Is Doing Contextualization Still Relevant?

In a conference of Asian theologians, one young Japanese theologian said, “Nobody reads Kosuke Koyama’s books in Japan anymore.”

As a note, Kosuke Koyama was the former Executive Director of ATESEA from 1968-1974. Prior to his appointment to the position, he was a missionary to the Northern part of Thailand. His famous book, Water Buffalo Theology, was a product of his encounter with  Asian realities.

Whether the observation of the Japanese theologian on Koyama’s book is true or not, what is at issue is not about the dissipation of interest in contextual theologies. Rather, it is about the concern for relevance of any work on contextualization done at a certain period of time by any theologian.

This was what ATESEA did to the  Critical Asian Principles (CAP) crafted by our predecessors in the 1970s. As a theological framework, CAP was developed to serve as a guide in doing contextualization among the ATESEA member schools. However, with the new emerging changes in the Asian situations at the turn of the century, CAP was revisited after more than three decades to revitalize its core principles which include the “situational principle,” the “hermeneutical principle,” the “missionary principle,” and the “educational principle.”  Hence, when ATESEA celebrated its Golden Anniversary in 2007, the Assembly adopted the Guidelines for Doing Theologies in Asia as an enhancement of CAP in developing a relevant contextual theology in the 21st century.

The task of contextualizing the message of the Scriptures is a never ending responsibility of any theologian, preacher or Christian. This is not to mention the ambiguities in the interpretation of the text that oftentimes create a tension between the Christian message and culture. This tension is understandable since the Christians are not insulated from the pluralities of cultures they live with,  and the different kinds of texts, both written and symbolic, they encounter and interpret.

The Bible becomes not the only text then, even if it is regarded as the primary text by the Christians, nor are culture and society the only social texts, too. Therefore, these texts of faith and life have to be studied with much care and critical openness if they are to shed light on defining the vision of a more humane community of God’s people.

In this regard, the process of doing contextualization is not reduced to a mere piece of academic relic that reflects the biases of the authors. Instead, contextualization, as a theological construct, is an on-going enterprise of the Christian community in conversation with other texts as reflected in local wisdom, natural and social sciences as well as contemporary issues. The fundamental reason for the collective reflection is based on the fact that the concerns of Asians are not only issues of dogmatics and metaphysics as they are issues of historical experiences.

Given the broad reach of the Asian traditions and historical past, ATESEA embraces contextuality and inter-contextuality as its core value. This core value states, ATESEA “encourages the construction of contextual and Asia-oriented theology by providing opportunities for research and reflection on the significance of the Christian faith in dialogue with other living faiths, cultures and traditions of Asia and contemporary challenges.”

In addition to knowing the context, the location or the methods of doing contextualization, one has to understand also the purpose of the praxis of contextualization through interaction with other faiths and cultures.  For many years, ATESEA has been engaged in this project primarily because doing contextualization in Asia is understood as the work of the Spirit that seeks for the transformation of all creations.

Is contextualization still alive in Asia? I have no doubt, it is.

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