Theological method

The potential of global English to enrich the Christian church’s production of contextualized theologies

My wife has taught many hundreds of people to teach English as a second language and her students are now scattered around the globe doing this. I have learned interesting things from her about the international nature of English as a language now. This is particularly important in the church, because most of the theological resources available to the global church are in English but most of the Christians in the world do not speak English as their first language. For 13 years, I taught theology in a Seminary in the Philippines where English was the medium of instruction in the educational system from at least high school onwards. So my students generally used English well, but I was keenly aware of the fact that my own theology was formulated not only in English as its language of expression, but from the perspective of one who had grown up in the British and North American cultural context, even though I spent my childhood in India. I was careful to remind my students of the need to formulate their theology in ways that fit well within their own cultural contexts, so that God’s word would be effectively communicated in cultures often very different from mine and that of the authors who wrote most of the books which they read in the course of their theological study.

Given that personal experience, I was delighted by the perspective of an article on the Gospel Coalition site which was written anonymously. It is well worth reading in its entirety but I’ll paste here a few paragraphs that particularly encouraged me.

When it comes to fighting theological famine around the world many consider English resources to be only temporary tools. To be sure, there is no substitute for hearing the great things of God in one’s own heart language. So we often defend English resources by way of their availability and efficiency while waiting for translation projects to faze them out.

However, the availability of English resources presents opportunity not often acknowledged. English resources enable two-way exchange in which Christians across the globe study common sources and offer their unique insights to the worldwide theological dialogue. English dominance complicates issues, of course. So we must proceed with sensitivity as we explore the precedents, problems, and possibilities of English as a common theological language.

The author writes of the need for global dialogue and discusses the complexities of English and local languages. But then he concludes with these hopeful observations:

If a common language frames worldwide dialogue, the culture of origin for that language will enjoy a privileged status. Maybe English isn’t such a bad fit, with its varied origin and habit of sampling vocabulary from languages the world over. But what exactly is English anyway? Does it refer to British English or American English? And if so, which regional dialect? And what about Australian, Indian, or Singaporean English? International English curriculums often look to Received Pronunciation, the prescribed British dialect, as the proper form. But if we judge media prevalence to be the deciding factor, American English tends to be the standard. Ultimately, English has no “pure” form.

As a result we now see many World Englishes. As different cultural groups use English to express their unique social settings, they infuse English with aspects of their local languages. For example, if two theologians from different East Asian countries interact, they will most likely communicate in English, even if their cultures have more in common with each other than either does with British or American culture. Yet they will use English in an “East Asian” way.

This trend challenges the assumption that English aims only to connect other cultures to us. And World Englishes grant non-native English speakers a voice in the continued development of English as a truly international language. This voice helps preserve the diversity of cultural thought patterns even as it adds lushness to English expression that only a choir of culturally varied voices could provide. As one Southeast Asian student writes of her English graduate school experience in Australia:

I have now realised more consciously how useful and valuable writing in two tongues is to my creation and choice making. If the English norms give me the privilege to assert myself with the use of constant “I” and spell out my intentions in “maps,” then [my local language] norms legitimise my employment of poetic language and create a subtle flow in writing. As the English norms require me to explain everything explicitly, why do I have to hide my emotional feelings as well as show my engagement with the topic? [ R. Viete and P.  Ha, “The Growth of Voice: Expanding Possibilities for Representing Self in Research Writing.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 6, no. 2 (2007), 50-51.]

Though not originating in a theological context, this quotation speaks volumes about the possibilities of English in global theological dialogue. Theology articulates the deepest truths of our being, the most foundational truths of our entire worldview. This reality demands a church that reaches across all cultures in effort to understand and thereby worship God more fully.

As the ancient Augustine amazes us with his elated eloquence and penchant for sudden doxologies, so might the Western church need its rhetorical standards stirred by brothers and sisters of more exuberant, and maybe even exultant, expression. There are certainly dangers in English as a common theological language, but the dialogue it enables will ensure that theological famine relief is a two-way exchange. [For further exploration of this topic see Cheri Pierson and Will Bankston, “English for Bible and Theology: Understanding and Communicating Theology Across Cultural and Linguistic Barriers.” Teaching Theology and Religion 16, no. 1 (2013), 33-49.]

Very nicely said! We native English speakers have much to gain from the insights of brothers and sisters in Christ who read God’s word in other languages and hear God speak to them in their particular cultural context.

Appendix: Helpful perspective on this issue from A. Suresh Canagarajah

(Added on Feb 27/14)

A. Suresh Canagarajah

Canagarajah - Resisting Linguistic ImperialismWhen my wife read this blog post, she was reminded of the work of A. Suresh Canagarajah, in Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching. I think that a section from his “Introduction” is worth quoting here.





I who am poisoned with the blood of both,

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed

The drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

Betray them both, or give back what they give?

(Derek Walcott, A Far Cry from Africa)

The conflict Walcott expresses is an everyday experience for millions of people in post-colonial communities. They find themselves torn between the claims of Wstern values and their indigenous cultures, between English and the vernacular. Ironically, however, with the passing time, the possibility of choosing one or the other may no longer be open to them: the English language has become too deeply rooted in their soil, and in their consciousness, to be considered ‘alien’.

In parts of the Third World, what is biologically true for Walcott—that two traditions mingle in his blood, and flow through his veins—is culturally true for entire populations. Some have chosen convenient, self-serving resolutions to this conflict, by understanding the complex interconnection between the two linguistic traditions. History is replete with examples of colonized subjects who have ‘betrayed’ the claims of the vernacular for the advantages of English, and who now feel they are in some sense outsiders in both Western and local communities. Others, especially in the period since decolonization, have rejected English, lock, stock, and barrel, in order to be faithful to indigenous traditions—a choice which had deprived many of them of enriching interactions with multicultural  communities and traditions through the English language.

The alternative suggested by Walcott—to ‘give back what they give’ and respond favorably to both langgs—can take many different forms. Instead of maintaining both languages separately, one can appropriate the second language, and absorb parts of it into the vernacular. The creative tension between the langgs can also bring forth new discourses, as Walcott, who has referred to himself as ‘the mulatto of style’, so eloquently exemplifies in his own writing. The fact that such productive interactions are possible demonstrates that our consciousness is able to accommodate more than one language or culture, just as our languages can accommodate alien grammars and discourses. So it would appear that there are ways of transcending this painful linguistic conflict, and even of turning it to our advantage.

It is precisely what Canagarajah describes in that last sentence that I hope will occur in the doing of global theology, enriching the whole church in the process.



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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