Mitri Raheb and Mark A. Lamport / An Intercultural Hermeneutic of Trust

In recent decades there has been a seismic shift in world Christianity. Whereas formerly Christianity existed as a Caucasian Euro-American phenomenon, the majority of Christians today reside in the Southern Hemisphere, or the Global South. And what is true for the demographics of Christianity has followed lockstep for its theological developments. The era of German theologians setting the tone for global church are gone. Today, some of the loudest and most creative voices in theology speak from the emerging contingencies of the Global South, for example, promoting Latinx, Black, Caribbean, and Asian theologies and their influence often influences the conversation in the United States and Europe. The bottom line is—contemporary Christianity today looks significantly different than it did a century ago, and publications have been slow to acknowledge, let alone describe and elaborate upon, this major shift to the largest religion in the world. These shifts guide the intentions in this book. Such a reference book, which could also be used as a textbook, therefore is very much needed. In fact, there is nothing like the contents of this single-volume book in the publishing market which allows for high-quality, interdisciplinary, and international dialogue.

[The following excerpt is pulled from Theo Sundermeier’s introduction to Emerging Theologies from the Global South.]

“You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14). With these sayings, Jesus founded the church and, at the same time, defined its nature and its mission in the world. The church is characterized in the first declaration, by a simple, unspectacular, diaconal way of life. This means love of the neighbor, standing by the other, and not leaving them alone. And where there is hardship, the church is naturally present with its assistance.

The second saying of Jesus makes mission the essential characteristic. Diaconal engagement is not limited to the narrow context; it knows no ethnic, social, or political boundaries. The same applies to the gospel, which seeks to be proclaimed worldwide.

The church is characterized by passing on the gospel and practicing diakonia. How do they become reality? Love of the neighbor, compassion, has always found its way—at the local level and in distant countries, among friends and enemies, in practical, charitable ministry and in diaconal institutions. That has never been in dispute. But how does proclaiming the gospel come about?

There are two replies to this. Matt 28:18–20 says: The gospel must be passed on worldwide in the power of the risen Christ. The Pentecostal event (Acts 2:1–13) goes further and specifies that everyone is meant to hear the gospel in their own language. Aramaic, Greek, or Latin are not the “right” languages of proclamation and should not be the actual and final language of the liturgical form in which it is proclaimed. Language is the framework of our lives. The gospel seeks to enter people’s hearts in their own language and “fill them with the spirit.” But that also means that everyone hears the gospel differently. The content changes with the language. The message sounds different in every language, strikes new chords with the hearers, brings out the new undertones and creates new spaces of understanding. For a long time that was not understood. Instead—amongst other things due to the Latin translation, the Vulgate—the language of Rome won the day in theology and liturgy. It set the tone worldwide, well into the modern age. Theology in Catholic seminaries in Africa was taught in Latin as late as the twentieth century.

If we want to retrace the long path of “intercultural theology” we can distinguish three stages: indigenous theology/indigenization, inculturation, and contextual theology. Luther’s translation of the Bible opened doors, so that the Bible was soon translated into different languages in Europe. Protestant missions in the nineteenth century continued on this path. The missionaries learned the local languages and, in some cases, saved them from extinction by transforming them into written languages. Building schools was the necessary consequence, for everyone was meant to be able to read the Bible themselves. An unintended yet largely accepted outcome was that building schools also paved the way for the dissemination of colonial languages. Without the concept of “indigenization” becoming the theme running through proclamation, this still happened, since the gospel spread more through indigenous preachers than through the missionaries. It was only following the World Mission Conference of Edinburgh in 1910 that this subliminal concept began to underlie missionary proclamation, as a late fulfilment of the first Pentecostal event.

Let me illustrate, with two examples, how translation can also change the content of the biblical text. My students at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Namibia insisted that Leah had blue eyes. It was in the Bible, they said. The Finnish missionaries, it quickly became clear, had wanted to find the right way of saying that Leah (Gen 29:17) was not good-looking. Blue eyes in the Ovambo culture were regarded as ugly.

It did not surprise me to hear from the Herero that Abraham wanted to sacrifice his son Isaac on the “ancestral fire” (Gen 22). As there was no term for altar in Otjiherero, the early missionaries introduced the new concept of “altari.” After 1910, the World Mission Conference inspired a progressive missionary to introduce the indigenous term “okuruuo,” the name for the traditional place where they called on the ancestors and sacrificed to them. The early missionaries found the name inappropriate and rejected it as “heathen.”

The Second Vatican Council attached greater value to the concept of dialogue for the missionary encounter with other religions and hence also to the significance of civilizations. Consequently, the notion of “inculturation” (used in Catechesi tradendae in 1979 and in Redemptoris missio in 1990) gave remarkable impetus to independent creativity in local churches the world over. Vatican II sparked a flurry of conferences and publications on the theologies of what was still called the Third World. Liturgies were rewritten and new forms of theological language developed, particularly in Latin America. The mission encyclical, however, then erected barriers against the upcoming diversity. Inculturation was now regarded as a sensitive area that could only be fostered in consensus with the “communion of the whole church.”

In Protestant mission theology the dominant concept is “contextual theology.” The church does not inculturate—instead, the gospel looks for people in their social relations and lifeworlds, seeking to take root and to flourish credibly in this environment. It addresses sociological interpretations seriously and has no fear of getting close to Marxist analyses. Rather, it takes up the social dialogue so that the theological statements are relevant and speak to people in their various situations.

A host of contextual theologies have been conceptualized. While the concept of culture prevailing in inculturation theology is too narrow (cultures are not closed systems but have always existed in exchange with other cultures when it comes to receiving and rejecting strangers) and it manifests a latent ethnocentrism, contextual theology runs the risk of becoming too narrowly focused and of no longer doing justice to the present global situation. This is not only characterized by international capital flows but also through our being connected worldwide through television and internet access for everyone. Hence the most remote area of the world becomes our own immediate neighborhood. Nor may we overlook the surges of refugee movement, or the slums in the megacities.

Intercultural theology, by contrast, recognizes the plurality of theologies, since the gospel seeks to speak to people in other languages, but also links them up. It promotes exchange and supports the freedom to consider cultures from both an internal and an external perspective. Its umbilical cord is threefold: the word of God, our own words, and those of the outsider. It practices changing perspective, while also being open to—and encouraging—new ways of interpreting the biblical words. At the same time, intercultural theology weaves diversity without having to reach a consensus at all costs, albeit striving for one. It does not say “anything goes,” however, since it looks for orientation to a biblically founded ethic. As has occasionally been remarked, intercultural theology develops an intercultural hospitality. Which, in turn, is sustained by a hermeneutic of trust.

Mitri Raheb is the founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, Palestine, and the most widely published Palestinian theologian to date.

Mark A. Lamport has been a professor almost 40 years at universities in the United States and Europe. The editor and author of twenty books, he works from Grand Rapids and Fort Myers.


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