Polycentric But Universal

It has been an exciting discovery that Christian theology is no longer (if it ever was) an enterprise that can be run from one powerful centre. Rather it is a polycentric business, with theology being done in distinctive ways in many different centres and challenging any claims to normativity on the part of the powerful.

This, however, poses the question as to whether there can be any unity or coherence to Christian theology as a whole as it becomes ever more polycentric? If each expression of theology is addressed to its context and carries validity and relevance specifically in relation to that context, does any possibility remain for theological affirmation with universal scope? Can there be any normative theology that defines Christianity across the world or is the religion fragmenting to the extent that it can only be described in the plural as “Christianities?” 

The sharpness of this question is evident today in world Christian communions where, as a result of divergent contextual theologies of sexuality, some sectors have concluded that they can no longer belong together in the same ecclesial home. If such trends continue, will Christianity fragment into multiple, incompatible parts or is there a way to sustain the unity of the faith as it comes to expression in many very different contexts?

Kwame Bediako of Ghana reflected on this question: “What the plurality of centres of Christianity’s universality provides is not a linear unidirectional pattern of Christian history, but a pattern of overlapping circles of Christian life in context, with no absolute centres or peripheries. Every centre is a potential periphery and vice versa.” The universal horizon of the faith remains but it is glimpsed now by a far more dynamic process of mutual encounter, learning and renewal.

The reason I am thinking about such matters right now is that I have been asked to give the opening keynote address at the annual conference of Malawi’s Theological Society. This year’s theme is “Decolonizing the Theological Curriculum for an Online Age” so I need to try to say something about how the theological curriculum came to be colonized and what we can do about it.

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