: The Necessity of Intercultural Theology

Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and Intercultural Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In September, I was privileged to be able to launch a two-year transcontinental initiative in intercultural theology, supported by a grant from the In Trust Center for Theological Schools and a matching grant by my institution, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

The focus of the project is to encourage and facilitate deep-running theological exchange between North American scholars in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions and their sub-Saharan African counterparts. Key outcomes of the project are the strengthening of intercultural Wesleyan/Methodist communities of theological inquiry, the generation of fresh scholarship, and the production of innovative scholarly resources—all in the service of a global Wesleyan/Methodist movement whose diverse witness today demands the theological contribution of all.

In approaching this work, I am guided by two convictions:

(1) The future of theology in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions is intercultural. As with theology generally today, Wesleyan/Methodist theology finds itself in an unprecedented moment. Theological production in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions is more widely distributed and culturally diverse than ever before, with unrivaled capacity for dialogue, mutual learning, and collaboration.

(2) Theological isolationism perpetuates theological ethnocentrism. A polycentric Wesleyan/Methodist witness calls for a polycentric approach to theology.

Such a polycentric approach to doing Wesleyan/Methodist theology finds a promising model in intercultural theology. With deep roots in missiology and world Christianity studies, intercultural theology attends closely to the hermeneutics of cross-cultural communication and the dynamics of culture, context, and power in theological dialogue across boundaries. In short, it offers a ready model for theological exchange in a Wesleyan/Methodist theological community that now spans the globe. There simply is no reason for not doing our theology “connectionally,” through a global “web of interactive [theological] relationships,” to adapt the language of the Book of Discipline.

This is of particular note for North American Wesleyan/Methodist theology, which thus far has tended to be rather insular. I believe the time has arrived when engaging Wesleyan/Methodist scholarship in Africa and elsewhere merely out of courtesy or curiosity—as an option and not an obligation—is no longer adequate.

Why should this be so? To begin, the fact is that the crisscrossing forces of globalization, denominational ties, personal relationships, professional partnerships, and, yes, theological networks have given us all a stake in one another’s lives.

Further, and in a more theological vein, if theological isolationism breeds theological ethnocentrism, then the notion of a self-sufficient theological tradition is never far behind. By “self-sufficient” I mean a tradition that views itself as having within itself all that is required to pursue the theological task in today’s world. Others elsewhere are welcome to join in, the reasoning goes, but our theological work does not depend on their contribution. I fear this has all too often been the tacit disposition of North Atlantic Wesleyan/Methodist theology.

Intercultural theologians demur. They reject the idea of a self-sufficient tradition. All theological traditions are contextual and thus partial, fragmentary, and incomplete. This means we all need one another’s insight and contribution and, when necessary, one another’s correction in adequately interpreting our shared faith. Indeed, there are theological insights into the meaning and relevance of the Wesleyan/Methodist message that one can gain only through conversation with a colleague from another cultural context. For just this reason, intercultural theologians insist, all theology should be intercultural theology, with dialogue (or, as I prefer, polylogue) as its primary modality.

There is something very Wesleyan about seeing things this way. After all, at the heart of our connectionalism lies the idea of a worldwide community held together by relationships of radical interdependence, mutual learning, and mutual accountability. Should these commitments not characterize our global community of Wesleyan/Methodist theological inquiry as well?

The fact is no one of us today can render a theological account adequate to the depth, scope, and reach of the Wesleyan/Methodist heritage by relying on only one contextual expression of it, no matter how prominent. We truly need the counsel, collaboration, and correction of a worldwide theological collegium to do our theology responsibly. Think how much richer and fuller—and dare I say, more plausible and more persuasive—our theological labor would be wherever we are!

As an intercultural theologian, I submit that all Wesleyan/Methodist theology today should be intercultural theology. And the mode in which we pursue such theology should be dialogue—or, to use our own parlance, “conferencing.” It is in the spirit of these convictions, and with great humility, that I enter the project noted at the outset.

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