By Julia Stuart
The Rev Reuben Hardie of Somervell Presbyterian Church in Auckland was one of the 35 young theologians to attend a consultation on Transforming Theology and Life Giving Civilization in Korea in August this year. The Asia- Africa consultation, jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches and Council for World Mission, had the extraordinary task of starting to set a new course for theology, spirituality and mission in the new millennium. Participants came mainly from Asia and Africa, with Reuben being the only person from the Pacific region.
The aim was to gather young theologians and activists from Asia and Africa who could lead a new ecumenical movement. Participants were invited to share new theological insights and set a course for further development of a transformative theology growing from the African-Asian context.
“People are recognising that further work needs to be done in the convergence of Christianity and the cultures of African and Asia,” says Reuben. “With increasing numbers of Christians in Asia and Africa, many believe that it will be from here that a new theology and impetus for the future development of the ecumenical church will emerge.”
Presentations and discussion during the consultation focused on ubuntu (African) and sangsaeng (Asian), two concepts of living in harmony with each other and with God’s creation. These highlight justice, diversity and interconnectedness, and were seen as modern expressions of the Biblical koinonia.
The consultation gathered in the Hanmaun community, an organic farming collective in Changseong, South Korea. This community was born out of local farmers’ struggle for social justice. Today it acts as a place of retreat and refuge from the large surrounding cities and as a bastion for traditional forms of Korean building, farming and cultural expression. At the end of each day the participants at the consultation were invited to share in the community’s creative activities of weaving, dance, and pottery.
“Usually conferences of this nature meet in hotels,” Reuben said. “Our accommodation was different – we stayed in mud huts. These weren’t your usual mud huts, however, they were amazing – they were like five-star mud huts.
“We all thought that the decision to base the conference at the Hanmaun community was inspired. This community was a concrete example of ubuntu and sangsaeng, connecting people with nature and with the traditions and culture of that place.”
The participants were asked to prepare a paper on the critical issues in theology in their own countries, and the challenges currently faced.
Reuben said he spoke about the struggle for identity in being a Pacific nation, and being New Zealanders in that context. He talked about the great challenge New Zealand churches face in connecting with where people are at these days, and the need for a new way of being church in the community.
“In some respects I felt a bit different from other participants,” he said. As a New Zealand Pakeha I hadn’t experienced the suppression of my culture or economy by Western forces. But I was very conscious that a Pacific perspective/s would contribute a great deal to the development of this new life-giving theology. One of the questions that they sent me home with is to discover what would be New Zealand/Pacific words that express similar concepts to ubuntu and sangsaeng.”
The new millennium needs a new emphasis on holistic theology like that found in these African and Asian concepts, according to the statement from the week-long consultation: “Such a theology would speak to an accumulation of issues that have built up over previous centuries:
“Attending this consultation was an amazing experience and a steep learning curve,” Reuben says. “It’s the beginning of a very ambitious and yet very pressing task.
“New ideas of ecumenism, in particular, were very exciting, looking beyond traditional church-to-church relationships to reaching out beyond the walls of churches to different expressions of life and religion.
“As we talked and shared together in those mud huts, there was a lot of energy and excitement about what this new theology and life-giving civilisation could mean, mixed with realism that there is still such a long way to go.”