Does culture matter?

[This is something I shared with African Christian Theology, a forum for pastors and theological educators (bible colleges and seminaries) in anglophone Africa which I administer; I have lightly edited it to make it more generally applicable.  The original version was written in French for Théologie Contextuelle en Afrique, the sister group for francophone Africa; if interested see my post “La culture est-elle importante ?” from earlier today.]

Does culture matter?  Specifically, I want to ask whether culture plays an important role in our theological formulations. As for me, I think culture does matter, but it remains a question as to how culture matters. What is the appropriate role, including limitations on that role, for culture in our theologizing?

Before I proceed, kindly note that I am not calling for theological relativism. But I am asserting that we should not absolutize previous culture-specific theological articulations — Western theological expressions have much to offer World Christianity and should not be discounted. But neither should they be absolutized.

I am a historian, as many of of our readers know. Within the Christian tradition, I see that both culture and language — notably Greek, Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ge’ez (or Old Ethiopic), and Nubian during the patristic era (i.e., the first 600–700 years of Christian history) — have influenced theological articulations. Or, as I enjoy preparing food in the kitchen, I might say that culture imparts a certain flavor or aroma to the way we “do theology.”

More recently, I can see distinctives between English-speaking Christianity of Scotland or America and French-speaking Christianity of France or Belgium — though both anglophone and francophone Christianity are certainly like twin sisters within the context of Western Christianity.  When we move to non-European cultures, however, (and I consider the cultures of North America to be primarily European, or, if you like, Euro-American) it is possible to see greater differences in Christian expression.  Naturally, when we move into vernacular theologies — thinking in the languages of Africa or of Asia instead of insisting on anglophone or francophone or lusophone theological forms — these differences are accentuated, much as Ge’ez and Syriac theological formulations sound rather different from the anglophone or latinate theological formulations of Western Christianity to which we are accustomed!

Different cultures ask different questions. The answers given by brilliant theologians a thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago, in England or France or Germany might not be pertinent to our African contexts, simply because here in Africa we are asking different questions to which traditional Western Christian theology simply has no answers.

Allow me to restate my question:

  1. When we theologize, does culture matter?
  2. If culture matters, what its appropriate role and function?
  3. Specifically within the setting of the African contextual realities, what is the appropriate role and function of African culture in our (Christian) theologizing, that is, in how we express the truth of the Gospel and its implications for how we live?

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