“Has not theology inflated my language and thought? Has this inflation kept me from real contact with people? Truly, theology is more manageable than God” (151). These inquisitive words of Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, continue to echo throughout my heart and mind even after reading his seminal text on theology and mission, Water Buffalo Theology. As someone who loves to engage theology and the various contributions of historical and contemporary voices, I have recognized the hazardous tendency to become overly cognitive and disengaged with real persons and human experiences. That said, Water Buffalo Theology was a refreshing read, which I consider a vital resource for anyone who longs not only to read and teach theology, but also and especially to live and incarnate God-talk in a variety of cultural contexts. Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009), an astute learner, teacher, and respected academic, is intentional to bridge the gap between two sacred disciplines of the Christian tradition, i.e. how we speak of God (theology) and how we live into such speech (missiology). He writes:
“At this point theology becomes missiology, and missiology becomes theology. Is not theology a stammering description of the sending God culminating in the word of the cross? Is not missiology an understanding of God who is and acts in unsearchable and immeasurable strength of love culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ” (135-136)?
However, Koyama reminds the Christian theologian and practitioner that we must constantly reform our speech so to be palatable and relevant to those in our cultural contexts. Better said, our theological reflections are in vain if they cannot be understood by and transform the lives of the farmer who plows his field by water buffalo. Koyama writes:“I decided to subordinate great theological thoughts, like those of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, to the intellectual and spiritual needs of the farmers. I decided that I have not really understood Summa Theologiae and Church Dogmatics until I am able to use them for the benefit of the farmers. My theology in northern Thailand must begin with the need of the farmers and not with the great thoughts developed in Summa Theologiae and Church Dogmatics” (xvi).
Water Buffalo Theology proceeds to engage the plethora of Asian contexts and raise local questions posed by a situated gospel. What does this mean for the Buddhist in Thailand? Who is Jesus in conversation with the likes of Confucius? What does shalom look like to the Vietnamese in the wake of war, communism, and Western imperialism? Can the gospel be understood aside from Western interpretations? How does the church move beyond and guard against denominationalism and institutionalization? How can we cross the dividing wall between library Christians and street-Christians wherever we are?
Here are a few excerpts Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology; however, I encourage you to read it for yourself and allow this text to provoke fresh and contextual questions that can form all of us for relevant and faithful gospel witness in and for the whole world.
“Water Buffalo Theology is quietly convinced that theology- God-talk- belongs to the realm of poetry…’God-talk’ is poetic, not scientific language” (xi).“The mission of the church begins with the nurture of the crucified mind [v. the crusading mind], the mind of Christ in the context of theological raw situations” (18).
[The quotes to follow continue to baffle me, as this was written in the 1970’s. Koyama suggests that the gospel’s greatest threat in the technological age of modernization is the obsession with “efficiency.”]“Have we given thought to the coming of a universal technological civilization and its impact upon us who live in a certain locality, in certain cultural and religious traditions…The coming of the universal technological civilization compels me to grasp again the essence of the good news of God in Christ” (45).
“To ‘live in technological efficiency’ may become for many the experience of ‘salvation’…In fact, it may be said that the contrast between the ‘inefficient God’ and ‘efficient human’ is becoming more and more pronounced” (46).---
“To what kind of spiritual and theological heritage am I heir? This question is of immediate concern for me, for how can I make my witness meaningful to my neighbors if I fail to understand where they are and where I am in the continuing story of the Christian church here” (57)?
“It is wrong to say that we must produce an indigenous theology. It is not necessary to produce one. It is there” (60)!“We must resort to analogy when we speak of God, but in doing so we are confronted by the God who constantly perturbs our use of analogy. This paradoxical burden in theological thinking is not sufficiently understood by the theology that neglects history” (73).
“There is no private theology. Our theology is a community production” (77).“Theology can only stammer about the person and work of Jesus Christ” (134).
“Our Christian life is surrounded by institutions and establishments. And their number is legion. Some institutions are sacred and others are less sacred. Some institutions are more useful tot the good of the community than others. Institutions have their respective histories. They tend to become rigid and inflexible. They die hard. Their self-denial only occurs very rarely. The real danger of institutions must be located not in the institutions themselves, but in the ‘theology’ that surrounds them. The penetrating analysis of the deceptive theology is summarized by Jeremiah as ‘This is the temple of the Lord!- therefore we are safe!’…On this basis, Christians can and must be critical about institutions related to the church” (138-9).“Now how to communicate such a reality of God to our neighbors? Neighbors who are not ‘neighborology’ but real living neighbors who are in the midst of human and historical complexities” (155)?
“The crucified mind, not the crusading mind, must be the mind of all missionaries, indeed of all Christians” (159).“The Christian faith is a noisy faith. Because it lives in believing in God’s decisive and irreversible attachment to people in Christ” (161).
“Participating in Christ’s work of holding all things together by being deeply discomforted- what a singular form of mission in the discomforted world today” (167)!