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.

14 Comments:

William Black said...

Let me see if I understand. The logic of Christian discernment works when there is agreement on some shared starting point, be it common understanding/perspective/world view/theological presuppositions. Thus it can really only serve properly as a description rather than a prescription. Conversion occurs when the old trusted perspective no longer suffices to answer the perceived challenges and new answers instead fill the void. Pre-Christian spirituality was the best effort of the collected wisdom of generations of people to make sense of their world and of their place in it with respect to the powers that be. At night the moon can be especially bright, even casting shadows. From the perspective of a bright morning sun, the moon fades into irrelevance, even though one could see by its light before the dawn. Though this illustration may itself be a kind of religious imperialism if used by the imperialists to justify their imposition, from the perspective of pre-Christian Jews, pre-Christian Athenians, pre-Christian Africans--there is much of value to appreciate from the previously-held perspective (as well as much to be happily finished with). In this way the Trinity does make use of what has gone on before to facilitate an understanding and reception of the Christian gospel, though this can often be seen only in retrospect. Is this the point you are making? I am happy to be better instructed!

Christopher said...

Ben, this is great stuff. Add to this Lamin Sanneh's observations about translation, and you're on your way to making a strong case against those who level the claim of cultural imperialism at the gospel.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ben, is it true that The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) initiated and were involved in the writing of this proposed Preamble? Is it true that Aboriginal and Islander members of the UCA want this proposed Preamble to pass through the Presbyteries and Synods, having already passed through the Assembly?

Tony Johnson

Ben Myers said...

William: "Conversion occurs when the old trusted perspective no longer suffices to answer the perceived challenges and new answers instead fill the void." For me, it's not a matter of the "insufficiency" of pre-Christian traditions — they may be perfectly sufficient at the time, but the gospel later refigures (and in that way preserves) these traditions in relation to Christ. As Christopher points out, Lamin Sanneh's Translating the Message develops a historical argument that intersects with the kind of approach that I'm outlining here.

Hi Tony, I see what you're getting at. But for the purpose of this paper, I'm not especially interested in the politics of the document (nor do I have any interest in telling people how they should vote at presbytery). I was invited to reflect theologically on the preamble, and I'm also trying to raise wider questions about the church's relation to indigenous cultures.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I appreciate where you are coming from in your paper and I especially appreciate the thoughtful theological reflection with which you are advancing the discussion. I whole heartedly agree with everything in paragraphs 1-5.

In paragraph 6 you write , 'If we understand this logic of discernment, we can avoid perpetrating the subtle theological imperialism which colonises indigenous traditions.' Much can be said about the relationship of politics and theology and I want to avoid that. However, if the 'indigenous people' are the ones writing the Preamble and in favour of it passing (at our Presbytery we had indigenous people speak in favour of the proposed Preamble), then how is the church engaging, albeit subtly, in '... theological imperialism which colonises indigenous traditions ...'?

I am being sincere when I say that I am sure that I have missed something important in your argument, what have I missed?

Sincerely,
Tony Johnson

Anonymous said...

I find this thesis to be utter garbage,and completely lacking in "discernment".

One wonders which century people who propose this nonsense live in. Especially when all of the Sacred Texts of the entire Great Tradition of humankind are freely available to any one with and internet connection. And all of the knowledge about every known religion too, whether so called primitive or "advanced".

Monotheistic creationist-religion is an institutional power seeking entity which is intent upon controlling and managing the entire human world and even all of life on this planet.

The "sacred power" that such religion claims it brings (or would extend) into the entire human world is, it says, the "creator-god" of the universe---whereas, in fact, the power that such religion ACTUALLY exercises (or would everywhere exercise) is that of the humanly governed political, social, economic, cultural, and, altogether, institutionalization of the totality of humankind.

The institutionalizing power that such religion exercises (or would everywhere exercise, if allowed to function at will and unimpeded) is of an inherently intolerant nature---because it is the expression of an entirely reductionist, and tribalistic, and exclusively exoteric mentality, that cannot accept any non-"orthodox", extra-tribal (or extra-institutional), non-monotheistic, or, otherwise, esoteric exceptions to its "Rule".

Steven Demmler said...

Anonymous,

If you have read this site recently, you will see that Ben has been asking for suggestions on titles regarding his forthcoming book.

In the spirit of that, I thought I would offer a title for your post: "Ad Hominem and Me"

Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I think that in the person of Christ we have a cultural interpreter par excellance. We have one who has the authority and the truth to distinguish between healthy religious traditions and flagrant idolatry. Notwithstanding the "scandal of particularity" in Christ's being a Jew, this authority-if I understand the kingship of Christ correctly- is impartial.

In other words, Jesus did not necessarily come to bring peace to our religious traditions but a sword. He was a sword of offense to the Jews of his day and He is a sword of offense to the odd erotic religion of the West today. We would do well to remember that there is such a thing as a spirituality of Belial, to which no harmony with Christ can be made (2 Cor 6:15). We would also do well to remember that our Lord had no time for the sundry contours of Canaanite spirituality, but placed the whole of this localised religion under the ban (hrm).

Anyways, the gospel stands over every culture....it challenges every culture, every empire, to abandon its idols in the face of the living God, who does not dwell in temples built by human hands.

Anyways, let us be diligent in testing the spirits to see whether they are of God.

Theophilus said...

Wonderful post. It's good to see how these people are bringing together acknowledgement of valuable truths found in places other than Christianity with a Christian grid of understanding to carefully determine what aspects of other traditions are in line with the Christian faith and which are not.

remylow said...
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J said...

Indigenous people might benefit from being exposed to Christianity. Whether they will benefit from the Anglican church is another matter.

remylow said...

or rather, Christianity might benefit from being exposed to Indigenous people!

remylow said...

i think that third vitriolic 'anonymous' who commented on 'discernment' also comments on my blog in much the same way; a strange combination of stream of consciousness + pulp fiction.

anyways, i appreciate Ben's attempt to negotiate between the time and place (examining the conditions of theological utterances) while remaining faithful to the tradition. One can detect a cautious attempt to navigate correctly without falling into tacit white supremacy masked as Christ's supremacy on the one hand (as is so easily done with those who claim a 'Christ is above all cultures'), and on the other hand a flaccid liberal universalism, which as Malcolm X once said, is worse by virtue of being dishonest, condescending and use of 'blackness' as a tool for salving the conscience.

I think the difficulty is twofold: firstly, any universalism is inevitably (historically and geographically) a particularity that stands in for the whole. So while White Christ may change Black christians, the Black church should also change White Christ. The question the becomes how we best create the conditions for the possibility of such a discourse, which I think is what the preamble was trying to do.

Secondly, theological utterances are not spoken into a transcendent vacuum. They have interlocutors whether these are 19th century protestant liberals (Barth) or a historically dispossessed peoples (Cone). So the question becomes one of attempting an appropriate + contingent + situated response to particular questions, which is what I gather Ben's tried to do. There's little point in the pretense of either a 'pure soul' position that positions the 'heart' of Christian theology at a distance from the issue (e.g. by placing something like a system of abstract 'atonement' as the 'core' issue and untainted by all this "recognition stuff" as peripheral matters), or a liberal universalism masked as solidarity (which is like the theological version of American foreign policy discourse). I think Hauerwas' lecture at Boston College 'The End of Religious Pluralism: A Tribute to David Burrell, CSC' teases this tension out quite nicely.

so thanks Ben, for not banging out a formula as is so often done. I think we get the sense of your agonising over this, which I think is the appropriate posture for a people who purport to follow a Christ who himself seemed to be in agony oftentimes.

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