Wednesday, July 19, 2006

In the Name of the Father, Son ... and Mother?

I am spending my week on the campus of the Theological Facultie in Yaounde, the premiere Protestant seminary in Cameroon, where I am hosting our ten probationary pastors for training.

At our April Annual Meeting, eleven pastors were interviewed by our Board of Ordained Ministry, and ten were accepted to become pastors “on trial.” All ten are required to complete a three-month course of training, after which five will receive a license to administer the sacraments in their church. The other five will be reviewed and have the opportunity to receive the license next year.

So the training has started, with two more weeks to follow, one in August and one in September.

The Board had instructed me to cover three topics in particular during the three months: Wesleyan theology, the sacraments, and worship/liturgy. With the help of Professor Nathaniel Ohouo, a United Methodist from Cote d’Ivoire, and a few other faculty members, we have been doing exactly that.

Every morning, from 8-10, I address a theological issue. For example, on Monday, we covered the doctrinal standards of the UMC; on Tuesday, Wesley’s doctrine of salvation. From 10:30 to 12:30, we cover worship matters. On Monday, I presented the basic fourfold structure of Christian worship; Tuesday, the liturgical calendar. Class resumes at 3:30, at which time we have a guest professor from the seminary. We’ve had lectures from Old Testament and New Testament scholars, and will host the Practical Theology prof tomorrow. After that, we move to the chapel for a worship service that is designed and led by one of three small groups. Following worship, we critique the service.

It’s been an immensely enjoyable time for me, especially this morning’s first session. We were working through the Methodist Articles of Religion. In fact, we were talking about the very first one, which states our belief in the Trinity. The pastors were struggling with how to talk about the Trinity to their congregations.

Pastor Oum raised his hand and complained that the concept of the Trinity was extremely difficult to relate in his maternal language. I was speechless, of course. It’s hard enough to speak about the Trinity to Americans, much less a French-speaking African who is trying to do ministry with people of yet another tongue!

About that time, Professor Nathaniel walked into the room. His specialty at the seminary is traditional African religions. I breathed a sigh of relief, and asked Nathaniel to help me out.

He listened carefully to the problem, and then proceeded to give us (well, me especially!) a crash course on preaching the Trinity for Cameroonians. He began by explaining just how problematic the concept of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can be in the African context.

In the African family, the father and son relationship is one that must always be mediated. The son can never go to the father with a request. This would be considered brazen and improper. For example, a son could never ask his father permission to get married. A son always has to ask his mother to speak to the father on his behalf; if a mother is not available, another man must be found to carry the son’s communication.

Thus, Africans have a hard time conceptualizing a Son who has equal power and authority as a Father. And since the third person of the Trinity is not a “Mother,” then the question arises who the mediator might be.

This is Nathaniel’s solution – African Christians must speak of the Holy Spirit as an intermediary, someone who mediates or communicates on behalf of the two. This metaphor helps make sense of a tremendously complicated theological principle for people of a different culture.

And it makes sense to me, too! I like the implications of speaking of the Holy Spirit as a wind-blown messenger, a mediator and reconciler.

As I chewed on this fact, I was reminded that all of our theological talk is metaphor and analogy. And those of us who are Western Christians can have our theology renewed and reinvigorated – and enlarged! -- when we encounter the symbols, signs and thought-patterns of other cultures.