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The Hubris of “Normative” Theology

I came across this cartoon today that sums up pretty well how I have been feeling about church and theology lately.

This is a cartoon is from a man named Saji at St. Thomas the Doubter Church in Dallas, TX.

When I look at the board in the picture, it makes sense to me, despite its multiplicity. From the initial inception of the church, there have been factions and divisions along ethnic, cultural, and leadership fault-lines. This is perpetuated in every generation as the church grows and expands. As a Euro-american in Church History classes, the basic projection that I learned was the split of the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church, then the Reformation, then the further splintering into Protestant Denominations, until the advent of our particular religious movement which desired to re-introduce a church structure based on Acts 2 (we called ourselves The Restoration Movement, which has since devolved back into a de facto denomination).

The anthropological term to describe the attitude of the student in the cartoon is ethnocentrism, or to believe that one’s own particular group is superior and their ways are normative. This has obvious dangers in hardening prejudices or mistreating others. What is more subtle, however, is the influence that this assumption of normative understanding is applied to theology and Biblical interpretation.

One example, I had a conversation last night with a pastor of our church about a statement about the authority of the Bible– the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. When he said “Bible” this was what he meant and he did not feel a need to define his canon. We did not have time to get into the possibility of a closed or open canon, or how different churches (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, or Ethiopian) have their own distinctive canons. Or to talk about whether the text of the Septuagint is more or less authoritative than the Hebrew. Or to talk about the Christian communities still having scripture translated that have to depend entirely upon the Gospel of Mark and oral storytelling to form their identity in Christ. As our conversation progressed, it was evident to me that his canon and my canon were different even though we are both Euro-american, male, and living on the West coast of North America.

From the example above, the friction will come when presented with someone with different assumptions. Will a guest speaker at our church be permitted to preach a text from the Prayer of Manasseh? When she reads the text, will anyone be able to follow from their personal Bible?

To look back at the cartoon chart, is it possible to see ourselves (and our Christian community) as a part of the mysterious body of Christ– that one denomination may be the nose, another community the elbow, and still another the belly? How would we read 1 Corinthians 12 differently with this perspective?

To look at the breadth of Christian expression from Pentecost to today and believe that the minority perspective which you or your church possess is the only correct view is to reject fellowship with the Body of Christ by clinging to your own idol of cultural superiority. The depth of Christianity is in its ability to transcend local restrictions of culture, geography, and chronology. We embrace this global diversity by holding our own perspective loosely, open to the Spirit of God to show us His character and the image of Christ. This approach gives dignity to the expression of faith experienced by those in the global church who are outside of the Western traditions which they may consider “normative”.

When Christian expressions fall outside of one group’s assumption and expectation, they can too easily be labeled “heretical”, “unorthodox”, “primitive”, “divergent”, or “sinful”. For the church in the non-Western world, these labels have been applied due to the West’s lack of understanding and the Rest’s lack of power.

We’ve already mentioned the example of canon as an element which can differ from Christian communities, but what about other theological concepts? How might a communal culture of East Asia understand and interpret a thoroughly Western theological concept as penal substitutionary atonement? Probably about as well as a traditionally Western church would understand Mahayana Christology. Through this attention to the theological developments of our global brothers and sisters, we may come to understand the working of God in a more dynamic, albeit different, way than we are accustomed to. We will also re-order our devotion and faithfulness, no longer to our personalized creeds, but to the God who has revealed himself uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ yet diversely in the Spirit’s continued presence with his Church.

Questions to consider:

What are some theological formulations which you believe transcend culture?

Are there cultural values which inhibit your  ability to value perspectives that are different, or may be contrary, to your own?

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