Pastoral Agents and Doing Christology?: An Attempt at Empowerment

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1995 »Pastoral Agents And Doing Christology An Attempt At Empowerment

José M. de Mesa


There has been much talk about empowerment in the church lately.  It is said, for instance, that the passivity of the laity has to be transformed into active involvement.  from being just merely observers and recipients in the church’s life, they are to be committed participants.  Women are being spoken of a s powerless in a patriarchal society.  Leaders in the community of faith are being reminded that they have the responsibility to enable each of the baptized to awaken towards a genuine sense of mission.  The gifts of the Spirit to the people of God need to be discovered, fostered and harmonized so that they can be put at the service of God’s Kingdom.  There also have been many discussions about the poor and the marginalized who have to be empowered so that they can take their rightful place not only in the church but in the society as well.  This way of thinking about empowerment believes that each member of the  body of Christ stands as valued participant and contributor to the life and mission of the community.

An intention of empowering is very much part of what we are trying to do here at the East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI).  Whether this is expressed in terms of community life and relationships or study, pastoral agents are invited and encouraged to be active participants in their own learning.  More concretely, and as a modest contribution, this is  what we are aiming at in the module, “Doing Christology”.  This module is an integral component of the course, “Foundation for Pastoral Renewal”.

By becoming co-participants in the articulation of the significance of Jesus,pastoral agents in attendance become genuine theological partners in formulating christologies.  Rather than just learn christology anew in order to keep abreast with the latest in this field of theological reflection, they get to know how christology is actually done.  After getting an explanation of the method, they work out a tentative christology by following the steps which have been elaborated.  They get, to use the language of computers, a “hand-on” experience of the actual process of doing christology.  In this way they are empowered to “do christology”.

The approach I am presenting here did not come about all of the sudden.  Among the significant changes which have been going on in the church for some time, I would like to mention three which have immediate links to the doing of christology.


The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has rightly been known as a council of ecclesiology, especially when we consider the two very important documents which deal specifically with the church in itself and of the church in relation to the world, namely, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes.  The renewal of the church, no doubt, required a careful scrutiny of what this community of believers was all about.  But one could not really speak of the church without at some point discussing the person who is the reason, the foundation of this community, Jesus of Nazareth.  There could not and cannot be the church without Jesus.  No Jesus, no christianity.

And the expected did happen.  Soon after the council was finished, ecclesiological gave way to christological concerns.  The latter began to take the center stage.  Interest in discovering afresh the relevance of Jesus for our times and our situations grew.  Researches about the historical Jesus, writings about new approaches, and publications regarding new contextualized interpretations of his significance began to proliferate in churches.  If matters of ecclesiology were apart and parcel of the return to the sources so that aggiornamento would be realized, it was deemed even more imperative to go back to the more foundational reality of Jesus who was called the Christ.  This underscoring of matters christological was accompanied by another change, one that dealt with culture.


The way we think about culture  has also radically changed.  For quite sometime there was as assumption that the Graeco-Roman culture, which evolved into the western European-North American way of life, was the culture destined for all human groups in the world and, therefore, the universal model for thinking and behaving.  Other than this design for living, no other culture existed or could possibly exist.

The West considered itself as culturally developed and, therefore, was the example of social development which had reached the highest possible level of progress.  All other ways of life (cultures) developed by different groups of people were regarded in this scheme as merely varying stages of development towards the ideal already achieved by the West.  For as long as they were not on par with Euro-American standards, these peoples were regarded as inferior.  To be civilized was to think and behave as citizens of the West.  In line with this mind- set, to be church was to be a carbon copy of the mother church in the West.

This “classical” perspective on culture, which has had its effect on theology, has largely been abandoned thanks to the efforts of anthropologists particularly who brought to the attention of contemporary society the fact of plurality of cultures.  A relatively recent shift has been made to  an “empirical” mode of understanding culture.  There is not only one culture according to which all patterns of living are participating in different degrees, but that there are cultures in the plural which are significantly different from one another.  One cannot possibly just lump them together to conform to the “classical” notion of culture.

This recognition of the of the existence of diversity of cultures, this “empirical” understanding of culture, has also been acknowledged in the theological enterprise.  Theologians and pastoral agents began to speak of local churches, churches which are rooted in their own indigenous cultures.  Slowly but surely, although at times far too cautiously, church leadership suggested possible new faces of the church in their respective settings.  Inculturation, the concern and the process of making the Gospel meaningful and challenging in culture, has become, to be sure, one of the major issues being attended to in the church.  Voices that call for a rethinking of christology from a cultural perspective are now being heard.

Because culture is crucial to human existence in society, this cultural focus in christology is not just a passing fad in theology.  It is an acknowledgment that any understanding of who Jesus is and what his significance is for people is necessarily conditioned and mediated by culture, including that of the first disciples.  The cultural approach to christology is, not the only one possible.  But it is an important approach which can be of immense help to discover the enduring relevance of the Gospel.  There was yet another change in the church which led to what have been talking about in the beginning, a desire for more active involvement or participation in the church’s life in general and in the act of theologizing in particular.  we only turn our attention here to the latter point.


When we survey the christological reflections during the seventies and the eighties, we notice the many different theological interpretations of Jesus.  A number of these were being preferred as alternatives to the classical (Nicean and Chalcedonian) formulation of it.  In additional many of these works also explicitly present a way of reflecting on Jesus’ significance (namely, the author’s) or at least contain some allusions to methodology.  This does not come as a surprise when we realize that contemporary interest in christology has either been preceded or accompanied by a concern for exegetical and theological methods.  The methods employed in the study of christology became at least as important as the content.  Indeed, there have been publications written to primarily offer pastoral agents methods of proceeding with the theological reflection by themselves.

This is where our module on “doing christology” in EAPI comes in.  In harmony with developments in theology and culture, pastoral agents are trained to “do christology” rather than just study it.  The learning of this christological method is done, first of all, by input on the principles for theological interpretation and on the stages involved in the process; secondly, the process is clarified through the giving of examples for each of the principle as well as for the phases of the method; and , thirdly, the success of the learning is further ensured by inviting the participants to “do christology’ themselves.  By applying the principles and phases of the christological process, they learn by doing, a longstanding education insight which continuously finds new expressions.  The sharing of the result at the end of the module also helps the participants to see the possibilities of the method which they may not have noticed themselves.

Given the limited time the course participants have at their disposal, the focus on the doing of christology is really a matter of choice.  They can be informed about one or other christology which may be intellectually compelling and affectively inspiring (and this is certainly a worthwhile undertaking), or they can be trained (“empowered” may be right word to use here) to articulate their own understanding of the significance of Jesus by utilizing their own cultural resources.  The module obviously opts for the latter alternative.  In being led to understand the principles and the process of articulating a christology by using their own indigenous cultural resources, they are somehow prepared to accompany the communities they are or will be serving in the actual process of theological reflection on Jesus Christ.  The module trains them to facilitate in doing of christology in other pastoral situations.

Behind this rather pragmatic reason for choosing to do christology rather than just learn it, is a serious hermeneutical reason.  Our theological-pastoral task in articulating the meaningfulness of Jesus for our cultures and our times is not accomplished by merely applying what we find in the bible about Jesus in our contemporary contexts.  human thought and language are conditioned by the particularity of time and place.  The testimony about Jesus in the gospels is no exception.

Neither is such a task achieved by repeating and then applying the traditional dogmatic formulations about Jesus to our own present-day situations.  Coming as they rae from a different time (the 4th and 5th centuries) and a different culture (the Graeco-Roman), they are not only difficult to follow, but they also are, as a whole, not the starting point to discover the meaning of Jesus today.  As such they may even obscure for us the original purpose for which they were articulated in the first place.

For us, who are no longer familiar with the philosophical language of “substance” and “consubstantiality” (“Jesus is consubstantial with the Father), the classical formulas of christology may appear absolute; that is, they are unchanging and unchangeable.  As a result they give a further impression that they are valid for all times and for all cultures.  Instead of correctly regarding Graeco-Roman christology as the cultural understanding of Jesus by Greek and Roman christians, we uncritically assume that this manner of articulating the significance of Jesus is the one and only way of doing so.

We cannot just adopt by adapting an interpretation which had been articulated for another culture and at a different time.  This is certain true for non-Western cultures but, perhaps, even for Euro-Americans who are heirs of the Graeco-Roman culture, a culture which has certainly evolve considerably.  Our responsibility for the faith today is not fulfilled by repeating some other people’s answer to the question about the meaning of Jesus during their times.  That was their responsibility.  No, we need to give and work out our own answer to the queries of our times regarding the same issue.  Other may have said that jesus was  a John the Baptist, an Elijah or a Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  But we are being asked to give our answer, not somebody else.

We need to work out, as faithful disciples, an understanding of Jesus as the Christ which is culturally meaningful for us today. Following the pattern the first disciples went through in identifying Jesus for themselves, we need “to do Christology” for our own present-day situations using out own cultural resources.  In this way, the relevance and the challenge of Jesus will be readily seen as  connected with contemporary experiences.  After all, this connection of experience to christological understanding is an essential part of our methodology.


Thanks to the scholarly efforts on christology of many exegetes and theologians, we now have at our disposal information about Jesus which was not available to previous generations of christians.  From the very substantial and insightful three-volume project of the Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., on christology, for instance, we have solid information on what has been called, “the way of the disciples”.  “The way of the disciples” is a phrase referring to the process which the first disciples underwent from their initial encounters with Jesus, to their growing understanding of who he might be and finally to their final recognition of who he was for them after his death and resurrection.  IN short, it is the process of their identification of Jesus as the Christ.  “The Christ”, as we know, is not the family name of Jesus; it is cultural title given to him by the disciples after the resurrection in order to articulate his significance to them.

Identification and synthesis of key elements involved in any given christological reflection have helped very much in the working out a procedure such as doing christology.  Particularly helpful are the theological-hermeneutical principles and the phrases/stages discernible in this very process.

Three hermeneutical principles are involved.  First, God reveals Self and offers “salvation” in and through human experience.  If this was the case, then, it was in the disciples’ human experiences of Jesus, the man from Nazareth, that God and God’s “salvific” power were revealed.  Second, human experiences necessarily include either implicit cultural interpretations.  Without them there are no experiences.  Insight into the interpretations employed by the disciples in the New Testament disclose to us just how cultural they were.  Culture was a major resource for bringing out the significance of Jesus for the first disciples.  Third, religious Tradition which interacts with experience also played an indispensable role in the identifying Jesus as “the Christ”.  Jewish as the first disciples were, they saw Jesus in the light of their own religious Tradition.

As for the phases or stages which the first disciples went through in their experience and eventual identification of Jesus, it was the question of “salvation” which became the starting point for them.  It was the first phase of their christological journey.  This experience of “salvation” refers to the positive change which they experienced in the totality of their lives because of their relationship with Jesus.  The over-all impact of Jesus on them was liberating; they were radically transformed by it.  They “passed over” form what they regarded as a death-dealing negative condition to a life-giving positive one.  And they felt “whole”.  Because they were so changed by their experience of Jesus, they began to ask about his real identity: “Who is he who is able to accomplish this?”

From the phase of their experience of “salvation” (which was culturally interpreted), they utilized names or titles (the Christ, Lord, Prophet, Savior, Good Shepherd) and even (Lamb of God, Mother Hen, Bread from Heaven, Living Water, the Vine, the Gate) to precisely bring out and express such “salvific” impact on their lives.  This was the phase of projection: the giving of such cultural names or titles and the use of cultural images to articulate Jesus’ redemptive meaning to them.

But the disciples were also very careful in using these appelations for Jesus for they had clear recollections as to who he really was.  Somehow, those names or titles as well as images must faithfully present the person of Jesus.  To avoid distorting the person of Jesus, they regauged these projections, evaluating the worth of such names or titles in terms of what could be affirmed, what needed to be purified, or what simply had to be negated.  This last stage, virtually a phase simultaneous with the second, was the phase of regauging.  It ensured an understanding of who Jesus was which was killed to who he actually was.

This process, with all its attendant elements and phases, provides us with a pattern to follow in bringing to birth an understanding of Jesus today in our very own cultural context.  It functions as a guide for us who desire to walk “the way of the disciples” today in the context of our own culture.


A good grasp of doing christology according to “the way of the disciples” requires not only theoretical understanding, but also a practical insight.  It is not enough to understand that it is a process; one must undergo this process; one must undergo this process to have a real grasp of it.  This exercise is an essential and integral component of the module.  To realize this practical comprehension of the method, we group ourselves according to our cultural areas.  Each group is invited to do its own christology by following the three phases described above in the context of their own culture: the question of “salvation”, the phase of projection and the phase of regauging.

Each cultural group carefully chooses a cultural concept or notion of well-being (“salvation”) drawn  from everyday language of people in the context of contrast experience.  Rather helpful for this activity is the idea that concepts of well-being or “salvation” are situated in a framework of contrast experience. What people long for and desire is the opposite of the situation they want to be delived from.  The cultural notion of “salvation” is the positive pole of such contrast experience.  Hence, yasha (Jewish), soteria (Greek), Salus (Roman), salvation (Anglo-Saxon),liberación (Latin American), and ginhawa (lowland Filipino) are positive cultural notions of well-being in contrast to their respective negative poles of tsarar(Jewish), apoleia (Greek), infirmitas (Roman), damnation (Anglo-Saxon), dominación(Latin American) and hirap (lowland Filipino).

Then the group does a thematic cultural exegesis or analysis of this concept of well-being which indicates and explains (a) its basic meanings; (b) and connotations as well as  (c) its distinctive characteristics, noting and pointing out what is positive (“salvific”) and what is negative (“non-salvific”) in such characteristics.  The pin-pointing of the cultural notion of “salvation” and the subsequent analysis of the concept constitute the first phase of the christological process -- the question of “salvation”.

Entering into the second and third phases, those of projection and regauging, the members of cultural group next determine a meaningful and an appropriate cultural name or title which they can project or apply to Jesus, indicating (a) what meanings and associations can be affirmed, (b) what meanings and associations have to be negated or (c) which meanings and associations need to be qualified or purified.  They, of course, need to explain also how and why the title or image is applicable or not applicable, or only partly applicable to the person of Jesus.  The apostolic witness which we find in scripture, particularly in the New Testament, serves as a norm for this regauging activity.

As part of their task in these phases of the process, all the formed groups are asked to explain how this cultural name or title with its cultural characteristics make people understand Jesus’ significance within their culture (indigenous theological reflection).  In explicitating how this name or title highlights Jesus’ life and ministry as well as his message of God’s Kingdom, the potential inherent in the indigenous culture is disclosed.

Finally, each groups is also invited to create an original image, a drawing or picture of Jesus which represents and expresses all the elements of the  christological process.  This representation should somehow convey (a) the cultural concept of “salvation”; and (b) the projected and regauged name or title given to Jesus.  this image, drawing or representation must be new or original.  The groups are instructed not to use for this exercise any traditional representation of Jesus as the Sacred Heart, the Good Shepherd, the Child Jesus, the Suffering Jesus, etc. as it may stifle the creativity of the participants or inhibit the development of new ideas in this regard.

Imaging Jesus by creating a new visual representation of him enhances the naming of Jesus.  It presents in picture form the projection which had already been regauged.  Such pictorial representation combines and synthesizes the projection and the regauging in a visual manner.  If therefore summarizes in a way the entire christological process by giving in a condensed form the notion of “salvation” presupposed by the picture, together with a name or title given (projected) to Jesus which has already been regauged.

Presenting the results of each group’s endeavor according to the three phases described earlier has been found helpful during the period in which this method was presented.  It makes the christological process embodied in the way of the disciples concrete: people actually see the outcome.  The presentation also illustrate the diversity of christological possible while maintaining the unity of the faith in Jesus.

Also is the realization that communities can “do christology” rather than just study a ready-made christological reflection of some other group or individual.  While professional theologians do have an important role in the Church, they do not have the monopoly of theologizing.  Pastoral agents who are in close touch with their respective concrete situations ought to be able to engage in theological reflection themselves and to “do christology.”  The attempts at theological articulation done during the past five years here at EAPI have shown us in a very particular manner the real possibility of doing christological anew.  But as with any new endeavor, they only represent initial efforts rather than perfect systematic reflections.  The sharing, however, uncovers the possibilities latent in the methodology as well as the difficulties which one can expect to encounter in going through a process like this.

The approach and methodology being shared here will hopefully empower communities and pastoral agents to articulate christologies that are culturally intelligible, situationally relevant and pastorally responsive.  After all, fresh approaches are only appropriate for a gospel that is ever new: Jesus of Nazareth.  He whose name is above all names deserves no less.

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