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Wolfgang Pauly

The Diversity of Contexts of Faith
and the Gospel's Claim to Universality

Twenty Fife Years of "Intercultural Theology"


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 3/2011, P. 181-188
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In Europe, too, increasing attention is paid to intercultural theology. Wolfgang Pauly, Academic Director at the Institute of Catholic Theology at the University of Koblenz-Landau, Campus Landau, gives an insight into current developments and their implications for inter-religious dialogue.


Central topics both of the theological and the magisterial discourse are on the one hand the postmodern religious pluralization and the suspicion of relativism often associated with it, and on the other hand the globalization and the religions' claim to universality. Within the context of this discourse, in 2010 the teaching and research project "Theologie interkulturell" at the Frankfurt Goethe University can look back at 25 years of an exciting and productive history.

On 13 February 1985 Catholic professors had created this project and provided, for the most part out of their own resources, the relevant supporting association with generous funding. How can Christianity as a "unity in diversity" be realized and proclaimed in such a way that its universal claim is not at the expense of vital regional cultures? How can non-European theologies inspire the theology of the West? And where can European theologies enter into a mutually fruitful dialogue with those of Asia, Africa and Latin America?


Practical Experience and Reflexive Approaches in Conversation

From the beginning it was intended that one would not talk theoretically about other forms of Christianity. Representatives of different cultural transformations of the Christian faith rather presented their practical experience and reflexive approaches and brought them up for discussion. Initially, the annual guest lectureship "Theologie interkulturell" served this purpose.

The list of the previous holders of this lectureship reads like a "who's who" of internationally recognized theologians. Bénezét Bujo (formerly Zaire) opened the African perspective, followed by Obiora Ike (Nigeria) and Nazaire Bitoto (Cameroon). Particularly well represented were so far Asian approaches: Francis X. D'Sa SJ (India), Benigno P. Beltran (Philippines), John D'Arcy May (Papua New Guinea), Thaddaeus T'ui-chieh (Taiwan), Haruko K. Okano (Japan), Felix Wilfred (India), Seemampillai Joseph Emmanuel (Sri Lanka), Luis Gutheinz SJ (Taiwan),



Mary John Mananzan (Philippines), Danielle Palmyre-Florigny(Mauritius) and Maria Ko Ha Fong (China). The North and Latin American context was illustrated by Juan Carlos Scannone SJ (Argentina), Enrique Dussel (Mexico), Robert J. Schreiter (USA), Paulo Suess (Brazil), Fernando Diaz (Chile) and Josef Estermann (Peru and Bolivia). Moreover, Archpriest Vladimir Ivanov (Russia) by his contributions on the relationship of the Western Church to Orthodoxy and Louis J. Mascarenhas (Pakistan) by his lecture series on "Christian Theology in the Context of Islam" enriched the discussion.

In addition to the guest lectureship there are the annual symposia, where former guest lecturers discuss with other experts from all over the world. Of particular importance was the Jubilee Symposium on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of "Theologie interkulturell", from 19 to 20 November 2010 in Wiesbaden-Naurod. It combined many individual aspects of previous meetings and was entitled "The Diversity of Contexts of Faith and the Gospel's Claim to Universality."

The contributions were opened by the guest lecturer Josef Estermann, a professor at the Universidad Católica Boliviano" in La Pax and director of the independent "Instituto Superior Ecuménico Andino de Teología". His programme of indigenization sees itself as the deconstruction of a theology that is shaped by Hellenistic-western thought. The latter continues equating the term "culture" with "Western European culture" and "man" with "adult white male" {1}.

Since Christianity always is inculturated already, a new understanding of culture is required, which neither universalizes the Hellenistic understanding of culture and theology nor entirely relativizes its entitlement. Under the heading of "Relationality Instead of Relativism" Estermann argues consistently for a reflection on the respective contextuality of the Christian message. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is particular, and happened in specific contexts - an insight that both the Apostles' Creed and the Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople wordlessly pass over by their silence on the actions and the fate of the historical Jesus between Incarnation and Passion. At the same time Estermann sees within these specific historical contexts a salvation event of universal importance. By his loving devotion to those who were socially and religiously expelled, Jesus would go beyond the given limits and categories of interpretation. His claim to truth was concrete and practical; a new orthopraxy would therefore be the place to verify this claim. For Latin America "Incarnation" means therefore to take the respective contexts of the struggle for survival, abuse and oppression seriously. Jesus would have the function of a "Chakana", i.e. of a bridge, a transition, of an imparting. "God's rule" should therefore not be understood in a mere spiritualized or transcendent way. Thus, the alternative expression of "reinado de Dios" could already include conceptually the universal liberation message of the Christian faith; and by this special form of indigenization it could make a contribution to the intercultural universalization of the Gospel.



"Aspects of professing one's faith in Christ in today's Congo" were treated by Matondo Simon who, despite his professorship, sees himself primarily as parish priest of a large parish in the Congo. In this practical pastoral work on the one hand an abridged Jesus piety is found; it is often accompagnied by magical elements. On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth is for many also the grand 'Unknown' who is able to break up the power of traditional forms of witchcraft. Likewise, his function as "King of Kings" often contributes significantly to relativizing the claims to power of inner-worldly potentates.

Africa as a continent with 53 independent states and more than a billion people makes it impossible to speak of an African culture or of one form of inculturation of Christianity in Africa. That's why Alphonse Ndabiseruye consistently focused his remarks on the example of Burundi. The key problems of the whole continent: colonization, exploitation, economic crisis and civil war are focussed here as in a burning glass. Committed to the "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paulo Freire, Ndabiseruye argues for both a dialogical and critical awareness-raising and a political literacy campaign {2}.

In his peace school "École Mahora" in Kimina (Burundi) and as executive secretary of the Bujumbura Diocese Development Organization (ODDBU) Ndabiseruye takes also care of former (child) soldiers and their physical and inner hurts. In a country where half of the eight million inhabitants are illiterate and where still no translations of the entire Bible into local languages are available, cultural work at first means quite practical commitment to aagricultural economy, health care and the organization of homes and schools. For Ndabiseruye, this includes a sensitivity to the values found in everyday action, and to religiously interpretable experiences. These express themselves increasingly independent of the conceptions of God imparted both by Christian missionaries and the then colonial rulers. It is therefore necessary first to learn to "read the world" in the practical life experience. The things that are perceived here, and interpreted by using one's own tradition, can then be seen anew and understood in correlation to the Christian message.

It was left to the European participants of the symposium to make the relationship between unity and diversity of the Christian message the subject of a fundamental systematic reflection. The founder of a European contextual theology, the Bonn theologian Hans Waldenfels SJ did so under the title "The European Christianity in the Context of Global Inter-religiosity" {3}. In the following three theses he describes the contexts which determine the modern Christianity in Europe. The European Christianity increasingly sees itself only as one aspect of Christendom.



Instead of using the expression "European Christianity" one should therefore better say "Christianity in Europe." Particularly the also in Western Europe increasingly tangible other (world) religions put the claim of Christianity in a new context. It can be interpreted by the slogan of "Christianity as one religion in the world of religions." In critical reception of the work of Charles Taylor, Waldenfels sees the context of "secularism" not as a contradiction to Christianity, but as a new challenge and opportunity {4}.

The contribution of the Frankfurt systematic theologian Siegfried Wiedenhofer, entitled "The universality of faith and the particularity of cultures and religions in the context of European modernism" had the character of a keynote speech. Wiedenhofer sees already in the biblical Creation story a positive interpretation of culture and thus also of the plurality of cultures. Cultural achievement is a replacement for the loss of paradise. It therefore corresponds to a human self-understanding between "no more" and "not yet", between creation and redemption. Religions with their often raised claim to exclusivity impart on the one hand certainty of faith and the convincingness of experience. On the other hand, revelation and testimony of faith are increasingly understood as a message conveyed by signs.

The faulty position of overemphasis and absolutization of signs in pictures and words disregards on the one hand the fundamental difference between the sign and the things denoted by it. On the other hand, the overemphasis of this difference ultimately leads to the phenomenon of iconoclasm, which can be seen repeatedly in the church history and in the history of theology. Signs as word or image are understood by Wiedenhofer as expressions of religiously interpretable experience. But experience refers always to definite and contingent, i.e. particular objects or events. In this respect, experience as interpretation of the underlying reality is just as dependent on dialogue as the rationally-led reflection on this experience. The particularity of the irreducible own experience encounters thus the universal structures of reason, as they were after Immanuel Kant developed and repeatedly extended by the transcendental philosophy of European modernism. In this context, an interesting idea would be the question of the connectivity of other conceptions of reason, as e.g. Michel Foucault has described them.

Especially in northern European countries the concrete everyday life is strongly shaped already by intercultural and inter-religious affairs. Werner Jeanrond, a Catholic theologian at the University of Glasgow, experienced this already in his former workplaces in Ireland and Sweden. Already in his childhood at the Saarland border between France and Germany an interest in the opportunities and limits of intercultural encounter was aroused in him.



Jeanrond developed the model of "Hermeneutics of Love" {5} in contrast to the often abstract idea of a humanity that is underlying all cultures and religions, as it is described e.g. in Hans Küng's project "Weltethos", but also in contrast to pluralist theories of religion in the wake of John Hick.

Similar to Jürgen Habermas, who in his communicative action theory develops the criteria and structures of a discourse out of the communicative everyday experience of a conversation, Jeanrond sees that key constituents of the encounter between cultures and religions are given in the happenings of love: mutual recognition that at the same time preserves the differences, an encounter that is not first and foremost interested positivistically in facts and knowledge about its respective counterpart, but primarily in the encounter as such. The respect for each other is connected with the experience that one gets one's own identity just in the encounter with the alien reality and insofar is able to learn also new things. Such a form of encounter is not noncritical but develops a sense of distortion and alienation. In this respect, this approach has also a high potential of social and cultural criticism.

As an example of a "belief in Jesus within an Islamic context", Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ describes the model of Indonesia, where he has been living and working for decades as a Christian and professor of theology. The Constitution of 1945 admittedly emphasized already religious tolerance by way of the state ideology "Pancasila" and allows insofar a change of religion and the construction of houses of worship for all religions. The basic principles of "Pancasila" therefore read: belief in God, just and civilized humanity, unity of the state, democracy, and social justice {6}. But until about 1970, the relationship of the minority of Christians with the majority of 80 percent Muslims was nevertheless often characterized, if not by hostility then at least by mutual ignorance and demarcation. Only the joint resistance to the increasingly autocratic form of government of the then President Suharto aroused mutual interest. This, too, is an example of concrete orthopraxy instead of abstract orthodoxy. There were numerous encounters and joint practical actions at all levels of society, politics and religion. Above all the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions "Nostra Aetate" of the Second Vatican Council was highly esteemed on the part of Muslims. After the Civil War 1999-2004, Magnis-Suseno sees particularly in the common commitment to democracy an stronger and stronger bridge for Indonesia's religions on their way of mutual approach, according to the principle of "respect for the freedom of each party involved." The decades-long relations between Christians and Muslims prove to be workable even when violent attacks on Christians and their institutions happen. The Rector of the Islamic University in Jakarta, Komaruddin Hidayat, e.g. condemned time and again the violence of the Islamic sect Ahmadiyah {7}.



Although it is difficult in concrete individual cases to impart this view, Susenos humanistically shaped insight remains valid. We must cultivate both the "kindness, including hospitality, hence behave in a friendly way towards the other person, the stranger - no matter who she is," and "the sense of justice and the sensibility for live and let live", because "both religions do not want war." {8}

Life and work of the former Frankfurt guest lecturer Luis Gutheinz SJ, who comes from Tannheim in the Tyrolean Außerfern also illustrate in concrete terms interculturality and interreligiosity. From 1961 on he has been living in the Chinese language area. Since 1974 he is professor at the Faculty of Theology of Fujen Catholic University in Taiwan, since 1992 he also teaches regularly at universities in Shanghai and Xian in the People's Republic of China. His statements on the relationship of Christianity to the religions in China, such as Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism are groundbreaking for an encounter in which Christianity is seen as a challenge to China, but also for the insight that the encounter with the religions and culture of China can be an enrichment for Christianity {9}.

Francis X. D'Sa, SJ, a professor at the Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Theology Jnana Deepa Vidyapecth in Poona (India) {10} summed up his comments on the correlation of the religions' claim to universality and the particularity of the contexts in the thesis "The variety of religious contexts and the diversity of the claims to universality." The common task of all religions to communicate sense leads to the insight "One Mystery. The wise men speak differently of it." In every religion its respective members have to deal with the claim of universality. In this respect, the premise of the potential truth of all religions is the prerequisite of every inter-religious dialogue.


Relativism or Universalism?

Here in particular, the spiritual closeness of D'Sa's observations to the approach of the on 26 August 2010 deceased Raimon Panikkar became apparent. That's why the claim to truth has to be sought initially within the religious truth of the respective religion. No historical religion is a priori entitled to preference. They all are "functional equivalents", regarding their offer of meaning. Like all claims to truth, the truth of the gospel is admittedly universal. The very different forms of expression of this truth-claim, however, are contextually shaped and therefore particular and historically conditioned. Precisely the encounter with a different form of answering the question of meaning and thus the encounter with a strange reality, in the sense of a "dialogical hermeneutics", may contribute to your self-discovery and renewal.



The here proposed dialogue could be implemented at the level of life, commitment and concern for threatened people. An metaphor may illustrate this. Only by using both eyes, human beings are able to recognize the depth dimension of life!

Despite different approaches, as result of the congress - prepared and led by the head of the project "Theologie interkulturell", the Frankfurt theologian Thomas Schreijäck {11} - can be summed up: claim to absoluteness and plural contexts are not contradictions but can, in the sense of relationality, be dialectically conciliated. However, this dimension of correlation of the truth claim is faced with two problem areas. There is needed existentially a high degree of inner peace and stability in order to recognize that what is experienced as the absolute basis of developing one's own identity does not at the same time necessarily have this function for other people. In the eyes of many people it seems to be no longer feasible that an individual concept of life or a common world view lays claim to absoluteness, if the respective truth claim can be raised only correlatively, i.e. only concerning this individual or that particular group. However, also in Europe the time of closed and homogeneous world-views is over at least since the time of the Reformation. With different interpretations of the Christian message and separated from each other, the different denominations initially could at most territorially offer the respective believers apparent certainty and clarity. It was a difficult and conflictual process until they realized that the diversity of meaning-offers does not mean danger but enrichment.

The second problem area concerns the question in what philosophical context you put the question of the relationship between the claim to universality and the various contexts of its verification. Already in pre-Christian times, the European history of ideas was faced with the alternative to postulate either one sole intellectual principle for the beginning of all being, and thus also for thinking, plurality, and motion - or a physical one. According to the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, water as the ultimate material component fulfilled the condition of an ultimate, indivisible (a-tomos) component. Via Plato's theory of forms, philosophy and theology are up to this day shaped by such an, in the final analysis, mechanical search for one sole universal ultimate source and meaning.

"If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times. Beyond this universality, however, people seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer—something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things." {12}

In the 6th century BC, Heraclitus by contrast did not focus on an ultimate, fixed component or source. As is well known, by using the metaphors of water and fire, he spoke of a dynamic and thus constantly changing happening as primordial ground of all being and thinking.



The place of verification is therefore not the compliance with an ultimate, abstract principle, but the process of life per se. On the part of religion, this corresponds to orthopraxy or bearing witness by our way of life. In the New Testament this is expressed in Jesus' parables of the kingdom of God. When thus in the Western history of ideas different philosophical systems of interpretation are already available, how much more then the perspective widens, if non-European, e.g. Asian models of thought are appreciated as forms of expression of Christianity.

If we apply the criterion of functionality rather than a theoretical postulate, this will prevent both our sliding into a relativism that makes everything equally valid and into an abstract universalism. Not least, the awareness of the fact that every religion and culture has its history and is linguistically imparted can show its respective contextuality and thus protect against absolutization.



{1} See J. Estermann, Andine Philosophie. Eine interkulturelle Studie zur autochthonen andinen Weisheit (Frankfurt 1999). The equally interesting work "Teologia Andino. El Tejido Diverso de la Fe Indigena" is unfortunately not yet available in German translation.

{2} See A. Ndabiseruye, Politische Alphabetisierung u. Bewußtseinsbildung. Aufgabe kirchlicher Erwachsenenbildung in Burundi am Beispiel der Pädagogik Paulo Freires (Münster 2009).

{3} See H. Waldenfels, Kontextuelle Fundamentaltheologie (München 1985).

{4} See Ch. Taylor, Ein säkulares Zeitalter (Frankfurt 2009).

{5} See W. Jeanrond, Theology of Love (London 2010) — this too is a work whose German translation is urgently required; see the same, Der Gott der Liebe. Entwicklungen des theologischen Liebesbegriffs bei Plutarch u. in der frühen Kirche, in: Plutarch, Dialog über die Liebe. Amatorius, edited by H. Görgemanns and others (Tübingen 2006) 274-293.

{6} See "National u. tolerant". Fragen an den Jesuiten u. Menschenrechtler Franz Magnis-Suseno, in: Publik Forum, 2010, No. 22, 44-45.

{7} See kathpress (Wien), 1.1.2011.

{8} "National u. tolerant" (note 6) 45.

{9} See L. Gutheinz, China im Wandel. Das chinesische Denken im Umbruch seit dem 19. Jahrhundert (München 1985); the same, China im Aufbruch. Kultur u. Religionen Chinas u. das Christentum (Frankfurt 2001).

{10} See F. X. D'Sa, Einführung in die Bhagavadgita (Darmstadt 1977); the same, Theology of Liberation (Poona 2001); the same, The Darma of Jesus (New York 2003); the same, Regenbogen der Offenbarung. Das Universum des Glaubens u. das Pluriversum der Bekenntnisse (Frankfurt 2006).

{11} See Stationen eines Exodus. 35 Jahre Theologie der Befreiung in Lateinamerika, edited by Th. Schreijäck (Mainz 2007); Theologie interkulturell. Glaubenskommunikation in einer gewandelten Welt, edited by the same (Paderborn 2008); the same, Außereuropäische Theologien, in: Geschichte der christlichen Theologie, edited by W. Pauly (Darmstadt 2008) 230-246.

{12} John Paul II, encyclical "Fides et ratio" No. 27.


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