Contextual Christology and Christian Praxis: An Indonesian Reflection

J. B. Banawiratma, S.J.

JOHANNES BAPTISTA BANAWIRATMA, S.J., was born in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Innsbruck, Austria. A director of the Center for Research and Training of Contextual Theology, Banawiratma is presently teaching Christology and Social Theology at Sanata Dharma University, Indonesia. He has written widely on both of these areas. At present he serves as a member of the Editorial Board of Orientasi Baru (New Orientation), a philosophical and theological series published by the Theology Department of the Sanata Dharma University. He is also chief editor of Seri Pustaka Teologi (Theological Series).

Once the story of John’s Gospel was going to be painted on the inner wall of St. Anthony Church in Yogyakarta. A sketch was circulated to ask for people’s opinions. Two reactions were very interesting. The first said that Jesus and Mary should not be painted as Indonesian. They were Jews and their Jewish identity is unchangeable. Therefore we see only two foreigners in the Church, namely Jesus and Mary. Nicodemus, the guest at the Cana wedding and all others are Indonesians. Second, now that we are following the glorified Christ, the life of Jesus in Nazareth was just a transition. We are concerned about the conception of Christ behind such a statement. If we ask people, what the meaning of God becoming human is, many spontaneous answers would be “God, the Father became Human.” This is of course the result of our proclamation (“communicated theology”). The formulation of the people is close to Docetism, Monophysitism or whatever. Fortunately in the life of Christian faith measures itself primarily byorthopraxis and not by its ability to articulate correct formulations. However, our proclamation should help the praxis, namely action and contemplation.

Indonesian Christians live in a Moslem surrounding. They raise many questions about Christian faith, especially about Jesus the Son of God and the Trinity. How can we share our faith-experience, and what can we learn from Moslems to enrich our faith? As J.S. Dunn (1978) reminds us, our concern is to cross over to other religions and to come back to one’s own tradition with new insight. R. Pannikar (1978) calls it “intra-religious dialogue.” Our reflection should help people to develop their prayer, their mystical experience as well as their political commitment within a multi-religious context.

The Way of Orthopraxis

The way of orthopraxis takes seriously Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt 7:21). This attitude in no way underestimates the importance of dogmas and doctrines. We need to appreciate them and to hold the decisive as the decisive. Matthew’s Gospel tells a revealing story about two sons. The one said, “Yes, I will go”; but he did not go to work in the vineyard. The other said, “No, I will not go”; but he changed his mind and went to work. The Word of God expects not only verbal response, butorthopraxis (contemplation towards action: “he changed his mind and went,” Mt 21:29). We can describe the relationship between doctrine and praxis using the message of Gospel. The true attitude and response to the Gospel is not only to hear and to proclaim; what is decisive is to follow and to do. We are called to be “hearers” and “doers” of the word of God (cf. Lk 8:21). To hear without doing is deception; the doer does what he or she hears. Orthopraxis is the decisive criterion of being a friend of Jesus (cf. Lk 8:21; Jo 16:17).

In the context of poverty and injustice as well as their related problems, we need a language of compassion and justice to stress the witness of Jesus Christ more fully. The historical and the glorified Christ are one. The historical Jesus (including his life, his words, his deeds and his death) has presented himself asthe Liberator bringing the alternative life. The meaning of God’s kinship and the suffering of Jesus to the point of death, even death on the cross as well as the resurrection of Jesus should also be understood from the perspective of the poor and the marginalized. In today’s context and language, Jesus’ message moves towards social, gender and eco justice, in which human dignity and responsibility as well as human rights are understood holistically.

Jesus’ life and mission can be understood in the framework of the covenant between God and the poor against Mammon. Mammon can be described as the accumulation of power and wealth in such away that it is absolute, it cannot be questioned. The struggle against Mammon is integral to universal human valuesthat surpass the walls of religions. Christians are called to discern and to follow the Spirit of Christ which is one and the same Spirit of God working in human beings and in the world. To find and to follow Christ contextually, we cannot escape this responsibility.

Aloysius Pieris’ distinction between two categories of the poor is very helpful in being decisive about following Jesus Christ, the Way. The first category, the poor vicars of Christ are the victims of Mammon:

“These are the victims of nations who act as the eschatological judge of nations (Mt 25:36ff). They are the least sisters and brothers of Jesus who receive our love in Christ’s name and thus open the gate of the Kingdom for us.” ... Their poverty is forced upon them because of a wrong ‘house-management’ (oiko-nomia) of the world by mammon-worshippers.... The poor are ... sinners as much as the rich.... Their victimhood, is therefore, the sole basis of their election.... Their holiness consists ... in responding to their calling to be God’s covenant partners, to be a liberating force in the world” (Pieris 1999: 59).

The second category of the poor includes the renouncers of Mammon as followers of Christ:

“These have voluntarily made themselves poor for the sake of entering the Kingdom as demanded by Jesus. Their poverty is known as evangelical, as it is undertaken for the sake of the gospel. They alone are qualified to preach the Good News of the kingdom to the (first category of the) poor.... The old formula ‘no salvation outside the church’ is now replaced by ‘no salvation outside God’s covenant with the poor.’ ... The evangelically poor receive their mission through their solidarity with the socially poor” (1999: 60).

In the history of the Indonesian churches, the understanding and the witness of Jesus has much to do with the socio-political involvement of the churches and their relationship to sisters and brothers of other faiths and religions. In the colonial era the churches did not question colonialism and exploitation. It is not surprising therefore that the Christian religion has been identified as a religion of colonialism. The involvement of Christian people in the Indonesian independence movement has changed the picture for us in Indonesia. This Indonesian Christian heritage vis-a-vis political power should challenge the churches now. The churches have to discern their position and clearly take a stand on the side of the poor people and the marginalized as the Indonesian Bishops’ Lenten Pastoral Letter 1997 did. The churches together with sisters and brothers of other faiths and religions should struggle for the values of God’s kingship, universal human values.  That is the way of orthopraxis.

The Way of Open Integrity in a Multi-religious Society

Being Christian is to follow Jesus Christ as the way, and the truth and the life(Jn 14:6) to be with Him where He is and to do what He did and is doing now (cf. Jn 14:3). Orthopraxis has priority over orthodoxy; both are contextually performed. The faith praxis (action and contemplation) and its reflection always happen in a certain place and time, in a certain context. Without contextual interpretation Christological reflection tends to adopt a foreign Christology, which might be aggressive and colonial in relation to the praxis of faith in other cultures. Therefore it is very important to choose a responsible contextual method in the whole process of Christological reflection.

There are many approaches to the mystery of Christ. Our contextual approach needs to go through a process of critical dialogue with our contextual partners. In Indonesia it means (a) our actual Christian community (men and women), (b) Christian communities in the history of the Indonesian churches, (c) the poor and marginalized, (d) Indonesian cultures, (e) brothers and sisters of other faiths, and (e) of course Christian traditions including the Scriptures. Every partner has a concrete context, and therefore our dialogue must always have an inter-contextual character.

Many young people describe their experience and picture of Jesus as their personal friend. Nevertheless many Christians have a conception of Jesus Christ as more or less God the Father becoming human, and they find it difficult to experience Trinitarian prayer. The historical formulations do not help them pray and experience the Mystery of God. Actual Christian communities need a more narrative Christology that helps to develop both intellectus fidei and intellectus amoris. We need to reflect on this main question: Who is Jesus Christ for us, and how could we find and follow His presence now? We need to take into account the full witness of Jesus Christ. The historical Jesus and his only concern for the reign of God or the kingship of God, need to be proclaimed more to help to answer this main question.

Many Catholics in Indonesia pray more often to Mother Mary rather than to Jesus. Many dying Catholics ask their family or community to sing “Following Mary” (Javanese: Derek Dewi Maria). We might ask, why do they pray more to Mary rather than to Jesus the Savior? The lyrics of the song vividly express that following Mary guarantees her assistance; even in the worst situation we have been caught by Satan, when we shall never be totally lost. In fact this song has helped them to be faithful in following “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Besides that, perhaps they feel the feminine and motherly atmosphere mediating the feminine and motherly aspect of God through a human being, through the help of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the mother of his disciples. Seemingly, people’s devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Way of the Cross reveals a similar feeling and need of the people. They appreciate and are grateful for a feminist experience and a Christological reflection.

Until today the gospel of Jesus Christ has been communicated by Christian traditions that embrace all forms of expressions of Christ’s gospel. Contextual Christian communities carry Christian traditions, including Holy Scriptures and the dogmas. Dialogue with Christian traditions means dialogue with contextual communities. Therefore Christian traditions have to be interpreted historically and contextually. The core experience of the Christian tradition is Jesus Christ, the Sacrament of God and the Mediator to God. All formulations are in fact efforts to help the praxis (contemplation and actions) of the Christians.

Christians give witness that the worldly manifestation of God happens in Jesus and in the Spirit. However no worldly manifestation of God (also in Jesus) can exclusively and exhaustively incorporate God, who is always greater (Deus semper maior). Otherwise, we do not accept God as God. Furthermore, our capability to understand and to accept the incomprehensible God is limited. Non-Christian traditions are not just preparatio evangelica or stepping stones towards the Gospel of Christ, neither are they just deviatio ab evangelio. They have their own meaning in the historical manifestation of the incomprehensible God, and therefore inter-religious dialogue and cooperation are needed to understand and come closer to the Mystery of God. Within the holistic paradigm the different identities and traditions have to be appreciated as we aim at the transformation for the whole. The dialogical and transformative lifestyle is in no way syncretism in a negative sense; rather it is symbiosis.

In the dialogue with sisters and brothers of other faiths we need to remember that the Christian tradition and truth are neither inclusive nor exclusive of all other religious traditions and truth, but they are related to all of them. Inclusivism can ignore the identity of other traditions by covering or assimilating them in one’s own tradition. In this sense inclusivism is a form of paternalistic exclusivism or colonialism. Here we do not want to endorse relativism, as if we were indifferent and believe that all religions were the same, as if we ignored the Jesus event as the revelation of God and took on an “indifferent attitude” in a multi-religious society. We come to this position because of Jesus Christ. Ignoring Him afterwards would mean cutting branches from the vine from which we grow and bear fruit (Jn 15: 1-11).

We also need to distinguish between indifferent pluralism and dialogical pluralism. The former has no integrity and the later is open to integrity. The proper attitude in religious pluralism is to recognize and accept the uniqueness and meaning of every religion realizing that each can learn from the other. Open integrity takes seriously one’s faith and religion as well as the faith and religion of others, and thus offers the best possibility for dialogue and mutual enrichment. To be religious today is to be inter-religious.

Learning from Islam: The Word of God - The Mediation between God and the World

Our Moslem sisters and brothers have difficulty in understanding our sharing of faith experience and our doctrine on Christ and Trinity. In fact the same difficulty occurs within our Christian community. The difficulty touches not only the field of doctrine but also the field of prayer. Our belief in Christ and Trinity is based on the Paschal mystery, on the death and resurrection of Jesus as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit. Exactly on this point we too have difficulty with the Moslem interpretation. Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, Moslem theologian, said that the verses of AlQur’an on the death of Jesus (4: 157-158) are not historical statements. That Jesus did not really die crucified is a theological statement.

We need to find another point of entrance to have sharing of faith with our Moslem sisters and brothers. We need to learn from our Moslem sisters and brothers how they engage in communication with God. We might be able to use the paradigm of mediation or point of encounter between God and human beings (cf. Lane 1984). The encounter between God and human beings is only possible if there is mediation that has a divine and human quality at the same time.

God is the Creator, the greatest and compassionate God, the almighty and merciful One, who creates, sustains and takes care of the whole creation. We, Christians, address the same God as Abba, the motherly Father of Jesus and our motherly Father.

In AlQur’an Jesus is not called the Word of God [Kalimat Allah] (Cragg 1985: 32). Moslem sisters and brothers accept and live out AlQur’an as the Word of God. The Word of God is divine; and yet human beings can hear and recite it. When they pray the divine verses, their prayer is human prayer, human words. Here, AlQur’an mediates between God and human beings. In the Christian faith the mediator between God and human beings is Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God, and at the same time he is a human being. Therefore he can mediate between God and human beings. We can draw the parallel between Jesus and AlQur’an. Both mediate the communication between God and human beings. The meeting point is theKalam Allah (the Word of God) rather than Kitab Allah (the Scriptures).

How could we understand the Holy Spirit? As the Word of God AlQur’an is divine. When a human being recites or announces the verses of AlQur’an, it is a human being who is praying and announcing. It means that the Word of God, the divine Word, becomes the word of a human being. If a person follows the Word of God, again it challenges human life and human deeds. How is this possible? It is because of God’s power (cf. Roest Crollius 1997; Dorr 1995). This power of God in the Christian tradition is the Holy Spirit. To believe in the Holy Spirit means to believe in the power of God at work in human beings and in the world. In Christian faith “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 5:15-16); “and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord (Kyrios) except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:3). It is the Holy Spirit that enables human beings to believe in and to follow Jesus as the Word of God and as the Way to God.

The Christian tradition never teaches about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as if they were two or three Gods. The formulation of the dogmas on Trinity express the understanding of the Church about the One God (monotheism) based on the experience of the Jesus event in the context of the Hellenistic culture. The dogmas express Christian faith in the One God, through following Jesus Christ as the Way, in the power of the Holy Spirit working in human beings and in the world. Using the paradigm of mediation that is divine and human at the same time, the Christian faith in the Trinity that is, God, the Father, Jesus Christ, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, can be paralleled in Islamic faith with God, AlQur’an and God’s power. In this manner both Muslims and Christians pray, announce and  follow the divine Word. We can depict this notion as follows.

 

GOD

The Compassionate, The Merciful,

The Almighty, The Greatest

(Jesus)        THE WORD OF GOD       (AlQur’an)

HUMAN BEINGS

hearing, announcing and following God’s Word

by

THE POWER AND ACTION OF GOD

in HUMAN BEINGS AND in the world

 

Learning from our Moslem sisters and brothers we might be able to deepen our Trinitarian faith and prayer. Our reflection and formulation of faith should function not only as intellectus fidei, but also as intellectus amoris that occurs in (political) action as well as in (mystical) contemplation.

Learning from the Holistic Paradigm: To Be Open to the Presence of God in the World

It is important to be aware that our Christian understanding always takes place in a concrete context. What paradigm do we use to understand the world? We can distinguish between a secular and a holistic cosmic paradigm of culture (Pieris 1996). In the context of secular culture, Jesus is easier grasped as the instrument of God, whereas in the cosmic-holistic culture he is grasped as the sacrament of God. Both paradigms can help and enrich each other. Nevertheless we need to be aware of the patriarchal and kyriarchal mindsets (Schüssler-Fiorenza 1993) hidden in the secular paradigm. We also need to be aware that forms of sacralization of power and violence penetrate all cultures. Conversion and forgiveness are the demanded of all peoples and cultures.

Within a holistic paradigm it is easier to acknowledge and accept the role of everyone (man and woman), every group and everything as a sacrament of God. In the holistic cosmic view no one and nothing can be excluded. To talk about human rights for example should mean to prioritize the rights of the poor and the marginalized over the rights of the rich and the powerful. On the other hand, talking about responsibility should mean that the rich and the powerful are obliged to take on the burden of working for the most urgent needs of the people suffering most. Otherwise there would be no holistic world welfare that includes both human beings and also the whole cosmos. The holistic paradigm demands cosmic solidarity.

The idea of Saint Irenaeus can help us. He described God’s “two hands,” namely the Word and the Spirit. “Two hands of God” combine “through their universal action, in endowing the religious life of persons with truth and grace and impressing ‘saving values’ upon the religious traditions to which they belong.” The advantage of this conception is that the work of the Holy Spirit does not always directly appear as the work of Christ’s Spirit as Christians experience and teach. However there is one and the same Spirit of God. Hence Christians are also called to search and to follow the Spirit of God working in other religious experiences and teachings as well as in the whole cosmos.

 

REFERENCES

Ayoub, Mahmoud Mustafa

1980 “The Death of Jesus, Reality or Delusion? A Study of the Death of Jesus in Tafsir Literature.” The Muslim World 70: 91-121.

1983 “The Miracle of Jesus: Muslim Reflections on the Divine Word.” in Robert F. Berkey and Sarah A. Edwards (eds.), Christology in Dialogue. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press: 221-228.

1995 “Jesus the Son of God: A Study of the Term Ibn and Walad in the Qur’an and Tafsir Tradition” in Christian-Muslim Encounters.Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Wadi Zaidan Haddad eds. Gainesville, Fl. University Press of Florida: 65-81.

Cragg, Kenneth

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Dorr, Donald

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Dunne, John

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Lane, Dermot

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Pannikar, Raimundo

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1996 Fire and Water. Basic Issues in Asian Buddhism and Christianity. Maryknoll NY. Orbis Books.

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Roest Crollius, Ary A.

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1997 “L’Esprit Saint dans le Coran et le Soufisme.” in G. Bertin and M-C Rousseau. eds., Pentecote de l’intimr au social.” Universite Catholique de L’Ouest: Siloe. 151-162.

Schüssler-Fiorenza, Elisabeth

1993 Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. New York: Continuum.