October 29, 2008
The Global Dictionary of Theology and the Future of Global Theology, Part 2
[Continuation of previous post]
How Then Shall We Characterize the Global Dictionary of Theology?
A Fuller Flashback to 1960
The View from Wheaton, Early 1980s
The View from the U.K. (and Edinburgh!), Late 1980s
Twenty years later, a revision of the NDT is in process (at IVP-UK), and it will apparently augment these with articles, for example, on Arab Christian Thought, Chinese Christian Theology, Contextual Theologies, Globalization, Japanese Christian Thought, Korean Christian Thought (mostly brief articles of few hundred words).
Both the EDT and NDT—and others like them—will continue to serve students well, with their main emphasis being exploring the inherited Western theological tradition. One or both of them should be on your reference shelf. But the times they are a-changin’.
Return to Fuller Again—Early 21st Century
For one thing, as much as it is applicable and possible, the GDT tries to view each topic from more than one cultural perspective. This is achieved in various ways. One is to have one person sum up what is being said in various global/local contexts or by having more than one person write on the topic and form a composite article, or by having more than one person collaborate in co-authoring an article, blending their insights. A typical pattern is that someone will write on a topic from the perspective of the Western theological tradition, and an Asian or African or Latin American will “respond” or offer an alternative cultural perspective. Or in the case of the article on Ancestor Worship, we offer African and Asian perspectives in one article.
We might think of the GDT as a sort of global theological academy. Like walking past the open doors of classrooms in Payton Hall here at Fuller, you might hear a variety of perspectives being aired and discussed, questioned and debated, so as you leaf through the GDT articles you will find a variety of conversations taking place.
Now for a theological dictionary, a genre that traces its descent to the old, whiskered Scottish encyclopedic tradition, this is an odd thing. A Westerner proposes and the Filipino respectfully disposes or qualifies, or vice versa (e.g., Vanhoozer and Gener on Theological Method), or the African or Asian and the American collaborate (e.g., Glenn Stassen and Emily Choge on Social Ethics, Bill Dyrness and Melba Maggay on Art and Aesthetics). Or take the article on Pietism, in which the recognized British expert W. R. Ward lays down a historical perspective and Simon Chan introduces us to pietism in the Chinese house churches, including a song about “Old Granny’s” conversion and resulting change of character. These are the kinds of things you find in the GDT.
My guess is that the GDT also benefits from the reality of many non-Western contexts, where (as Kosuke Koyama put it) there are few chairs of theology but many benches of theology, on which a generalist professor is expected to slide from discipline to discipline.
The GDT does, of course, investigate the past of the “Western” Christian tradition, and it takes it very seriously. But I think of the GDT as most characteristically an exploratory work. It is forever looking around corners and over walls, and opening doors. It crosses oceans, mountains and deserts and stumbles into theological meadows, oases and vibrant communities where local theologies flourish. Where else will you find articles on African Background Theologies in Latin America or Hybridity or Pacific Island Theology? In the world of theological dictionaries, the GDT is for theological adventurers.
Reflecting on the old “Edinburgh”/EB model, I would say that the GDT
But in one aspect, the GDT is less humble. I have a test for reference books, particularly of the “dictionary” variety. I call it the Browsability Factor, or BF. Here’s how it works—say you open the GDT to look for an article on ecclesiology or trinitarian theology. But you immediately bump into another interesting article, which you take the time to browse. Then another. And then another. How long does it take you to forget what you were originally looking for? I’ve not yet done field research on the GDT’s Browsability Factor, but on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing “quickly forgetting,” I’ll hazard a BF of 10.
As Dana Robert of Boston University put it: “It is fresh, creative and fascinating. Unlike most dictionaries, it should be read cover to cover, and more than once.”
Checking in with Isidore
Since I’ve been making much of the Scottish and EB9 tradition of encyclopedic works, I decided to consult Isidore for his perspective on the Scots. In commenting on the Brittons and Scots, I think he puts our EB9 editors in perspective:
Some suspect that the Britons were so named in Latin because they are brutes (brutus). Their nation is situated within the Ocean with the sea flowing between us and them, as if they were outside our orbit. Concerning them, Vergil (Ecl. 1.66): ‘The Britons, separated from the whole world.’ The Scotti (Scottus) in their own language receive their name from their painted (pictus) bodies, because they are marked by tattoos of various figures made with iron pricks and black pigment.
In other words, the British (and the Scots) reside on—even beyond!—the outskirts of civilization. They are the primitive tribes, separated from “us” by an ocean. And the Scots are bedecked with curious tattoos! This was the global perspective from a cultured scholar of the Mediterranean world in the sixth to seventh centuries. (Next time you run into a Scottish professor, ask him to show you his tattoos!) What a far cry from MacIntyre’s satirical picture of “how man, having been originally and still being in remote colonial parts of the globe a biologically evolved savage, had risen to the height of being a Scottish professor in the 1880s.”
And this is a reminder that what seems irreducibly central and firm in our perception of the world of theology today may not always have been and may not always remain so. Fifty years hence, it would be interesting to see what new theological dictionary emanates from Fuller, and how this one is looked back on. Or, with the shifting of the center of Christianity to the Global South, will that dictionary of theology perhaps emanate from Nairobi or New Delhi or Sao Paulo? Or will the print genre finally come to an end, to be replaced—under the blessing and watchful eye of Isidore—by a constantly updated theological global wikipedia of theology? Maybe someone here will live to see that day.