The Interaction of Culture, Truth, and Practical Theology
Uesifili: I spent 1990 in Samoa, in the Theology College for Methodist students preparing for ministry. In 1991 I decided that to help my thinking theologically it was best for me to head over to New Zealand to Knox Theological Hall and [experience of having 0:27] spent two years in Dunedin doing a Bachelor of Divinity was that it gave me a new and refreshing approach and perspective to what the God questions might look like, without having ready-made answers which in some way was both a blessing and a curse. We Pacifica people like to have ready-made answers even if they are the wrong answers, but no-one really cared about the questions. So it was an eye-opener of an experience, but one that I think gave me a very good foundation for asking those God questions since. So I like Dunedin very much.
David: What was bad about living in Dunedin?
Interviewee: Something to do with the weather. It wasn’t that bad. I actually enjoyed the fact that I could see snow. I had never seen snow in my life until I went to Dunedin, and it was wonderful, sitting in the Lewiston Library, in the warm, heated rooms and looking out and watching the weather and the snow fall onto the Knox Hall car park. It was great.
David: That was in February, wasn’t it?
Uesifili : I can’t remember the month, it was that cold.
David: One of the things that John Evans said was that in Australia there was just such a reaction to what Donald Trump had done to their democratically-elected leader. A wide-spread feeling in Australia, that their leader had been insulted, and this was someone that ought to have taken into account that Australia had been America’s closest ally since World War II. That feeling that their leader had been dishonoured, made to be small if you like, was not going to go away quickly in the Australian scene. I asked John whether there were many sermons being written about this. He said, well you probably couldn’t have got a bigger topic in Australian churches than what had happened to Malcolm Turnbull.
In New Zealand, at least within the Facebook social media kind of outlets, we didn’t see that reaction of our closest neighbour. Equally, in New Zealand we haven’t seen the reaction of say Fiji, Samoa, Tonga to what is essentially a regime change in America, be it a democratic regime change or what. So, I think it’s not just a church-related problem; I suspect it’s a New Zealand-related problem that we are becoming more and more insular in the very age in which social media has exploded everything out into a very wide arena. So, Uesifili have you got any comments about Pacifica or Oceania perspective about what’s happened in the US?
Uesifili: Yeah, I think one of the interesting things about the question that’s been asked - is it reasonable to expect theology to react to world event; we shouldn’t expect that - it’s a must. We have to respond - we can’t not respond. I think the issue is it’s the speed in which we respond. You alluded to the ancient world, David when a letter was written by St Paul’s and it went out to the Corinthians and to the Ephesians, and it probably made good time. Today we’re talking about a totally different cultural, technological context where the President of the United States is actually engaging in social media; that’s his mode of communication. If we look at our own media and information access, if you click onto the Herald for example, that material is updated regularly, which means anything that was an hour ago you are not likely to find it on your feed unless you dig through layers and layers of other newsfeed.
So, the question is; is it reasonable? Yes, of course. It’s something we have to do. It’s the speed in which we do that response that I think catches us out. That is a total turning upside down of our sense of relevance and our sense of being important. No-one actually waits for the church with baited breath to make it be known. Even the poor Pope doesn’t get to have a say. It’s those who are on the mark straight away that gets the breaking news. I think that says something of our understanding of the technological context in which we operate; our theology is as good as yesterday’s fish and chips paper.
Unless we find a new kind of response, it doesn’t matter what fountain of wisdom we have to offer; it isn’t going to be readily available. I think that’s part of where we lose our part of the conversation; we’re just not there. We might be there next year when someone publishes a book, but we haven’t got the kind of instantaneous theology that responds to some of these things, remembering that people are clicking onto Twitter or Instagram in their thousands and in their millions with the news information being digested and formulated in a matter of seconds, if not minutes. So our theology in some way has to be very much like the Jesus way of theology, on your feet type thing, and it’s the way the world operates.
David: I find that very helpful. It’s a useful set of commentaries because our theology somehow has to begin to incorporate a sense of urgency, a sense of the right moment to speak. This leads us into Max and Julie’s question; how do we make theology relevant in our denominations where there’s so much diversity of opinion? That may occur in parishes or congregations or eve study groups, but I don’t think that it’s the diversity that’s the key thing here. It’s the ability to think on one’s feet, and when the President of the United States accuses CNN, ABC - you name it - did he even accuse Fox? He might have.
If he didn’t, they’d be the only one’s he didn’t; of being the fake news media - this from the president o f a country that believed ultimately in the freedom of speech. Trump has manipulated I think a great deal [this concept 9:22] that some media produce fake news, and that’s true on parts of the political spectrum. Whereas, the Church is saying, actually we believe we’ve got some truth claims that aren’t fake news - we think these are truths that are universal truths; truths of human rights for everyone, irrespective of creed, colour, religion, nationality - whatever. We’re so far behind being able to respond on our feet to this kind of criticism. Any comments, Uesifili?
Uesifili: Well, I think the American narrative in terms of how Trump is utilising media is that he sets the agenda for the news. Now, that might be fake news, or Trump sensationalising the issues, but he’s actually dictating what information people absorb. He actually directs where the next bit of information is coming from, whether we agree with it or not. He is actually determining what news and information we digest. Now, I agree with you, David; the Church has some eternal truths that it has to share, but if you’re only sharing that with pages of books that people have to go and buy, or only on Sundays when the church congregation meets, those are very limited spheres in which the truths that the Church says is actually beneficial to society gets heard or gets accessed.
So, the question for us is; how do we bring these truths to the modern day sense of truth? What we might believe to be eternal truths may not necessarily be - it could be fake news, for example. We have to be able to find ways in which the news of the day is actually very real, but real in the sense they actually do have some proven evidence that these things work. I think it’s that access and the speed in which we can engage that - make no mistake; these are big challenges for a church that has been in a sense quite taken by its own sense of relevance and importance. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that now, but we’ve got to somehow find how this new technology can actually provide a platform for us to share some of those things.
David: I think we’re at a crossroads as far as Church is concerned; it has become so slow in this kind of political social media race, if you like, that it no longer has the capacity by and large to self-transform in the social media sense. Maybe a dozen parishes around New Zealand have a Facebook page. That’s great, but what they tend to use their Facebook page for is purely focussed on internal fellowship-type matters. So, you’ll see photos of the parish picnic or so n so doing an item or something like that.
That’s fine, but it ignores that whole spectrum of theology, and that spectrum of theology always engaged with the political. Now, I don’t know why we’ve lost that ability. There was a time that you said the Church was a much bigger organisation; that’s true. There was a time when we had an international affairs committee, and I can guarantee that if that still existed there would be 40 or 50 active lay-people and half a dozen clergy working on the Trump stuff right now. So, I suspect there’s no longer the will to become involved in the way that we used to be involved.
Uesifili: Isn’t that interesting, David; what we do is actually not very interesting. We haven’t come to grips with the idea that our diminishing numbers of those who want to take an hour and a half out of their Sunday morning to come to a close-up room such as the church is no longer what people prefer to do. They would rather be doing this; sitting in front of their computer at their own time, engaging with something that they themselves can control. We haven’t understood the fact that people have been mesmerised by what technology can now offer to them, in terms of engagement and thinking, and the diversity of perspectives.
These are not the sort of things that we do in church; we go to church with one particular agenda, and that agenda is the Presbyter’s agenda or those who control the congregation. I don’t think people are in that kind of thinking anymore. There are so much more interesting things happening on Facebook, and I could sit there for hours, but to say that it’s more interesting to go to church on a Sunday morning and sit there for an hour and be given a sermon that makes no sense; I’m not so sure about that.
David: You made reference to this right at the start; these things about refugee status impacted directly into every country. We would have had people employed by Google and Microsoft and so on of Muslim extraction that would have come directly into that band. What did we do? We just blinked and some people reacted on Facebook, but Facebook is not a great way of trying to bring about change. I think if I’ve read the Facebook stuff on people reacting to Trump correctly; most people are very concerned, but because we’re not American’s - because we’re not part of that society, they don’t have a collective mechanism for expressing their concern. The one group that ought to have a collective mechanism for expressing the concern is in fact the Church and all the denominations. I think probably as...
Uesifili: If I relate to that; should the Church respond to Donald Trump? Of course they should. If we look at our own New Zealand experience, the very people who went to the Dawn Raids, for example of the 1970s are exactly the people who can speak to that experience of those people now in America being rounded up, and hopefully not being deported to where they’ve come from originally - seems to be a whole host of the things that we have rallied against in New Zealand in the past. Why are we suddenly silent on what is a very similar situation?
It’s for political gain, it’s for economic rationale that doesn’t seem to make much sense; the things that we ourselves experienced here in tea 1970s. Are the fundamental issues different? No, they’re not. Is there an ethical dilemma for the church here, as it was back in the 1970s? There should be, because these are the very things that we as Church are supposed to be upholding as the admirable Christian values we should be upholding. So, why aren’t we responding to Trump? These are the things that, in our own little context of New Zealand wasn’t that far away.
David: You’re absolutely right. I think the Dawn Raids in the Muldoon era just highlight exactly the same kind of bullying, racism that was determined to make its mark, if you like, and divide the country into; this group must leave. Now, today we’ve got that group of Indian students who through no fault of their own end up facing being deported. The one place that they can turn to in the whole of New Zealand society, and think they might have a chance is the sanctuary of a church.
God help New Zealand and any country that gives up that kind of cultural heritage that was developed over centuries and centuries. I do think that theology has to make its way and make its mark very quickly in the world all over again, but I also think that the truths of theology have this relevance that need to be stated; here we stand and can do no other. I think that was Luther’s famous dictum. If you consider that your student’s days in theology have borne fruit later on in life for you, has theology become something that actually you feel you have to do?
Uesifili: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s given a backbone to the way you see the world - the way you act, and the way you advocate for what I have learned to be the kind of theological questions that don’t necessarily have the answers. That’s the grappling in the social context. It’s actually exactly like what the guys have done just up the road here with the Indian students. It could be legally wrong, but the question for churches is not to get everything right; it’s actually to go and do what you think might be right, given the long history and heritage of the Church always standing up for the underdog.
Now, to me, that has been the basis on which theology has enriched and shaped my kind of thinking, in terms of the questions of our day. It’s not to get the answers right every time, but actually to grapple with what could possibly be a dubious answer. I don’t think Jesus was very much into right answers; I think he was into grappling with dubious solutions. I think that’s where we ought to be using our theology; actually being out there and engaged and flying by the seat of your pants trying to find those answers, because they’re not going to be readily available. So theology has given me that courage and the sense of risk to grapple with those on the fly. I don’t think we’re supposed to know the answers before we actually get down to the hard work, necessarily.
David: That’s a great way to end. Thank you very much, Uesifili. Thank you very much John.