The Empire Writes Back

It has long been acknowledged that the location of theology in numerous centres might introduce an element of variety to the discipline. The possibility of certain theological emphases being identified with particular centres was seen, e.g., in patristic times when one could distinguish between the theology of Antioch and that of Alexandria, or in Reformation times when one could distinguish between the theology of Geneva and that of Basel. However, while these theological differences could lead to acute controversy at times, the participants were united in their understanding that there should be one theology exercising a normative role. 

In our time, however, as Christianity has become a truly worldwide faith, the question has been raised as to whether there could be a polycentric theology, not only in the sense of theology being done in a variety of places, but in the sense of theology having different concerns and content as it finds expression in different places. 

This question gathered force as the twentieth century advanced, particularly through the process of decolonization at a political level and the churches’ discovery of their own selfhood at an ecclesial level. Churches that were fulfilling the missionary ideal of becoming self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating, found that they faced a fourth question: could they become self-theologizing? In asking this question they were part of a broader cultural and intellectual movement, captured by Salman Rushdie in the memorable phrase, “the empire writes back.”

From this perspective the new theologies that were soon emerging across Asia, Africa and Latin America were not just exotic appendages to a normative theology that was already settled. They challenged the claims of Western theology to have that normative role, cutting it down to size as just one contextual theology among others. This has been rather a shock to the system for Western theology with its sense that it controls the master narrative. But it looks like history and demography will unravel this stubborn sense of its own superiority and universality that inhibits the Western theological academy from acknowledging its own contextuality and discovering its capacity to learn from theological endeavour in other contexts. Exciting times ahead.

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