theological reflections at the intersection of (my) perception with reality
Thursday, February 5, 2009
"Do You Have a Theology for This?" (Reflections from My Time in India)
Since my return from India, several people have asked for a summary of my reflections on that visit. The two primary things that stood out to me while in India and have since my return are: (1) The abject and widespread poverty under which so much of India suffers daily, and (2) the intricate ways in which religion, ideology, society and culture intermingle.
My first trip into the city was an abrupt and startling introduction to the abject poverty of India. India is now the largest democracy in the world, but it's said that one-third of the world's poor live there. Estimates suggest that 75% of Indians live on less that $2.00 a day. Travel through the streets of Hyderabad and you'll find many people living in tents or lean-to's on little parcels of grabbed-up land on the sides of the main roads. If they're not so lucky, they sleep under the bare cover of night--with a ragged blanket--on the hard ground.
On our first trip into the city, my colleague Wilbur Stone (global and contextual studies prof), turned to me and asked: "Do you have a theology for this?" That became the burdensome question of the week for me--and still is my question. How do I as a theologian, or more to the point, as a Christian, think about the intersection of God, the Missio Dei, and God's future for the world with such widespread and deeply troubling circumstances of life. To me it's a troubling but temporary spectacle--to many Indians it's just a way of life. It should be noted that India's is one of the few national economies to actually see positive growth in the past year. Nonetheless, the increasing numbers of the poor outpace its financial and material progress.
The caste system in India which, since the establishment of the Indian constitution in 1950 is no long formally in place, secured discrimination as a (more-or-less) accepted reality. Your lot in life is determined by your family of origin, ethnicity, etc. The Dalit or the "no-caste" population were considered "untouchables." They had little-to-no rights in society. For the most part, they were supposed to simply accept their place in life as given by God. Mahatma Ghandi worked hard to elevate the social status and to improve the possibliities for upward mobility of these no-caste peoples. They were children of God too and should be viewed as equal persons.
Christianity has found its most fertile soil in India among the Dalits. My favorite experience of the week was listening to a Dalit theologian speak to our class about the importance and necessity of contextualizing Christ for and within human experience. Here was a man who came from the "no-caste" group, who had found in Jesus a friend and a liberator. Jesus was an "out-caste" who had no place to lay his head, but who came to set the captive free from oppression(Luke 4). No wonder Christ has captivated the imagination of the Dalits.
In any case, I return from India convinced more than ever that Christianity needs to be engaged in the difficult but rewarding task of thinking about the intertwining of context, ideology, society and theology. Christians also need to continue to think hard about what God wants us to be doing in the face of economic hardship around the globe and in our cities and towns. More deeply, what does the Gospel calls us as individuals and as churches to do for the world around us? And what does it call us to learn from that world? Do we have a theology for that?
I'm a theology professor at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN. I teach about Kierkegaard and postmodernity, theology and contemporary culture, the doctrine of salvation, theological perspectives on evil and suffering, and contemporary issues in the person and work of Christ. I enjoying cracking the mysteries of "Lost" with my beautiful wife, Sara.