by Ziya Meral
Just as WWII and the Holocaust brought about changes in intellectual paradigms, today the tumult in the Middle East challenges us to rethink our theologies in many ways.
Just as WWII and the Holocaust brought about changes in intellectual paradigms, today the tumult in the Middle East challenges us to rethink our theologies in many ways. There is growing displeasure about the theologizing that has already been done in the Middle East, and with many countries in the region closing their doors to outsiders, we become all the more aware of the need for a new paradigm in missions. The church in the Middle East will survive this new era only by developing a relevant theology which is capable of delivering the life changing power of the gospel. And if the gospel is to take root in the Middle East, it will only do so through a theology which speaks to the peoples of the region.
I am well aware that to generalize the Middle East is a big mistake. Egypt and Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria are all dramatically different nations. One may even quite convincingly argue that Turkey should not be considered a Middle Eastern country at all. However, there are certain themes that unite the diverse states of the region. A quick list would include: Islamic religion and culture, collectivism, shame and honor, romantic attachment to history, an animistic worldview alongside monotheism, strong national identity and historical and political connections between countries. Even though there are these overarching similarities, any theology done for the Middle East has to focus on a specific context. But this short article only attempts to paint the broad picture of a regional theology.
THE RIGHT MOTIVATION
The monumental task of theologizing for the Middle East should be undertaken for the right reasons. A common mistake in previous attempts at contextual theology has been a failure to clarify the “why” from the get-go. Post-colonial resentment or a rebellion against the ethnocentrism of some Western forms of Christianity cannot serve as a healthy starting point. Those who have started with such immature instincts have ended up committing the same sins against the Western church as the Western church committed against them.
The only right reason stems from the realization that the needs, problems, cultures, languages and realities of the Middle East demand a theology that is capable of interacting with the regional situation in an appropriate way. Since no theology is done in a vacuum, any theology that is done in one context will face limitations when brought to another. The presuppositions, methodologies, questions and the applications that arise in a theology done in a middle class North American setting differ dramatically from, for example, those of a theology developed for war-torn Iraq.
THE RIGHT TELOS
The aim in contextual theologizing cannot be to give rise to blind theological nationalism or uncritical accommodation to a given culture. The Lausanne Covenant rightfully affirms that all cultures contain good values since human beings are created in the image of God, but also evil values since they are fallen. In light of Scripture, a Middle Eastern theology must carefully evaluate its own culture, accepting what the Bible commends and rejecting what the Bible condemns. This cannot be accomplished, however, before establishing the word of God as the unchanging reference point. Many contextual theologians risk losing sight of the universal truths in the scriptures. The goal of contextualization is not to create a new God, a new soteriology or a new gospel message. Rather it is simply to understand, teach, live and express the gospel in a way that is relevant to a particular context.
CHARACTERISTICS OF MIDDLE EASTERN THEOLOGY
Below are six key characteristics of a distinctly Middle Eastern theology.
1. The greatest difference between a Middle Eastern theology and a Western theology will be its theologians. Most of the systematic theology books in the Western tradition do not start with or even speak about what it means to be a theologian. The role of the theologian in theological process is rarely addressed. A long time ago the West learned to separate the discipline from the practitioner and managed to isolate theology in the academy where a critical detachment reigns. This stands in contrast with the famous statement of Luther: “It is living, dying and even being condemned which makes a theologian—not reading, speculating and understanding.”
Being a theologian entails a responsibility to lead. In the Islamic context, being a theologian means being a teacher whose life is carefully observed. Piety and the intellect are united. Thus theological education in the Middle East is not simply a transferring of knowledge, but also the emulation of exemplary teachers.
A look at the way theology was done during Second Temple Judaism sheds further light on what it means to be a theologian in the Middle East. The relationship of the Rabbis to their pupils and the role of the Rabbis in society were strikingly similar to what we find of imams in the Middle East today. Contemporary imams are seen as community leaders. Only a contextual theology produced by imam-like Christian theologians will make sense and be relevant to Middle Easterners.
2. A Middle Eastern theology will provide a comprehensive understanding of life. Perhaps it will involve writing a Christian Talmud or a Mishnah, that will help Middle Eastern believers apply biblical teaching in their daily lives. The phrase “applied theology” would be redundant as all theology would be applied. The Middle Eastern worldview is still open to the interconnectedness of the transcendent and physical worlds unlike the Western, post-Enlightenment mindset that radically dichotomizes the sacred and secular. One can argue that theology, in the biblical sense, was never meant to be mere abstract argument limited to the religious sphere, but an all-encompassing life system. Thus a Middle Eastern theology will be arguably much closer to the biblical understanding of theology. Everyone in the region frequently discusses theology and no one sees it as irrelevant to public affairs. A Middle Eastern theology will never be imprisoned in classrooms and difficult books full of words from other languages, but it will move freely in the market place and affect every aspect of life.
3. Middle Eastern Christians will do theology in a manner very different from their counterparts in the West. The Middle Eastern mind is not exclusively linear like the Western or cyclical like the Indian. Though it certainly includes aspects from both, the Middle Eastern mind is mainly romantic. Knowledge is not processed at the practical level but at the ideological or heart level. This mindset helps to explain, in part, why the Middle East has so many suicide bombers. We give our lives to ideologies which speak to our hearts, irregardless of the practical consequences. Thus a Middle Eastern theology will be directed primarily at the heart. It will use poetry, heart-felt stories and spiritual reflections. Instead of being systematic, it will be a romantic theology written in the tradition of Confessions of St Augustine. Systematic dogmatism will have to be replaced with a methodology that is not alien.
4. A Middle Eastern theology will seek to find and teach the implications of the cross for its own context. If the Latin American mind has seen Jesus as the one who brings justice, the East Asian mind has seen Jesus as the victorious one over the spiritual realm, the North American mind has seen Jesus as a close friend who meets the deepest existential needs, then the Middle Eastern mind should be allowed to see Jesus through its own eyes. By all means, Middle Eastern theology has to be faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus. But the implications of the cross for the Middle East remain unspoken. Western thought presents Christ as the Savior who removes the burden of our sins. This conception of Christ’s atoning work speaks well to the needs of westerners but not as well to Middle Easterners. The Middle East has a shame- and honor-based culture. A Christology relevant to the region will present Jesus as the one who restores our honor with God. This approach has great potential. A Middle Eastern theology will also be a theology of hope which is found only in God and made available to us by the work of Christ who reconciled us to God.
5. A theology for the Middle East will be focused on the community of faith. The regional mindset is not individualistic. Middle Easterners do not necessarily rely so much on the critical thinking capacity of the individual as on the collective experience and wisdom of the community. Thus a theology for the region must be done within, by and for the community.
6. An adequate theology for the Middle East has to be concrete. One of the main reasons cited by converts from Christianity to Islam has been the felt lack of clear direction and simplicity in the Christian religion. I vividly remember the countless Christian converts I met who struggled to live a life of faith. Accustomed to living by a clear and direct religion, the Muslim background believer has to adjust to a more spiritually-oriented faith system. Yet Christian tradition has given us many spiritual disciplines which can help solve this problem. Practices such as lectio divina, chanting of biblical passages and fasting can greatly benefit converts from Islam. Middle Eastern theology will focus more on the practical rather than the propositional dimensions of Christianity. Converts will ask, “How can I live my faith?” rather than “What is a saving faith?”
UNIQUE CONTENT OF A MIDDLE EASTERN THEOLOGY
The first step to a healthy theology for the Middle East is decontextualization. G.K. Chesterton’s point is well taken when he states in Orthodoxy that in order to understand the value of the truth one has to be either very far from it or be at the very center of it. Thus a Hindu convert to Christianity may understand the uniqueness of his new faith much clearer than an Islamic convert can as the former comes from a religio-social system which in many ways contradicts biblical values. Islam, on the other hand, has flourished in a Semitic context which has resulted in many similarities with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Its use of terms like heaven, hell, judgment day, sin, prophet and prayer come very close to biblical usage of those terms. Yet Muslims who convert to Christianity will gradually realize that there are important differences in the ways these terms are used in the two religions. I personally came to this realization while studying in seminary. My relationship with and study of Jesus convinced me that he was not just a prophet. I eventually grasped that sin is not just falling short of a standard, but an ontological state of rebellion and separation from God. This process is common to almost all of the converts I know around the region. Thus the number one priority of a Middle Eastern theology will be to help converts process these very basic doctrines of the Christian scriptures.
A theology for the Middle East will be able to embrace the strengths of the Islamic mindset that do not contradict the Bible. There are numerous things we can learn from Islam. Over the years I have come to appreciate the Islamic idea of the mysteries of God and the humble recognition of humanity’s finitude. It is quite interesting to see that what postmodernism has been doing to modernist naivety in the West has already been taking place in the Middle East since the days of Moses. The Western urge to give air-tight theological definition has always had a hint of presumption. A Middle Eastern theology will be much more at ease with the tensions in Scripture. It will never be ridiculed for asserting what it does not know or cannot solve.
A crucial issue which needs to be thought through is the Middle Eastern Christian identity. Being a religious minority under the dominance of a strong religious culture is always difficult. In most of the Arab and Muslim world, being a Christian means siding with the “enemy.” Thus the convert finds himself in an isolated situation which brings dishonor to his family. This is a perpetual problem for the convert throughout life. A strong sense of shame opens the door to frustration, doubt and fear. These are very draining emotions, ones that are often the main cause of backsliding to the old religion. A Middle Eastern theology must help the convert think biblically about shame and honor. A study of what is truly shameful and truly honorable according to the New Testament will be a fruitful and crucial one for the new believer. The development of an enculturated theology and church will help the convert to see her newfound faith as a continuation rather than rejection of her culture. Only then can she genuinely feel that she is still connected with the rest of her society.
Being a religious minority under an Islamic regime entails second-class status and resultant feelings of inferiority. The widespread fatalism of Middle Eastern culture can find a comfortable home in the doctrine of the fall and in premillennial eschatology. This can produce complete passivism. A relevant theology for the Middle East ought to compel converts to social involvement. The church must learn to reflect theologically on social and political engagement and develop principles suiting the local context.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
This short article is nothing but a signpost trying to point us in an entirely new and fascinating direction in theology. I believe that as we tread this path we will come to better understand where we have gone wrong in the past and what we can do to correct our mistakes in the future.
The journey down this new path involves three very deliberate steps. The first and hardest step will be to start deep theological thinking on the mission field. I dream of a day when missionaries will be theologians and theologians will be missionaries. Local believers will not be asked to be carbon copies of brothers and sisters in distant lands.
The second step is to learn from Christian communities in other parts of the world. Is it not ironic that missionaries to the Middle East read books on church growth that are written in countries where the church growth rate is the smallest? Church growth movements in the non-Western world have significant things to teach us. Theologies developed in Latin America, Africa and East Asia can be a great asset to those theologizing for the Middle East.
The third step is to discern how a Middle Eastern theology can contribute to the experience and knowledge of the global church. I believe we are about to witness one of the most challenging periods in church history. But I also believe these challenges present unprecedented opportunities for reaching the Middle East for Christ.
Ziya Meral, an Islamic background believer from Turkey, is a graduate of International School of Theology-Asia, Philippines and a student at London School of Theology. He has traveled widely in Middle East, Central and East Asia for ministry purposes.
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