Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview
A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine
- ISBN: 9781540964717
- Published By: Baker Academic
- Published: April 2022
In Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine, Randy Woodley explores some of the core characteristics of Western ideology (essentially European and American) in comparison with Indigenous theology (mostly Native traditions in North America). Serving as an introductory work on the topic, this book provides many insightful conceptual contrasts, drawing on history, philosophy, government, economics, and, of course, theology. The volume is based on a series of three lectures, with interviews interspersed throughout. Woodley’s presentation of the material is dialectic, dynamic, and personable, helping readers explore the similarities and differences between Indigenous theology and Western Christianity. Woodley suggests that Native theology is, in many ways, categorically different from the theology developed by Western Christianity, but at the same time Native theology is highly compatible with the truths found in the New Testament. This book is accessible and provides readers (especially those unfamiliar with the topic) with several helpful resources in the footnotes for further reading.
Woodley paints with broad brush strokes to compare Indigenous theology with the Western worldview, contrasting “relational” with “propositional,” “communal” with “individualistic,” “integrated” with “dualistic,” and so on. In doing so, these two camps appear completely antithetical. While the differences between their values and approaches to faith are apparent, more precise and specific examples are needed to draw out the contrasts. However, Woodley does eventually provide some of this detail, specifying what exactly he means by “the” Western worldview and Indigenous theology in general—this makes his argument more effective and concrete. The specific subject matter is North American Native traditions and a Western worldview that is expressed in Europe and America and is based primarily on the empires of Greece, Rome, and England (98-99).
Several insights from the book are worth highlighting. Woodley’s emphasis on the communication of truth through sacred stories by Native traditions aligns well with the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ parables (xi, 47). Further, just as the oral tradition is important to Indigenous communities, so it was for Jesus’ earliest followers (125-126). As for theology, Woodley affirms many historical Christian beliefs, although his Native perspective renders his views more nuanced. Woodley discusses creation, original sin, the incarnation, salvation, the Trinity, Christology, the problem of evil, and eschatology, appealing to scripture throughout. Many theological topics are touched on only briefly (e.g., original sin, the problem of evil, and eschatology), while others receive more attention (e.g., creation, the Trinity, Christology, and salvation). Woodley’s articulation of the Trinity as the “Community of Creator” (49, 87) is compelling and reflects a social trinitarian model. Salvation, the “good news,” the kingdom of God, and Jesus’ mission are all described persuasively in terms of shalom/harmony (95-97) and the holistic healing of body and spirit for all of creation (cf. Rom 8:20-23).
I do, however, wonder about how Woodley speaks of Jesus as Creator and as Spirit. Woodley is right that Jesus is regularly identified in scripture as having a crucial role in creation (cf. John 1:3; Col 1:17), but Woodley’s description of Jesus as Creator (48-49) seems to go a little too far, blurring the lines between the first and second person of the Trinity. It is one thing to say that God created the world through Jesus, as scripture says, but it is another thing to say that Jesus is the Creator. Perhaps this is just theological hairsplitting on the complex topic of the Trinity, but I think that a bit more nuance is needed here. Second, Woodley describes Jesus as Spirit (107-108), which raises questions concerning Jesus’ physical resurrection. In response to an interview question, Woodley says that the historical resurrection is not that big of an issue for him; what matters more is his personal “relationship with Jesus, who is Spirit” (107). This is, understandably, a practical issue for Woodley, since Jesus is no longer on earth in the way he once was. And while having a spiritual connection to and personal relationship with Jesus here and now is important, I think describing Jesus as Spirit risks overlooking the theological significance of his physical (and transformed) body that ascended into heaven, a foundational concern of Jesus’ early followers (cf. 1 Cor 15:12-19; 1 Pet 1:3). That being said, I respect Woodley’s reticence to affirm a historic resurrection, especially in the way Western Christians have often presented it (through apologetics and as a means for individual salvation). The idea of physical resurrection in the New Testament, however, appears highly compatible with the Indigenous view of shalom-based salvation, which doesn’t pit the physical against the spiritual and represents a universal healing for all of creation and not only individuals.
As a whole, the book is successful in helping unfamiliar readers reflect critically on the foundational values of the Western worldview (mostly shared by American Christianity) while considering the compatibility of Native theology with scriptural truths. Woodley connects numerous historical concepts and ideas and provides practical ways forward for healing and reconciliation (e.g., listening, lamenting, and memorializing, 41-43). Woodley’s command of the history of ideas is impressive and challenging, while his suggested way forward in a world built on colonization is prophetic in many ways. As an American Bible scholar of European descent, I think this book provides a fresh overview of Christian theology through Native eyes and is exceptionally insightful for Christian readers, although it will benefit those of any cultural or religious tradition.
Seth Whitaker is an independent scholar from Oklahoma with a PhD in New Testament from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.Seth WhitakerDate Of Review:May 30, 2023