William Dyrness - "Theology Without Borders"
10:06PM Jun 28, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today is an extraordinary privilege to be speaking with Dr. William Dyrness, Dean Emeritus and professor of theology and culture at fuller Theological Seminary. Professor Dyrness has completed doctoral and postdoctoral research at the University of Strasbourg in France, the Free University in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and the University of Cambridge in the UK. He is the co-editor of the Global Dictionary of Theology, a marvelous resource for the study of world Christianity, and also the co author of the book that we'll be discussing today, Theology Without Borders: An Introduction to Global Conversations. Professor Dyrness, thank you so much for joining us today.
Good to be here.
Professor dearness as we begin, in your opening chapter of this book, theology without borders, the chapter is entitled, doing theology. I of a Western Heritage gains and losses you state that quote, all theology now is comparative. Would you be willing to unpack that insight for us, please?
Yeah, sure. I would be glad to. What another way of saying that that is to say that all theology now raises implicitly the comparative question. That is, we've assumed when we've done theology before, that the theology that we've done in the West is the theology for everyone. We now know that that's not the case because now Christianity is a global phenomenon, it it resides in many different parts of the world speaks many different languages and accents and therefore it will have different ways of approaching theology. Therefore the mine take on theology, which is still Western because that's my training and my background, and my my contacts will invariably raised what I call the comparative question that is okay, this is the way I see it. How am I, my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world understand that same theological theme?
Very good. What what precisely Professor dears dearness is knew about the global situation today. The churches we read about in the book Book of Acts, chapter two begins as a Empire wide phenomenon. And we can trace Christianity as a global phenomenon through many centuries. What's new precisely about today's situation?
I think what's new is the consciousness that that many people are, are gaining that because it's a global phenomenon. And most people in the world or many people in the world now are traveling back and forth and having encounters with Christians of different from different places. We're being forced to think about this in new ways, but you're absolutely Right. The truth is that Christianity has always been a global phenomenon. And also something that I hope we can talk about it has always been embracing differences. These differences have sometimes caused tensions and but other times they've simply on the part of the Western Heritage, at least simply been ignored. And I think that's something we need to re examine. We need to probably reread our own history to understand some of these differences and where they come from.
How long have we have this new consciousness of global Christian Christianity as a global phenomenon?
Well, I think that you could trace the difference to the beginning in the Catholic tradition, Vatican two in the 1960s in the evangelical tradition, perhaps to Luzon and the 1970s, where people began to talk about contextualization. But I think it's In the 2000s, that more and more people are waking up to the fact that Christianity is, in fact a global phenomenon. And therefore, we have to think about theology differently than we've done in the past. Of course, perhaps we can talk about this as well, on the part of many in the theological Academy, that awareness is somewhat marginal still. And that's, I think, a problem.
Hmm. When you say that the Christian tradition has always been embracing differences. What comes to your mind? What are you thinking of?
I'm saying from the very beginning, the Christianity in Alexandria, the Christianity in Syria, was quite different with different accents than the Christianity of Rome and North Africa. And these differences, I think, looking back, we can recognize We're not always properly appreciated. In fact, even up to this time, Christianity in Africa, in in terms of its monocyte traditions, is considered to be heretical. But I think we have to recognize that actually may just reflect a different context and a different history. So I think we do need to sort of reread that history and see where we might have ignored differences that might have enriched us. Andrew walls is on record of saying that Christianity has embraced difference from the very beginning. And these differences right away in the New Testament cause some problems should I eat meat offered idols or not that sort of thing? What to the Jews and the Gentiles? How do they embrace their common Christian faith and so forth. So this this is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that we experienced in a new way, somebody said Recently, globalization may not be a new phenomenon, but it feels new. And I think that's a good way of putting it. It does does feel new, we're being confronted with all kinds of things good and bad all the time. And then if
you spent over three decades sir working as what we layman would call it as a sociologist, working in the study of missions. How do we know the difference between orthodox development and between syncretism?
Yeah, that's, that's, of course, the key question. And I think, to put it simply, the difference might be understood in terms of allowing people to embrace their indigenous traditions, but seeing these traditions as being fulfilled and enriched and enlarged in the Gospel, and in what Jesus Christ came to do in his world changing and cosmic event. Saying that people can bring their indigenous traditions and also believe those faiths, alongside of Christianity see the difference. I believe all of us have our own indigenous traditions. We have them in the West. And we've embraced them, for us who are Christians within our Christian context. And we don't see that as syncretism. Although it can be but it isn't necessarily so. So I think we understand that this becomes a kind of synthesis of our history and our culture, but not syncretism. But I think we can invite and expect the same thing. In the case of our third world brothers and sisters,
Professor dearness in chapter three of the text theology without borders and introduction to global conversations, you speak of the shifts in doing theology from Christendom to contextualization, as one phase and then In the current phase from contextualization to mutual learning, what are the practical steps that you would like to see that would generate the type of mutual learning you envision?
Yeah, I actually, since writing that book, I've written another book called insider Jesus in which I have developed that more fully. But the idea is that contextualization is still the idea of missionaries or someone taking a version of the gospel and contextualizing it in into some context. What I think what what needs to happen is when the gospel is proclaimed, and then the scriptures are translated into those settings, people begin having their own ideas of how the Christian scriptures should be understood and how Christ should be obeyed. So sometimes those are surprising. Sometimes we don't know certainly with it all, but we need to listen to that because these people we believe when people read scripture for themselves, the Spirit of God is there, illuminating, empowering, and so forth. And so we need to get beyond the idea that I bring my version or my understanding of Christianity somewhere and then translate it or contextualize it. Rather I give my witness to the gospel, I give my witness to what God has done for me and for my community. And I give that witness wherever I go, it seems to me that's the basic understanding of missions that I would like to propose. So it's a matter of after giving our witness to the gospel, which I take to be the essence of missions, to hearing people who understood and accepted the gospel. their take on that how they understand the gospel. In the same way that Jesus asked the rich young ruler, what is the law? How do you read it? You Jesus didn't need the lawyer to instruct him on the law. But I do believe Jesus was really interested in seeing how he read it. That is how he understood that. That was that was something Jesus was interested in finding out. It seems to me, that's what we're doing. We're asking people, here's, here's the Word of God, how do you beat it? How do you understand it? and be prepared to say, wow, I never thought of it that way. And that helps me understand something about Jesus. Something about the church, perhaps, or whatever that I didn't. I didn't know before.
Professor dearness in this new age of global Christianity, this new context where the task could be described as one of mutual learning. Does this demand that the structures of theological education change in some way can we accomplish mutual learning with a centralized University model for theological schools?
I don't think that we can do it just as business as usual. I think basically the model of education that we've gotten that's transformed around the world is not going to change anytime soon. But as, as the leaders, that we're talking to us, for example, some years ago in Ethiopia, as we asked them, where is the biggest challenge in theological education? They said, if you think about theological education in four levels, the highest level of research PhD programs, then the master's levels, and then the Bible colleges, and then the lowest level would be the informal training programs that that are proliferating around the world. They said that the biggest challenge would be at the highest level, we need the research, but also at the lowest level, that's where we need the grassroots training. So I think that's probably true. And most places around the world they need. They need that highest level of research we need to hear from them and how the church is growing or not in various places. But then there's so many cases where pastors are not. There's not trained pastors for proliferating congregations and so forth. So we need that lowest level training as well. And when that happens, I think then then we'll be prepared perhaps in the west to to learn something or more from each other than than we are now. If we hear from them that we're there's real serious research going on. We'll, we'll learn from that.
As you of course know very well. There's been a recent tremendous interest from theological educational institutions in globalization and what that means for theological study was recently at the G pro Congress, the global proclamation Congress in Bangkok, Thailand. We're about 2500 delegates from 110 Countries are so gathered to discuss these problems. How is it that our schools can open themselves to usefulness to the global church? If you were asked as an advisor to speak into that movement? What are some things you would like to see established seminaries do in order to re engineer themselves for this new age?
Well, I think there needs to be more needs to be more exchanges and partnerships. And that is finding out ways to, to have some of these leaders on our campus or periods of time when we have what's called the Global Research Institute at Fuller. We're making it majority world leaders can come and write a textbook or a monograph while they're here and we try to take advantage of them. We don't always take advantage as much as we should. So that and that speaks to the fact that there is a real imbalance between publications, for example, a books you know, I think I heard there were 30,000 religious studies. books published in the West every year, as opposed to something like a couple of hundred in Kenya, maybe 800. In Nigeria, I mean, just it's a terrible imbalance. And the point is, we can't even read those that are published in Kenya because they're not available to us. You can't get them on Amazon, you know. So this is a, this is a huge, huge problem. And this reflects the sort of economic and political imbalance that exists in the sort of post colonial situation we find ourselves in. And that's, that's, I think, a huge challenge. Hmm.
Professor dearness in chapter five of your book theology without borders, chapter five is entitled Jesus Christ and the good news for the world. How does an awareness of the of this emerging global Christianity how does that shape and reshape our understanding of the gospel
the gospel of course is always reading To the work, life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ. I mean, we we believe that that's, that's the gospel. But how that constitutes good news for people will will appear different in different situations. And in Africa often it has to do with power and Christ's victory over the spirits and over the powers. In other parts of the world, it might have to do with connecting more with the with the reality the one reality that exists in Asia, for example, and for us, in the West, it often has to do with, with the sense of forgiveness and liberation and meaning new new sense of meaning. Not that that that it's not a different gospel, of course, but it's its ways, different ways in which the gospel is understood. I mean, to talk about Christ as a Victor over the powers does not speak to a wall street financer unnecessarily. So that has to be that has to be sort of translated. So I think the different ways of understanding the gospel are sort of fundamental to what I'm talking about as global theology that we exchange. Good news, our good news, so to speak, we say this is this is what Christ has done for us, and then hear from them how Christ impacts their lives, their communities and culture.
Professor dearness I teach at Moody Bible Institute, which is a school of course with a rich heritage of missions, sending missionaries, missions today, as you know very well as changing. It's changing massively. What would be your recommendation to missionaries and training today?
Well, I think that that part of the secret is to to understand that The nature and dynamics of globalization, how that has changed things, the sort of communication media. So that's a that's a fundamental thing. But also to understand how different parts of the world are already making these kinds of exchanges. I mean that no one who lives in North America is unaware of the growth of African churches in some of our big cities, for example, or, or the role of immigrant churches and transnational missions programs that these immigrant immigrant churches already have transnational programs. They they send missionaries to Wanaka where they're where their congregation has family and and they send back from their witnesses to our churches here. So these these kinds of exchanges are already going on. And one of the things that that I think is important stress and insider Jesus says that God is the missionary God is the one who is doing mission in the world we are, we're merely the instruments of God, we were doing work in partnership with God. And therefore, we need to be alert for the kinds of ways in which God is working, sometimes beyond our radar outside of our radar, and these kinds of transnational movements are really a good example. I also look for various kinds of insider and emergent movements or other kinds of examples.
Professor dearness, both in life, then if your text theology without borders, and also inside Jesus, let me ask this question, if I may. How do you understand from a theological perspective, the diversity of traditions that we see within the Christian stream? What does it mean to be a believer in Christianity, this one single faith received apostles and yet at the same time to recognize something, such as an African Christianity or an Asian Christianity.
That's a very excellent question and I think gets to the heart of sort of the challenge of global theology. I think the first thing we recognize is that our unity is founded on spiritually on our connection to Jesus Christ and to the work that Christ is doing in the world into the body of people that Christ is calling out of the world, which which we call the church, but that that's, at the end of the day, a theological reality. Unity is a theological unity. It doesn't always entail a sociological unity or institutional unity, because these differences, sociological and institutional, have particular historical causes. Those causes are not they're not wrong or sinful or necessarily harmful. They are just what they are. I mean, we have things that we believe is happened at the Reformation that that we treasure. But then there's different versions of how we understand that the Baptist have a slightly different take on that. And of course, the Orthodox people believe the whole thing was a mistake, you know, but still, we we, we claim a kind of unity in Jesus Christ with these people. And the other thing to say is that not only are these differences have particular historical and cultural causes, but represent a particular situation, but that the diversity is enriching at the end of the day. I mean, I learned a lot from reading the spiritual disciplines For example of the icon, I don't pray with icons, and I don't think I ever will, at least not in the same way Orthodox people do. But I find their treatment of how they pray with these images to be enriching, and I can imagine how they can be become closer to God because of because of the that tradition. So it's a matter again, of mutual learning, even with our own within our own Christian tradition, let alone the whole multi faith thing, which we haven't talked about. But that's, that's something that now we have to take into account more and more.
Professor dearness, do you see global Christianity as spinning apart? Are these various forms of Christian tradition becoming more diverse, or are we converging towards one another?
Well, I think the answer is B, ironically or paradoxically enough, both because one could say that the different forms of Christianity both in in on our radar radar and off the radar are proliferating to to a greater extent than ever before sort of exponentially what's happening in tribal areas, what's happening in urban areas, what's happening and people groups that that we're trying that are coming to Christ, these kinds of things it these are wonderful.
At the same time, just before I went to Jakarta the week before
there was a global conference on younger Emerging Leaders mazon sponsored Well, there were several hundred people from all over the world there and you spoke of your experience there. Now these people are from all different places and they had This wonderful sense of unity, although interestingly, some of them said you can't take our picture, because we don't want people to know that we're here in some cases. So and that's interesting, but then at the same time that this crossed boundaries, and I think, I think you can see that the Catholic Church has its youth days with balls, multiple thousands of people from all over the world coming together. So I think that you could say it's a day of proliferation, but also a day of a sense of, of unity. How we learn to express that unity and understand that that's it's still a challenge, but I think it's happening.
Professor dearness, if I can close with a question that I've been asking all of our guests on this program, and then Is this what would it mean for the church today to be united? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that Christians can do to pursue the unity of the church?
Seems to me that one of the things Things that that stood out for me when I studied all the insider movements, which are the movements that are taking place really basically outside of our radar beyond our understanding, as in this necessity because some of them are threatened in various ways, was the unity that they expressed in their sense of belonging to Christ being following Christ very crystal centric and their sense of missions, they're being mission driven, that that the reason for their, their staying for example, in the mosque was for the sake of their families and their community, so that they can win as Christ in that place. And that struck me because it strikes me that that it's in our witness to the gospel, our witness to Christ our our holding to God's word is being translated In many different places, that we sort of discover our unity, it's kind of a something that we're going to find along the way. It's sort of not something we have to we, we can posit in advance, but I think it's something we discover along the way of our mutual witness to Christ and recognize Yeah, their brothers and sisters because they're in Christ. They're seeking to, to draw attention to call people to him, and that's what I want to do. So we find our unity we feel our unity and again, that's a theological and spiritual reality. And we shouldn't necessarily expect or insist that it always be an institutional or
It's been our delight to be speaking with Professor William Direness. Today, Dean Emeritus and professor of theology and culture at fuller Theological Seminary, also co author of the text we've been discussing today, theology Without Borders and introduction to global conversations, Professor dearness thank you for joining us today.
Well, thank you, Jonathan. It's been a privilege.