Thursday, 18 March 2010

Jesus was already in this land: discerning Christ in indigenous cultures

Here's another excerpt from my paper on the Uniting Church's proposed preamble. This is from a section entitled “‘Jesus was already in this land’: The Logic of Discernment”. I'll post another brief excerpt tomorrow, from the paper's final section where I offer an alternative formulation to the new preamble.

I have been arguing that a confessing church should look for signs of Christ’s work in the world, while at the same time resisting the temptation to assimilate these signs of God’s free activity into a universally applicable doctrinal schema. [...]

Where indigenous Christians in Australia look back on their own cultural traditions and perceive clear lines of continuity—‘Jesus was already walking around in this land’, as one indigenous Christian put it to me in conversation—that is a proper exercise of Christian discernment. It is not part of a larger theory about God’s self-revealing activity among all indigenous peoples, nor is it a doctrinal insight into the structural relationship between the God of the gospel and indigenous law, custom and ceremony.

The theological discussions of the Rainbow Spirit Elders reflect this logic of discernment. The elders affirm that the Creator Spirit has been present from beginning within Aboriginal culture. This is a treasure that lay hidden, but is now disclosed to the eyes of faith; only now, in light of the gospel, can such treasures be uncovered. The elders thus look attentively to their own cultural heritage in an attempt to discern continuities of Christ’s work in this land: ‘As we search our culture in the light of the Gospel …, we must ascertain those things which are alien, as well as those things which are true to the Gospel.’ It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that ‘gives us our Christian Aboriginal theological bearings’, uncovering the hidden treasures of the past and revealing surprising lines of continuity between indigenous traditions and Christ’s work in the gospel. It is because indigenous Christians have already come to know God in Christ that they are led subsequently to perceive that God was already ‘leading us to know that Christ is ... an Aboriginal person camping among us, giving life to our people and our stories’.

As Vincent Donovan has argued in reference to African traditions, it is in this way that the gospel creates its own surprising ‘recapitulation’ of all the riches of a culture. This recapitulation in turn generates a thoroughgoing reassessment of a people’s cultural heritage. For some Aboriginal elders, the Rainbow Spirit is now perceived ‘as a life-giving God of love, and not as an awesome power that frightens us’. This is not a neutral historical assessment of the relation between the Rainbow Spirit and the God of Jesus Christ. It is not something that could be read off the face of indigenous traditions. It is an act of Christian discernment in which the riches of the culture are ‘sublated’—both preserved and transfigured—into the world of the gospel.

If we understand this logic of discernment, we can avoid perpetrating the subtle theological imperialism which colonises indigenous traditions, swallowing them up without remainder into a romanticised anonymous Christianity. The proposed text of the preamble contains more than a hint of such imperialism: God’s Spirit was already at work revealing God through law, custom and ceremony; ‘the same love and grace’ that was fully revealed in Christ was also sustaining the first peoples and giving them knowledge of God. Such statements fail to distinguish between a quasi-historical account of indigenous heritage, and the recapitulation of that heritage as seen through the eyes of faith in the moment of Christian discernment.

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