Printer Friendly

Finding our own voice: the reinterpreting of Christianity by oceanian theologians.

The study of Christianity in the Pacific Islands is nothing new. What is new is that the study is being carried out by islanders themselves. Recent years have seen a surge of fresh thinking by theologically trained Pacific Islanders dealing with the Christian religion. This new thinking is the result of a great variety of changes in island life. The most obvious change has been the transition from colonial status to independence in most island countries. Equally important has been independence for the island churches. Starting with Tonga in the nineteenth century and continuing with the other islands from the 1930s to the 1960s, church independence for all but the Roman Catholic churches was established. (1) The Catholics received native-born bishops and regional bishops' conferences to care for them, even though, as in the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, the bishops continued to be appointed by Rome. Independent churches in independent countries have given an impetus to independent thinking.

Simultaneously, a revolutionary change has taken place in theological colleges in the Pacific Islands, making fresh thinking possible. The old theological colleges provided only limited opportunity for students to study, for the students had to grow their own food or catch their own fish, and they had to construct or maintain their own homes and the college buildings. In this way the colleges were economically independent, reflecting the economic independence of traditional Pacific societies, but less than half of the workday could be spent on studies. Academic standards were usually low. But starting about 1960, standards began to rise. With outside financial help, that highly privileged character--the full-time student--began to appear. (2)

The flagship for the new style was a special college established jointly by the Protestant churches from all over the South Pacific in 1966. It was the Pacific Theological College, located in Suva, Fiji. It was the first degree-granting institution in the South Pacific Islands and received the top students from the churches of most of the island countries. Its purpose was to train theological teachers and church administrators, rather than local pastors. (3) It also had a further goal, as stated in its original statement of purpose: "To make available to the world the distinctive theological insights which God has given to Pacific Christians." (4) In other words, its establishment implied the creation of a Pacific theology, and from the beginning it took this intention seriously. Students were required to write theses or projects, most of which were about Pacific theology, conditions, or history. Of the 291 theses written before 1994, fully 275, or 95 percent, focused on a Pacific theme. These theses, an important expression of Pacific thinking, have been microfilmed by the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, in Canberra, Australia.

The Pacific Theological College naturally became the main source for teachers and principals of the lower-level theological colleges in all the island countries, and these graduates were the prime force in raising the standards of those institutions. Islanders gradually replaced the European missionaries in the colleges (the term "European" applying to all people of European ancestry, whether they came directly from Europe or from Australia, New Zealand, or North America). A survey of the sixteen Protestant colleges made by the present author in 1968 found all the principals of these colleges to be European, while another survey in 1984 found all the principals to be islanders. From the Pacific Theological College also came the great majority of the theologians who are included in this study. Not included here, it should be noted, are Papua New Guinea theologians, since they are so abundant as to require separate treatment, and they have already attracted considerable attention. (5)

Role of the Worldwide Ecumenical Movement

The new theological thinking in the Pacific has been closely related to the ecumenical movement, which has brought the churches of the world closer together. One islander has written: "It was the ecumenical movement that made possible serious theological reflection." (6) The chief ecumenical agency in the Pacific has been the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), which emerged at the same time as the Pacific Theological College. Conference meetings have provided occasions when theologically trained people could get together and share their ideas. The PCC meeting in 1976 heard one of the first calls for a Pacific theology, and the delegates there voted to call a consultation on theological education, which was held in Papauta, Samoa, in 1978. (7) This gathering in turn led to three Pacific-wide consultations on theology, held in Fiji in 1985, 1987, and 2001, (8) and to smaller national consultations thereafter. In these consultations ecumenical connections far beyond the Pacific were important. A secretary of the World Council of Churches was the one who suggested the first consultation, and all consultations were funded by the World Council and other world agencies. (9)

World ecumenism gave another boost to Pacific theology by helping to provide a journal in which the island theologians could publish their ideas. The Pacific Journal of Theology was started on a small scale in 1961. Because there was not yet a sufficient number of Pacific theologians to support the venture, however, most of the writing was done by a small group of European missionaries. Besides the great difficulty in securing articles, a rapidly declining circulation forced the abandonment of the effort in 1970. (10) By the time of the theological consultation in 1987, however, there was a new generation of trained islanders and strong pressure to revive the Journal. (11) European, Australian, and American financial support was secured, and the Journal has had a continuous existence ever since.

The extent of the world ecumenical interest in helping Pacific theology is understandable if one looks at it in connection with what was going on in the rest of the globe. The 1983 Assembly of the World Council of Churches, which was devoted to issues of Gospel and culture, proclaimed that every culture should have its own access to the Gospel. (12) Under World Council auspices the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) was launched in 1976 and held periodic meetings in Third World countries. A Pacific chapter was organized in 1994. (13) In these several ways the ecumenical movement provided the context and stimulus for distinctive theological thinking in the Pacific.

Four Leading Islander Theologians

It is appropriate now to consider the men and women who have led in the development of islander theological thinking. First must come the one who may be regarded as the father of Pacific theology, the late Sione 'Amanaki Havea, of Tonga. He was long the president of the main Methodist Church of Tonga, guiding that church through critical times as the one person who had the confidence of both the king, with his conservative cohorts, and the liberalizing, democratizing young churchmen. He was the first chairman of the PCC and the first islander to serve as principal of the Pacific Theological College. He issued one of the earliest calls for a Pacific theology, doing so at a World Council of Churches meeting in Toronto in 1983, a call that made headline news in Fiji. (14)

Havea coined the term "coconut theology," suggesting that it might well be the description of Pacific theology. In many ways the coconut could symbolize Christ, since it gives life to human beings, and when it is broken new life springs forth. The Pacific use of time might be called coconut time, since the coconut comes to fruition at its own pace, without hurry or concern for punctuality. Havea claimed that the Gospel, instead of coming with the missionaries to the Pacific, affected the whole world simultaneously at the time of Christ. The missionaries came only to make known the Good News that was already present, (15) being hinted at in the sharing and caring that were already common among Pacific peoples. (16) On the whole, however, Havea was not so much a contributor to Pacific theology as he was an instigator, one who saw the need and got people interested in the subject.

The second important figure has had much to contribute, Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere, from Fiji, has also been a principal of the Pacific Theological College. He has as well been the general secretary and president of the Methodist Church of Fiji, where he did a miraculous work in pulling back together the narrow nationalists and the broad ecumenists who had shredded the church by their fierce struggle following the 1987 coup. He succeeded in part because of the theological outlook that he has advocated, one expressed most fully in his book Vanua: Towards a Fijian Theology of Place (2002), based on his doctoral dissertation.

Though Tuwere has broad relationships in the ecumenical church, he has felt strongly the power of Vanua, or land, for the Fijian soul. Land, seen in the Fijian way, includes more than the physical turf. It includes the people and the ways of life that exist on the land. A Fijian proverb says, "Land is people, people is land." The land is linked to the things that have happened on the land. So the land has a history, and the God of history is likewise the God of the land. Western writers have often missed this understanding in their one-sided emphasis on the God of history. (17) Tuwere speaks of "the trinitarian solemnity of Vanua, Lotu and Matanitu"--land, church, and government. (18) He wants to keep these three together. He believes that the church has erred in teaching a kind of dualism, with one side of a person belonging to the land and the other side to the church, thus dividing the physical from the spiritual. There is, in his view, only one reality: the land, in which the physical and the spiritual are related. Christian teaching has mistakenly emphasized a spiritual salvation, the side of the church, as over against creation, the side of the land. But salvation takes place within creation, the land, and presupposes creation. (19) Creation indeed provides a framework for salvation. And the history of salvation includes the history of the land as it is remembered in myths, legends, dances, and idioms. (20)

This thinking may sound like an absorption of Christianity into Fijian culture, but Tuwere balances these ideas with other considerations. The history of salvation includes, he says, not only the history of the land with its myths and legends; it includes also Christ at its center. There is one continuous history of salvation in Fiji in which God has been at work, first in the history of the land with its beliefs and value systems, and then in the coming of Christianity and the growth of the church. Christ stands at the center of this single history. (21) Fijian culture is therefore not the final reality. The message of Christ should be used for "brutal self-criticism" within the culture. (22) In order to allow this self-criticism to operate, the church must be independent of the state, and there is no place for a Christian state such as the nationalist Methodists have been demanding. (23) So Tuwere has kept a precarious balance and has been a voice for moderation in strife-ridden Fiji.

The third of our leading theologian-statesmen is Bishop Leslie Boseto, the first Melanesian to serve as moderator of the United Church of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, which has now become, for his area, the United Church in the Solomon Islands. Though he is most at home in his Solomon Island villages, he is an effective leader on the national level, having been a cabinet minister in the government, and also on the world stage, having been on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and becoming, as some have said, "the authentic 'Voice of the Pacific' in international gatherings." (24) He has published one book, which is primarily an account of his year as moderator. (25)

In his theological writings Boseto, like Havea, often appeals for indigenized theology. The Gospel is indeed universal, but theology, he says, must be local, interpreting the Gospel in terms of the local culture. Yet Boseto also goes beyond this general call, stressing the strong sense of community among Pacific peoples. God prepared the peoples of Melanesia to hear the Gospel by making them community-minded people. The Pacific way of interdependence, he declares, is a way derived from God, whereas the way of individualism, coming from the West and leading to the pursuit of profit and the accumulation of things, is not in the interests of God's kingdom. (26) He does not go so far as to claim that Pacific ways can provide the foundation for the church; that is provided by the ways of Jesus. (27) Boseto spent two years visiting every village on his home island of Choiseul to learn the needs of the village communities, which are the heart of the church. (28) From his village experience he became concerned about the environmental damage to the islands. "The more we love Christ," he says, "the more we love the earth." (29) He believes God's spirit is angered and pained by what is happening to his forests and his seas. God's people should protect God's creation. (30) Thus he includes social ethics in his theology.

Boseto also includes a concern for church unity. Wherever there has been a union between separated churches, as in the case of his own church, he sees it as a gift from God. Church unity "must be seen within the center of God's being and his will." (31) Boseto has been able to speak more forcibly for church unity than have other Pacific theologians, since the denomination of which he was moderator has presented the only example in the Pacific Islands of churches coming together from diverse Christian traditions. (32)

The fourth and last of the major theologians may be regarded as one who has dealt principally with social ethics: Bishop Patelesio Finau of the Roman Catholic Church in Tonga. Finau, who died suddenly in 1993 while chairman of the PCC and at the height of his great influence, was a champion of action in society. His great effort was to get the churches out of their ecclesiastical closets and into the public life of society. He wanted the church to be the conscience of the nation. With this message he inspired and excited the young theological students and the younger priests and pastors.

Finau, however, was not just a social activist. He gave strong theological foundations to his ethical demands. The Hebrew prophets were his examples. The incarnation was his pattern, especially in Jesus' identification with the poor and the oppressed. His theology in general was very traditional, but he gave it a contemporary application. Unlike some of the other theologians, he saw much to criticize in Pacific cultures, including frequent lack of respect for women and youth, abuse of authority, domineering and unforgiving attitudes, and family values that pushed aside gospel values. He was little inclined to hold up Pacific culture as congruent with Christian faith. (33) Following in his wake, other Tongan theologians have spoken out, more than have theologians in other islands, against injustices in the old social structures. (34)

Finau seems to be the only Roman Catholic man who has been a major figure in island theology. The Catholics were late in developing higher theological education. Their Pacific Regional Seminary, located close to the Pacific Theological College in Suva, was seven years later in getting started. Catholics did not indigenize their teaching staff in their seminaries as quickly as the Protestants did. Their writing was more on practical church operations and spiritual development than on theology. (35) Finau was an outstanding exception, which gives his work special significance.

Three Other Important Islander Thinkers

In close connection with the four leading figures just discussed, we must recognize three other outstanding islanders who have published full-length books on theological subjects. The first is Lalomilo Kamu. His book The Samoan Culture and the Christian Gospel (1996) is a revision of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Birmingham, published posthumously by his American-born wife. The book wrestles throughout with the Gospel-culture question, which has been raised by so many islanders. The first part criticizes the European missionaries for having been too condemnatory of the culture, and the last part criticizes the Samoan church for having been too conciliatory toward the culture. Both criticisms have much truth in them.

Kamu has some of the same interest as Tuwere in the land, seen as mystically related to the people, as something that is life-giving rather than being a commodity that can be bought and sold. But he is clear that the land is not itself divine, only a gift from God. (36) And he has some of the same interest as Boseto in God's involvement with the community. Samoans experience life always in community, and God deals with the community. Still, they should not idealize the community or let it become tyrannical. (37) He believes that the original creator God of the Samoans, long denounced by the missionaries and their students, was essentially the same as the Christian creator God, now related through Christianity to a much bigger creation. (38) The worship of God, in Kamu's view, needs to be both more localized and more universalized. Kamu thus maintains a constant sense of balance in his writing.

In contrast to Kamu, Pothin Wete is far from looking for a balance. Coming from New Caledonia, he is an ardent champion of the Kanaks, the indigenous people of that land. He has been a teacher at the Pacific Theological College, and his book is a revised version of the master's thesis he submitted there. (39)

Wete's writing follows in the line of an earlier thesis written at the Pacific Theological College by another Kanak, Djoubelly Wea, who wrote on the subject "An Education for the Kanak Liberation." (40) After his theological education Wea became one of the leaders of the independence movement in his homeland. When Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the chief leader for independence and a believer in nonviolence, went to France for negotiations in 1988 and signed the compromise involved in the Matignon Accord, under which New Caledonia might never get complete independence, Wea was horrified. He later invited Tjibaou and his chief colleague to a memorial service for independence martyrs, and as they were entering, he shot and killed both of them. Wea and his accomplice were immediately killed by the bodyguards.

Wete is like Tjibaou in calling for nonviolent resistance, but like Wea in demanding complete independence. He describes his thought as "Kanak liberation theology." In most of the world, liberation theology has expressed a protest against forms of class domination and economic oppression. But Wete carries the liberation theme to a more fundamental level. He believes Kanak liberation theology will enrich and deepen the liberation theologies of other lands because it expresses the cry of a people not just for political or economic liberation but for their very existence. The Kanaks, he feels, are in danger of losing their existence through the loss of traditional values and the adoption of foreign ways. (41) His concern is based not simply on national identity; it has biblical roots as well. The demand for independence flows from all that the Hebrew prophets have said about justice and freedom. It is also related to the Christian hope for the new creation. That hope leads the Kanaks forward on the path toward independence, which is hard and full of obstacles, where the conflict will intensify over the years. (42) Wete is a theological thinker rather than an activist, but his thinking points clearly to vigorous action.

Ama'amalele Tofaeono, the third of this group, is the most recent major theologian to emerge in the Pacific. Coming from American Samoa and trained in Germany, he recently published his doctoral dissertation as Eco-theology: Aiga--the Household of Life (2000). Tofaeono takes his cue from today's global ecological crisis and more particularly from the serious environmental degradation of Samoa. His work is thoroughly researched and explores rich veins of myth and history. Christianity, he shows, has concentrated too narrowly on the human scene and has neglected the wider creation. Traditional Samoan religion was aware of the whole of creation and human dependence on nature. In the present crisis there is need to recapture the values of the old tradition and to combine them with Christianity. The sacredness of the land and sea need to be respected again as they were of old. Tofaeono examines the biblical as well as the traditional grounds for this view, seeing in the Bible the purpose of God as the production of "sustainable life in communion and unity of all things in creation." (43) The Samoan concept of aiga, or family, which is all-powerful in Samoan social life, includes the whole family of creation. Tofaeono's thoughts carry a challenge to Christianity far beyond the bounds of Samoa.

Important Social Activists

Many other church leaders among islanders offer a broad challenge, though more as social activists than as theological thinkers. They deserve some attention here, however, since their action reflects important lines of theological thought. They address the major social and economic problems of the Pacific and the world. They are concerned about nuclear testing and nuclear waste, national independence, global warming, tourism, transnational corporations, drift-net fishing, and the like. The primary locus for the expression of these concerns has been the PCC. Various programs of the PCC have been aimed at these problems, especially the Church and Society Program. (44) The periodic assemblies of the PCC have been great occasions for social pronouncements.

The general secretary of the PCC who did the most to arouse social concerns was Lorine Tevi, who served as secretary from 1977 to 1981. She opened up the churches to a sense of social responsibility as no one else in her position has done. She felt that the churches should not look back to their island traditions so much as forward to the needs for justice, peace, and development. (45)

Tevi's thinking on rural development was related to, and partly based on, the work of one of her staff, Sitiveni Ratuvili, a minister of the Fiji Methodist Church. In a booklet entitled Spiritual Bases of Rural Development in the Pacific (1979), Ratuvili stressed the theological reasons for new directions in development policies worldwide. Development, he said, should encourage people to follow God's way of love and care for each other, and of faith and hope in one another and in God. Development should therefore not lead to fragmentation in the community and enhancement of selfishness, as it often does, but should encourage people to work together, using their own resources to accomplish their own decisions. It should not rely heavily on outside aid, which only creates dependence and destroys the self-reliance of the people. (46) Ratuvili thus stood against what were then the major trends of international development programs.

The most famous advocate of social action by the church has been the Anglican priest Walter Lini, the first prime minister of Vanuatu. He declared that in the Pacific tradition there was no division between religion and politics and that churchmen, including ministers, should hold political office. In fact, the first Vanuatu parliament included six ministers of religion, and four of the seven cabinet members were ministers. This involvement he saw as appropriate, because the church is required to fight injustice. (47) People like Lini and Tevi took for granted the theological grounds for action and did not get into much examination of those grounds.

Another group of activists who have often taken the theological grounds largely for granted have been the advocates of women's rights. Pacific church women, often supported by the world church, have been holding national and then regional meetings. In the 1990s they formed an organization known as the Weavers. At their meetings the speakers have examined the life of Pacific women and have told their stories. They have reported on the disabilities that women suffer in traditional culture. The most theologically articulate of the women has been Keiti Ann Kanongata'a, a Roman Catholic from Tonga, superior general of the indigenous order Sisters of Our Lady of Nazareth. She believes that the stories the women have been telling need more theological depth. She asks the question, Where is God in women's domestic life? She compares women's life to life in the womb and their present liberation to the process of birthing. "God's female maternal womb is fertile and compassionate," she writes. "It enables our birthing to come about with forcefulness and firmness, but also with creativity and gentleness." Obviously the view of God as Mother is present here, but she also makes room for God as Father. (48) She links the oppression experienced by women to the wider oppression experienced by Pacific cultures. (49)

A centerpiece for women's theology has been the book Weavings: Women Doing Theology in Oceania (2003), published by the Weavers. The book is a collection of essays by twenty-three women drawn from all over the South Pacific. It puts its first emphasis on the need for inclusivity in the view of God, who should no longer be seen as only male. Biblical and traditional arguments are presented for the full equality of women with men in church and society. Many personal testimonies are also given by women who have broken with tradition and forged new places for themselves. (50)

Only a few men have spoken for the women's theological cause. Two Samoans, Otele Perelini and Peteru Tone, both on the staff of the Malua Theological College, are noticeable. Perelini maintains that since Jesus frees all the oppressed, any church structures that prevent the full emancipation of women fall short of the Gospel of Jesus. (51) Tone examines the limitations on women found in the Bible and points out that they all followed upon the Fall of humanity. The church is to bring liberation from the effects of the Fall, and therefore women should not be subordinate in the church. (52)

Adapting Christianity to Pacific Culture

The procession of all islander theological thinkers is a long one, and here we sample only a few more of them, and then only on one major topic: the adaptation of Christianity to Pacific culture. They, like several of the thinkers already mentioned, feel that there has been an unfortunate separation between Christianity and Pacific culture and that the task today is to heal that separation. (53) They see the Pacific cultures as complementary to the Gospel. "Our cultures and traditions," says one, "still carry precious concepts and ideals that are complementary to the message of the Gospel." (54) Or, to quote another, "Those cultures are the best instruments given to women and men by God to understand his ways." (55) A PCC assembly gave its official approval to such thinking when it said there should be "a marriage of theology and culture." (56)

Implicit in this endorsement of Pacific culture are a criticism of modern Western culture and accusations that it is incompatible with Christian life. A Tahitian church leader criticizes "the Western missionary invading zeal" and the negative, foreign distortions that came with it to a Pacific where God, Christ, Spirit, and Gospel were already present. (57) A Fijian theologian points out that while Pacific culture values cooperation, generosity, family loyalty, sharing, and community life, Western culture stresses money, violence, sex, sports, and individual power. (58) Capitalism from the West, says a Samoan, is damaging the environment and deforming Pacific societies. The deformation is shown in the way that traditional holders of power are making themselves wealthy rather than serving the common good. (59) Capitalism is not acceptable in Pacific cultures, with their emphasis on sharing. Pacific Islanders are sometimes criticized because they do not do well in business, but this so-called weakness is a virtue because business involves individual aggressiveness and acquisitiveness, which islanders do not have and should not want. (60) Capitalist globalization has had a negative effect on the islands, with its depletion of resources, its global warming, and its toxic wastes. (61)

Along with Western culture, Western theology comes in for its share of criticism. It is common to argue that Western theology is relevant only to Western conditions. To try to apply it to the Pacific is to engage in theological imperialism. (62) Theology must be reformulated for each time and place, and the would-be universal theologies from the West are ineffective for Oceanians. (63) A more trenchant criticism, this one from the recent principal of the theological seminary in American Samoa, is that the whole European way of studying theology is faulty because it fails to humble human reason before God. It tries to capture the transcendence of God in human rationality. Theology should be more a reflection of inward experience and should follow a more intuitive approach. It is interesting and a bit ironic that this author appeals to two Germans, Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, to support his criticism of Western theology. (64)

Some of the most creative thrusts in the adaptation of Christianity to the Pacific have been made by means of singling out particular Pacific traits that might enhance Christianity. Kilione Mafaufau, a young Samoan theologian following on Havea's thought, has claimed theological value for the Pacific way of using time. Time, in his view, is not something to be rushed through, but something to be used deliberately and with appreciation. Sermons and ceremonies should be given plenty of time in order to demonstrate their importance in life. Decisions should be made with great deliberation. "This Pacific way of expressing ourselves theologically must be allowed to permeate and take root." (65)

Jovili Meo, a former principal of the Pacific Theological College, notes that islanders live in small communities within small countries. In his view, this proclivity toward smallness is something for which God should be thanked. God seems to value small things, as in the case of the widow's mite or the lost sheep in Jesus' parables, or in the case of God's choosing Israel, a small people, rather than choosing the great empires between which Israel was squeezed. (66)

Several authors have related the traditional kava ceremony to the Christian Eucharist. There are recollections of self-sacrifice in both ceremonies, and in both a relationship is shown between leadership and service. (67) An Anglican priest from the Solomon Islands goes further in pointing out that all island ritual is like the Eucharist in that it requires food to make the action effective. (68) Island culture is therefore especially hospitable to Eucharistic celebration. Another Solomon Islander elaborates the connection between the sacrificial system of his own tribal group and the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and feels that both of them foreshadow the sacrifice of Christ and are replaced and fulfilled by Christ. (69)

More than one islander has pointed out that the awareness of the divine and the belief in an afterlife, which have characterized most Pacific peoples, have made them especially open to Christian faith and have produced a remarkable strength of belief among them. Islanders, they say, have a deep awareness of the spiritual realm, a gift that they bring to Christianity. (70) Christians would do well to reclaim the kind of respect for God and fear of God that their ancestors had toward their traditional deities. (71) One or two islanders have gone so far as to say that Christ should be seen as a Pacific Islander, since the doctrine of the incarnation applies not only to Palestine but also to the islands. As one puts it, "Christ was the Melanesian Christ, who knew Melanesians in the depths of their hearts." (72) And the suggestion has been made that the Pacific has its own "old testament"--namely, its culture, which can be to some extent equated with the Old Testament of the Bible. (73)

Pacific theologizing reached a new stage in 1999, the stage of academic self-reflectiveness. In that year Kambati Uriam, from Kiribati, wrote a doctoral dissertation at the Australian National University on the subject of Pacific Island theology. Uriam had been trained at the Pacific Theological College before entering the university and returned to teach at the college after completion of his doctorate. His dissertation uncovered a wide field of sources, as is shown in its bibliography. In the text the range of thinkers is more restricted, with concentration on Havea and the fourth assembly of the Pacific Conference of Churches. (74) This dissertation is a valuable initial survey by a Pacific Islander of the study of religion by islanders.


Looking back at the whole field, it is clear that what we have seen is a major reinterpretation of Christianity moving along two lines. Along one line we have seen the creation of a much more socially responsible and socially critical Christianity. The established churches in the past were otherworldly in their interests, concerned primarily with eternal souls, while being comfortably conformed to the local social structures. No one could say they were socially irrelevant, for they were deeply intertwined with the traditional society and contributed to its strength. Occasionally a local pastor or priest would criticize a morally wayward chief or headman, but mostly they cooperated with the local power structures. They had little to say about national affairs or international matters. But now we have seen a widespread interest in effecting social and political change, especially in the international realm. Church leaders have awakened to the way world-encompassing powers and policies are damaging the Pacific, and they are calling for the protection of their lands and seas.

The other line of reinterpretation has brought Christian belief into a more appreciative relation with traditional culture. The links to Western culture have been weakened, and the links to Pacific culture have been strengthened. This change has, rather strangely, been brought about by people who are more closely in touch with Western culture than were their village-bound predecessors. The men and women whose thoughts have been examined here are part of the new cosmopolitan elite, the ones who have traveled around the Pacific or to other parts of the world and are at home with the use of English as their international language. They are not, by and large, village people who are steeped in the traditional society, nor are they likely to be suffering personal heartache at the loss of traditional ways like an old villager who shed tears over the loss of communication with ancestors. (75) Rather, they are comfortable in moving outside traditional ways of life at the same time that they are filled with a new confidence regarding those traditional ways. Their writings are not for the rank-and-file Christians but for the intellectually advanced, for whom they have provided a new standing for the traditional culture. As the older type of village Christianity helped shape the identity of many villagers, the new theology helps shape the identity of cosmopolitan Christian islanders.

The question inevitably arises as to how far these theologians are participants in the "invention of tradition," the idealization of traditional culture that has been much discussed by scholars. (76) There can be no clear-cut answer to the question. Of the major thinkers we have covered, Havea and Wete, and perhaps Boseto and Tofaeono, show a wholly positive and therefore somewhat idealized picture of traditional culture. But others--Finau, Tuwere, Kamu, Tevi, and the feminists--recognize that there are negative elements in the inherited ways. Many writers make it their task to identify particular traits in the tradition that they believe can improve island Christianity, without having a totally positive evaluation of the past. On the whole we may say that the idealization of the old culture--what has been called "traditionalism," as distinct from tradition--has had a considerable influence, but it has not been allowed to go unchallenged.

Alongside of some "invention of tradition" we may speak of some "invention of Christianity." The particular ways of thinking set forth by the men and women of the Pacific constitute a new formulation of Christianity. It is not a bitter rejection of what has been received from the common Christian heritage, for the new formulation carries forward the basic Christian heritage. But it adds its own perspectives and emphases, which then modify the whole. The result is a new kind of religion, a new stream blending two different tributaries. For those who are involved in the study of missions, the emerging voices from the Pacific offer a significant enrichment of the field of study.


(1.) Charles W. Forman, The Island Churches of the South Pacific: Emergence in the Twentieth Century (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982), pp. 124-37, 164-81.

(2.) Charles W. Forman, "Theological Education in the South Pacific: A Quiet Revolution," Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes 25 (1969): 151-67.

(3.) Charles W. Forman, The Voice of Many Waters: The Story of the Life and Ministry of the Pacific Conference of Churches in the Last Twenty-five Years (Suva: Lotu Pasifika Productions, 1986), pp. 21-30.

(4.) Towards a Relevant Pacific Theology: The Role of the Churches and Theological Education; A Report of a Theological Consultation Held in Bergengren House, Suva, Fiji, July 8-12 1985 (Suva: Lotu Pasifika, 1986), p. 170.

(5.) For example, Horst Burkle, ed., Theologische Beitrage aus Papua Neuguinea (Erlangen: Verlag der Ev.-Luth. Mission, 1978); Garry W. Trompf, ed., The Gospel Is Not Western: Black Theologies from the Southwest Pacific (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987); Garry W. Trompf, "Melanesian and Pacific Theologies," in Melanesian Religion, ed. Garry W. Trompf (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 260-73; G. Fugmann, "Melanesische Theologie," in Papua-Neuguinea--Gesellschaft und Kirche: Ein okumenisches Handbuch, ed. Herwig Wagner, Gernot Fugmann, and Hermann Janssen (Neuendettelsau: Freimund-Verlag, 1989), pp. 229-46; John D'Arcy May, ed., Living Theology in Melanesia: A Reader (Goroka: Melanesian Institute, 1985).

(6.) Kambati Kaunibwe Uriam, "Theology and Practice in the Islands: Christianity and Island Communities in the New Pacific, 1947-1997" (Ph.D. diss., Australian National Univ., 1999), p. 64.

(7.) Sione "Amanaki Havea, "Foreword," in South Pacific Theology: Papers from the Consultation on Pacific Theology, Papua New Guinea, 1986 (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1987), p. 7; John Kadiba, "In Search of a Melanesian Theology," in The Gospel Is Not Western, ed. Trompf, p. 139.

(8.) Towards a Relevant Pacific Theology; J. Russell Chandran, ed., The Cross and the Tanoa: Gospel and Culture in the Pacific (Suva: South Pacific Association of Theological Schools, 1988); Ama'amalele Tofaeono, editorial, Pacific Journal of Theology, 2nd series [henceforth PJT] 27 (2002): 1-6.

(9.) Towards a Relevant Pacific Theology, p. vi; Chandran, The Cross and the Tanoa, p. iv.

(10.) Forman, Voice of Many Waters, pp. 32-33.

(11.) Chandran, The Cross and the Tanoa, p. 16. See John Bradshaw, "In the Beginning Was the Journal," PJT 6 (1991): 3-6.

(12.) Otele Perelini, "Gospel and Culture: Biblical Perspectives," in The Cross and the Tanoa, ed. Chandran, p. 34.

(13.) Jovili Meo, "Introduction to the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT)," PJT 13 (1995): 1-2; Jovili Meo, "An Introduction to the Second Consultation on Quest for Pacific Theology--Pacific EATWOT," PJT 17 (1997): 2.

(14.) Winston Halapua, "Fakakakato: Symbols in a Pacific Context," PJT 20 (1998): 26.

(15.) Ma'afu'a Tu'itonga Palu has challenged this view in his "Pacific Theology," PJT 28 (2002): 36-39.

(16.) Sione 'Amanaki Havea, "Pacific Theology," in Towards a Relevant Pacific Theology, pp. 22-23; Havea, "Christianity in the Pacific Context," pp. 12,14. See also Horst Rzepkowski, "Stepping Stones to a Pacific Theology--a Report," Mission Studies: Journal of International Association for Mission Studies 9, no. 17 (1992): 46.

(17.) Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere, Vanua: Towards a Fijian Theology of Place (Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, Univ. of the South Pacific, 2002), pp. 121, 91-92, 95-96.

(18.) Ibid., p. 171.

(19.) Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere, "Thinking Theology Aloud in Fiji," in The Gospel Is Not Western, ed. Trompf, pp. 152-53.

(20.) Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere, "An Agenda for the Theological Task of the Church in Oceania," PJT 13 (1995): 10-11.

(21.) Ibid.; Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere, "What Is Contextual Theology?" PJT 27 (2002): 11.

(22.) Ilaitia Sevati Tuwere, "Emerging Themes for a Pacific Theology," PJT 7 (1992): 53.

(23.) Joseph Bush, "Claiming a Christian State Where None Exists: Church and State in the Republic of Fiji," Pacifica 12, no. 1 (1999): 61.

(24.) May, Living Theology in Melanesia, p. xii.

(25.) Leslie Boseto, I Have a Strong Belief (Rabaul: Unichurch Books, 1983).

(26.) Leslie Boseto, "God as Community--God in Melanesian Theology," PJT 10 (1993): 41-45.

(27.) Boseto, I Have a Strong Belief, p. 5.

(28.) Leslie Boseto, "Environment and Community in Melanesia," Melanesian Journal of Theology 1 (1985): 170.

(29.) Leslie Boseto, "Do Not Separate Us from Our Land and Sea," PJT 13 (1995): 71.

(30.) Boseto, "Environment and Community," pp. 166, 169.

(31.) Leslie Boseto, "The United Church: The Will and the Gift of God--Some Historical Reflections," PJT 14 (1995): 91.

(32.) Forman, Island Churches, p. 205.

(33.) Patelisio Finau, "Prayer, Persuasion, and Politics," in The Pacific Way: Social Issues in National Development, ed. Sione Tupouniu, Ron Crocombe, and Claire Slatters (Suva: SPSS Association, 1975), pp. 166-67; Patelisio Finau, "Confessing Jesus Christ in the Pacific Today," PJT 11 (1994): 69-72.

(34.) Finau Lokotui, "Theological Reflection on Gospel and Culture in the Pacific," in The Cross and the Tanoa, ed. Chandran, pp. 43-44; Stephanie Lawson, "Le traditionalisme et les politiques de l'identite culturelle en Asie et dans le Pacifique: Une mise au point critique," Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes 109, no. 2 (1999): 43; Kafoa Solomone, "One Gospel: Contextually Inclusive and/or Exclusive," PJT 17 (1997): 7-23.

(35.) See, for example, the articles in PJT 19 (1998). See Martin Everi, "Ecotheology and Its Application to the Pacific Context," PJT 26 (2001): 69-99.

(36.) Lalomilo Kamu, The Samoan Culture and the Christian Gospel (Suva: Donna Lou Kamu, 1996), pp. 134, 137.

(37.) Ibid., pp. 127-29.

(38.) Ibid., pp. 30-31.

(39.) Pothin Wete, Le developpement de la prise de conscience politique dans l'eglise evangelique Kanak en Nouvelle-Caledonie et aux Iles Loyaute de 1960 a 1988 (Suva: Lotu Pasifika, 1991).

(40.) Djoubelly Wea, "An Education for the Kanak Liberation" (B.D. Project, Pacific Theological College, 1977).

(41.) Wete, Developpement de la prise, pp. 117-21.

(42.) Ibid., pp. 71, 88-91,104.

(43.) Ama'amalele Tofaeono, Eco-theology: Aiga--the Household of Life; A Perspective from the Living Myths and Traditions of Samoa (Erlangen: Erlangen Verlag fur Mission und Okumene, 2000), p. 217.

(44.) Forman, Voice of Many Waters, pp. 102-33; see Suliana Siwatibau and David Williams, A Call to a New Exodus: An Anti-Nuclear Primer for Pacific People (Suva: Lotu Pasifika, 1982).

(45.) Lorine Tevi, "Remarks," in Towards a Relevant Pacific Theology, p. 20.

(46.) Sitiveni Ratuvili, Spiritual Bases for Rural Development in the Pacific (Suva: Lotu Pasifika, 1979), pp. 9, 11, 15.

(47.) Walter Lini, "Should the Church Play Politics?" in The Pacific Way, ed. Tupouniu et al., p. 176. Walter Lini, "Christians in Politics," in The Gospel Is Not Western, ed. Trompf, pp. 183-85.

(48.) Keiti Ann Kanongata'a, "A Pacific Women's Theology of Birthing and Liberation," PJT 7 (1992): 4-7; Keiti Ann Kanongata'a, "Domestic Theology," PJT 15 (1996): 73-74.

(49.) Keiti Ann Kanongata'a, "Why Contextual?" PJT 27 (2002): 21-40.

(50.) Lydia Johnson and Joan H. Filemoni-Tofaeono, eds., Weavings: Women Doing Theology in Oceania (Suva: Weavers, SPATS Publication, 2003). See also Marie Ropeti, "Women's Theology--Pacific Perspectives," in Women's Visions: Theological Reflection, Celebration, Action, ed. Ofelia Ortega-Montoya (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1995), pp. 172-76.

(51.) Otele Perelini, "The Emancipation of Church Women," PJT 22 (1999): 15-18.

(52.) Peteru Tone, "The Place of Women in the Church and Society of the Pacific," in Towards a Relevant Pacific Theology, pp. 59-67.

(53.) For example, Ulisese Sala, "An Attempt to Do Pacific Theology," PJT 16 (1996): 12.

(54.) Kilione Mafaufau, "Pacific Time and the Times: A Theological Reflection," PJT 6 (1991): 29.

(55.) Aaron Tolen, Remarks in PJT 17 (1997): 115.

(56.) Pacific Conference of Churches, Report of the Fourth Assembly, May 3-15, 1981 (Suva: Pacific Conference of Churches, 1981), p. 217.

(57.) Joel Hoiore, "Elements of an Ethic of Pacific/Oceanic Theologising," PJT 13 (1995): 51-52.

(58.) Masulame Nainoca, "The Danger of Losing the New Testament Pattern of Simple Life-style," in South Pacific Theology, pp. 68, 70.

(59.) Perelini, "Gospel and Culture," pp. 36, 38.

(60.) Suliana Siwatibau, "A Theology of Justice and Peace in the Pacific," in The Gospel Is Not Western, ed. Trompf, p. 194.

(61.) Meo, "Quest for Pacific Theology," p. 4.

(62.) Halapua, "Fakakakato," p. 22.

(63.) Ama'amalele Tofaeono, editorial, PJT 27 (2002): 1-6.

(64.) Sala, "An Attempt," pp. 8-9.

(65.) Mafaufau, "Pacific Time and the Times," p. 28.

(66.) Jovili Meo, "Smallness and Solidarity," PJT 6 (1991): 92-93.

(67.) Urima Fa'asi, "Gospel and Culture in the Ava Ceremony," PJT 10 (1993): 61-63; Halapua, "Fakakakato," p. 27.

(68.) James Mason, cited in "A Report of the Consultation," in The Cross and the Tanoa, ed. Chandran, p. 9. See also Leslie Fugui, "Melanesian Sacrifice and Christianity," in Christ in South Pacific Cultures, ed. C. Wright and Leslie Fugui (Suva: Lotu Pasifika Productions, 1985), pp. 36-41.

(69.) Penuel Ben Idusulia, "Biblical Sacrifice Through Melanesian Eyes," in Living Theology in Melanesia, ed. May, pp. 283-86, 297.

(70.) Mohenoa Puloka, "An Attempt at Contextualizing Theology for the Tongan Church," in South Pacific Theology, pp. 90-91; Fiama Rakau, "Wholeness of Life (Perspective from Life in the Island)," in The Cross and the Tanoa, ed. Chandran, pp. 97-98; Maroti Rimon, "The Land of Bouru: Understanding the Kingdom of God as Self-Realizing Eschatology," in The Cross and the Tanoa, ed. Chandran, pp. 99-105; Faitala Talapusi, "The Future of Theology in the Pacific," PJT 13 (1995): 44.

(71.) John Pratt, "Traditional and Christian Understanding of God," in Christ in South Pacific Cultures, ed. Wright and Fugui, pp. 15-22.

(72.) Joe Gaqurae, "Indigenization as Incarnation: The Concept of a Melanesian Christ," in Living Theology in Melanesia, ed. May, p. 214; see Rakau, "Wholeness of Life," p. 97.

(73.) Hoiore, "Elements of an Ethic," p. 53.

(74.) Uriam, "Theology and Practice in the Islands."

(75.) Idusulia, "Biblical Sacrifice," p. 260.

(76.) Roger M. Keesing, "Creating the Past: Custom and Identity in the Contemporary Pacific," Contemporary Pacific 1 (1989): 19-42; Eric Hobsbawn and Terrence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983); Patrick Pillon, "Identite, culture et cat6gories de l'action: Autours des fondemonts ideels du territoire et de l'organisation sociale en pays Mea et Houailou (Nouvelle-Caledonie)," Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes 109, no. 2 (1999): 83-96.

Charles W. Forman is Professor Emeritus of Missions, Yale University Divinity School. He has published extensively on Pacific Island Christianity, including The Island Churches of the South Pacific (Orbis, 1982) and The Voice of Many Waters (Lotu Pasifika Productions, 1986).
COPYRIGHT 2005 Overseas Ministries Study Center
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Forman, Charles W.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:0PACR
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Previous Article:Finding our own voice: the quest for authentic conversion.
Next Article:"It is our bounden duty": theological contours of New Zealand's missionary movement, 1890-1930.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |