[Many of you responded to my request to help me choose a book for my seminary class, and the one that received the most votes was Clemens Sedmak's Doing Local Theology. I have since wrote a response to the book for my class, and the first part of the response is below.]
Clemens Sedmak in his book Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity uses fifty theses to discuss the importance of understanding the surrounding culture as the starting point for the task of theology. He proposes that theology is not universal but local and thus comes in many forms. In this sense, everyone is a theologian since theology addresses our deepest questions and desires. Sedmak’s proposal for the importance of local theology is helpful for the missional church, which seeks to understand its culture in order to speak within it rather than to it or above it.
Sedmak very early on expresses the purpose of the book when he states, “This book…is not a ‘how to’ book, a book of seven steps or ten points or ‘learning how to do theology in two weeks.’ It is a book that tries to show, by way of example, how simple and colorful theology can be.” The author’s purpose is not to do theology for the reader, something which the reader can later emulate, but he hopes to draw the reader into the knowledge and beauty of a simple, multiform theology. As Sedmak expresses, “When academic theology wakes up, it realizes that it needs the many colors and sounds of the whole world” (2002, p. 4; emphasis mine).
The ultimate goal of theology is “to bring people closer to God” (p. 6). Sedmak does well to focus the reader on this goal, that is, to make individuals the primary emphasis on the theologian’s mind. As he continues on the next page, “Theology talks about our lives as if our lives matter” (p. 7). Due to this, theologians listen before they speak. They focus on the wounds of society and open themselves up to “the voices of those without a voice” (p. 10). Theology enters the basic, simple needs of the surrounding culture.
If one knows the needs of the surrounding culture, he or she will quickly realize that theology is a diverse task. As Sedmak points out, “Teaching theology is not about conveying the right way of doing theology. Studying theology is not about getting to know the theological method. On the contrary, the more we know about theology, the more we come to appreciate its many forms and colors” (p. 11). The needs of a specific culture will bring different theologians to a variety of conclusions.
In this way, theologians must be companions of people in their specific contexts. The author advises, “As a companion, local theologians should be able to speak the language, sing the songs, and recite the poems of the people they live with and the culture of which they are a part.” The theologian must live life alongside of others since, as Sedmak states, “Theology unites individuals in a common struggle, the struggle for the kingdom of God. Theology is a communal enterprise” (p. 15). Multiple forms of theology emerge, but individuals are held together by this common struggle.
Clemens Sedmak holds Jesus up as the prime example for local theology. Jesus did theology “as if people matter.” Sedmak correctly reminds the reader, “He [Jesus] did not separate basic physical needs from the spiritual needs of people…taking part in the mission of Jesus means to serve, to do ministry as if people matter, to render service to people. In this regard Jesus compared his mission with the responsibility of a physician (Lk 5:32)” (p. 33). The reader must remember that Jesus spent an overwhelming amount of his time with people, meeting both their physical and spiritual needs. As the author states, “The bread of life and the daily bread cannot be separated in our theological work” (p. 35).
Since theologians are working in a variety of contexts, Sedmak reminds the reader of a crucial question when he explains, “Who is Jesus for you? is [sic] a key question if not the key question in the framework of the Christian religion (see de Mesa 1987). Every culture has to receive Jesus Christ in its own special way” (p. 42). This is a task missionaries have engaged in for many years, that is, explaining Jesus to different cultures requires one to emphasize and even reshape certain items of his story.
What do you think of Sedmak’s proposal that theology needs different forms?
How much more important is it to do theology “as if people matter?” What difference does it make?