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Monday, December 31, 2007

Book Review: Doing Theology in the Philippines

Book Review, doing-the.jpgsmagkachisaboy, 12.2007

Doing Theology in the Philippines

by Suk, John, ed. 2005. Manila:OMF Literature Inc.248 pp. PhP 250.00,971-511-901-8.

Indigenize! This seems to be the buzzword in our post-colonial world where a global resurgence of nationalistic goals – especially in many countries in Asia, South America and Africa – has pressed the need for “dewesternizing” local culture and for mainstreaming indigenous knowledge, skills and practices (IKSP) into the various facets of our society.

In the Philippines, this need has been heightened by the passing of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) and the earlier initial participation of the Philippines in international fora for indigenous peoples, recently highlighted by the ascent of Tebtebba Foundation Director Victoria Tauli-Corpuz to the chairpersonship of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

These developments have helped galvanize efforts at mainstreaming IKSP in local governance and at recuperating our natural and man-made resources for national development purposes.

Calls for indigenization have come not only from the political front, but also from the theological or religious front. Among many Catholics in the country, this call is largely an echoing of Vatican II’s far-reaching policies towards a more relevant church. To the Protestants and/or Evangelicals, it is simply an extended “sounding off” of certain Gospel principles.

Of course, attempts at contextualizing Christian theology is not new. The history of the Christian Church has been a show window of a religion adapting to various cultures. No doubt, the relationship between Christianity and local culture has at times been adversarial – like the Gentile-Jewish controversy that culminated in the so-called First Jerusalem Council in the first century, the Gnostic theological brawl of the 2nd, Constantine’s Christianizing attempts in the 4th, or the “frailocracy” issue in Spanish-controlled Philippines from the 16th to the 19th. However, a complementary kind of relationship has also developed between these two forces – like Paul’s accommodation to Jewish rites, Ulfilas’ Gothic Bible and his invention of the Gothic Alphabet, Matteo Ricci’s use of Chinese terms to explain Christian concepts, or Don Richardson’s work among the Sawi people in Irian Jaya.

In the Philippines, books have been written on this theme since the 1970s (p. 219). What makes Doing Theology in the Philippines “new,” however, is that it is a product of a purportedly “first truly ‘national’ gathering of Filipino evangelicals called together from all over the Philippines specifically to communally examine contextualization” (p. 219). The book is a collection of 14 papers presented during the 1st Asian Theological Seminary (ATS) Forum in 2005. Since then, two other ATF Forum books have been published – Naming the Unknown God (2006) and Principalities and Powers (2007).

Paper presenters include some of the ripest Filipino Evangelical scholars and successful missiologists today, like Melba Maggay and Ed Lapiz. This somehow assures the reader that the work does not come from some postulations of armchair theologians whose Euro-American worldview has not helped solve the clash between Western Christianity and Philippine Culture.

A quick look at the papers’ titles (e.g., “A Locus for Doing Theologies: Theological Stories at the Front Lines of Grassroots Missions Engagement,” “Chap Chay Lo Mi: Disentangling the Chinese-Filipino Worldview,” “Rule: Romans 13 for the Philippines Today,” “Using the Catechism for Filipino Catholics in the Evangelical Seminary Classroom”) impresses the reader of the book’s attempt at bridging the gap between denominational, theological, and cultural divides.

Filipinos acquainted with the writings of Lorraine Boettner, Anthony Pezzota, David Vincent Ang and other Evangelicals may initially view this book with suspicion as yet another Catholic-bashing propaganda material. This especially comes close after going through the first few papers that deal with or mention “Evangelical Faith” (p. 4) Luther’s Reformation (p. 28), or Folk Catholicism (p. 79) which seemingly uphold the supremacy of Evangelicalism over Catholicism in matters of Biblical rootedness.

However, in an apparent anticipation of and allaying such doubts, the papers included the work of at least one Catholic theologian, Jose De Mesa who discussed “The ‘Ama Namin’ in the Doctrina Christiana of 1593: A Filipino Cross-Cultural Reading” (pp. 150-158). Further, going beyond the usual anti-Catholic polemics of some Evangelicals, some papers delivered an even-handed discussion on some Catholic and Evangelical distinctives. Lapiz, for example, does this best in a hard-hitting write up – and, interestingly, the only paper in the book with the most use of the vernacular as a medium of communication – on “Pagbabalik sa Sarili: Pagsambang Likas at Hiyang sa Filipino.” Primarily, he argues for the need to “find a Christianity we can claim as our own” (p. 186) and links this theological search to the Filipinos’ search for a national identity (p. 175). Arguing that much of Catholicism and Evangelicalism in the Philippines have taken the form of a “western franchise” (p. 186), he urged adherents of both Christian traditions to recapture the beauty of native culture and mainstream the various aspects of this culture into the different avenues of Christian worship. In contrast to Reuel Almocera’s negative view of Folk Catholicism (p. 79), Lapiz argued that such form of Catholicism was actually a “subversion” of the repressive religious policies of the Spanish colonizers (p.182).

Aside from an attempt at a balanced presentation of the myriad issues surrounding Philippine Christianity, the book’s strength also lies in its extensive use and exploration of fecund Filipino terms like loob, sama, hiya, and kapwa as tools of inculturating theology. Several of the papers, like George N. Capaque’s “The Problem of Evil in the Filipino Context,” draw greatly from the works of F. Landa Jocano and others in their exposition of the said terms taking these into a a largely Evangelical missiological trajectory of discussion.

This book thus offers several perspectives on how to do theology in the Philippines, well-illustrated by real-time missiological cases in both urban and grassroots levels. Generally, it can be said that while dealing with some of the sensitive issues between Catholicism and Evangelicalism in relation to issues involving Filipino culture, Doing Theology in the Philippines does well in offering a non-confrontational approach to these issues.

With its cross-denominational theme, this collection of religious essays will go a long way – that is, if conscientiously applied by the stakeholders or interest groups concerned – in promoting a healthy interplay among our social, political, ecclesiastical and even economic institutions. It will go a long way in debunking the myths of Western-bred omniscience and infallibility so characteristic of many religionists in the country. It will go a long way in dispelling the dark clouds of sectarianism hovering above our religious horizon.

World-renowned evangelical theologian, Edward Fudge once wrote in one of his GracEmail notes:

“In time, I believe, we will discover that God is forming a Church which combines and incorporates the best of the major Christian traditions: (1) the Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican liturgical tradition -- with its mysterious and transcendent Father; (2) the Protestant or Evangelical gospel tradition -- with its message of Jesus Christ, God's Son, who fully accomplished the work which set sinners right with God; and (3) the Pentecostal/Charismatic renewal tradition -- with God's immanence through his personal, powerful presence in the Spirit.”

Doing Theology in the Philippines might well be an important contribution to this end.

Those of non-Christian persuasions can still make use of this work by appropriating its culture-friendly principles into their own “evangelistic” programs.

Students of language and literature can take satisfaction in the way some authors apply, say, a Sapir-Whorfian analysis of Christian theology and Philippine culture (p. 42) and of Noli P. Mendoza’s enshrinement of Gaspar Aquino de Belen’s Pasion in its rightful place in the patheon of both Evangelical and Catholic faiths (159-174). To a Gemino Abad fan, this book’s central idea of inculturation can be easily placed parallel to Abad’s literary “Native Clearing” – a space created by the Filipino writer resulting from appropriating unto his own personal experience, cultural background and literary style what used to be a foreign or borrowed language and context.

Owing to the dauntingly broad themes of theology and culture it attempts to cover, the book understandably does not exhaustively tackle all the implications of its title. It must be seen in part as an exploratory work from which can be launched further researches and dialogues. More studies, for instance, should be done on the indigenous cultures of Northern Philippines where native themes can also be used as effective contextualizing tools for the Biblical theme of salvation. A case in point is the bodong or peace pact system among the Kalingas, a potentially rich concept and institution some characteristics of which may be mainstreamed into Christian theology and practice.

Those who take great interest in religion, culture, language, and literature can profit much from this seminal work.

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