The Conundrum of Intercultural Theology as a European Academic Discipline

Benno van den Toren | October 2021

The term ‘intercultural theology’ was first used to refer to a particular field of study in 1975 when Hans Jochen Margull, Walter Hollenweger and Richard Friedli started publishing a book series called Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity. Hollenweger also used it to indicate a theological approach in a three-volume collection of shorter pieces. Intercultural theology only became the name for a specific discipline when a number of professorial chairs in missiology were renamed ‘intercultural theology’.

In order to understand the rise of intercultural theology, we need to consider two clusters of developments that are closely connected but need to be distinguished.

On the one hand, there are developments in Christianity worldwide. Newer Christian communities were increasingly dissatisfied with theological traditions inherited from the West. For them, Western theology could not address the pressing issues of their environment and did not relate adequately to their cultural frameworks. Furthermore, global flows of people and information mean that contextual theologies are no longer isolated, but interact with each other. In the context of Christianity worldwide, intercultural theology is the theological discipline that researches how different expressions of Christianity and contextual theologies relate to the contexts in which they originate. Intercultural theology moves beyond contextual theology in that it orchestrates a critical conversation between different culturally embedded theological perspectives so that they can be mutually enriched and better enabled to help local communities live and share the liberating Gospel in these diverse contexts.

On the other hand, there are developments in the Western academy. The rise of intercultural theology as a distinct theological discipline with its own chairs, conferences and journals reflects a new awareness of the postcolonial condition, the end of the Eurocentric mission movement, and the growing importance of cultural studies in the humanities.

This dual context of intercultural theology results in a number of tensions:

  1. Many practitioners of intercultural theology are middle class intellectuals with stable incomes who study theologians and communities who believe that theology should be deeply engaged in struggles for healing and liberation.
  2. Intercultural theology studies post-colonial communities that are often characterized by a strong missional drive, but Western academics do so in an environment where Christian mission is considered a colonial practice that needs to be abandoned or at least thoroughly re-interpreted in a religiously pluralist world.
  3. Intercultural theology has become its own discipline that has relatively little interaction with the other main theological disciplines such as biblical studies or systematic theology, but engages with theologies from the global South that are much more integrated. Western theology thus potentially seals off complex cultural questions in a relatively harmless academic bubble.
  4. Intercultural theology earns its intellectual credibility by borrowing extensively from accepted western methodologies such as cultural anthropology, philosophical hermeneutics, discourse analysis and post-colonial studies. While this has provided rich insights, it risks turning other Christian communities into objects of study rather than conversation partners. This is particularly the case if these approaches neglect and sometimes even deny what drives their conversation partners, be it a search for justice, a longing for the Spirit, a desire to share the Gospel, a struggle to see signs of the coming Kingdom.

Intercultural theology is driven by an intellectual desire and interest to listen to the voices of strangers in their otherness rather than domesticating them by fitting them into Western systems of thought. This means that intercultural theology will always have a strong incentive to break out of Western frameworks, which may even act as a straightjacket. Intercultural theologians should, however, be the first to admit how difficult this is if they are part of a dominant cultural community or are trying to be acceptable to the dominant cultural framework of the Western academy.

I therefore propose that for intercultural theology to become truly intercultural, it will need to engage courageously in intercultural conversations in which Christian communities from other contexts – and Christian communities around the corner – and their theologians become conversation partners rather than objects of study. This will demand a greater self-awareness concerning how our own academic, social and cultural environments shape this discipline. This will unavoidably require some distancing from the dominant academic approaches. The discipline may therefore become rather more marginal in relation to the dominant discourse, but out of an awareness that such a marginal position is needed to enter into deeper conversations with Christian communities worldwide. This may at the same time open up possibilities for the renewal of the wider field of theological reflection in the West, which is often so bound up with its context that it is unable to do justice to its inexhaustible subject matter – the triune God and the world as it exists in relation to this God. In this way intercultural theology may become even more of a creative nuisance for theological faculties and the wider academic enterprise, because it is often from the margins that one can have the clearest perspective.

Benno van den Toren is Professor of Intercultural Theology at the Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam and Groningen, the Netherlands.

(This blog is based on a contribution to a panel discussion on ‘What is Intercultural Theology?’ for the Online Study Program for the 2021-2022 academic year of the Overseas Mission Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary.)

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