A Review of
Doing Theology with Humility, Generosity, and Wonder: A Christian Theology of Pluralism
Damayanthi Niles has been a theology professor at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, since 2000 and is a teaching elder with the Presbyterian Church USA. Niles (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a third-generation theologian: D.T. Niles (1908~1970), her grandfather and a theologian/missiologist from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), was an impressive churchman I learned of when a seminary student in the early 1960s. Her father, D. Preman Niles, is one of the outstanding contemporary Asian Christian theologians, and in her book the author did not hesitate to cite her father often.
This book is a small one: only five chapters presented in fewer than 100 pages. But while the book may be somewhat lacking in quantity, the quality is praiseworthy.
Given the size of the book, the Preface is only two and a half pages, but it concisely presents the thrust of the book. The author begins with an incident as a schoolgirl that reveals her open-mindedness and sensitivity at an early age. And on that initial page she also indicates a basic criticism of much traditional Christian theology, which, she says. “has, for much of history, been used to undergird and justify imperial power” (xi). She then ends the brief preface with this central affirmation: “It is my firm belief that by doing theology with the humility to see the plurality of the divine expression around us and the generosity to learn from it, rooted in a sense of awe at the magnificence of God and God’s creation, we become authentic practitioners of our Christian faith” (xiii).
It is noteworthy that Niles uses the word “plurality” in this last statement, for the book is more about the plurality of religions—and languages and cultures, etc.—than about pluralism. It is true that she used the latter word twice in the Preface, but “plurality” is used eight times in it—and extensively through the book, with only a few references to “pluralism.” Perhaps it would have been better if she had used the words “in a world of plurality” rather than “in a pluralistic world” in the titles of her first three chapters.
“God in a Pluralistic World,” though, is the title of the first chapter, and the reader is quickly introduced to some significant Asian theologians who were familiar to this reviewer who taught courses in Theology and Christian Studies in Japan for 36 years. However, theologians such as Kosuke Koyama and Masao Takenaka from Japan, Raimon Panikkar from India, and S. Wesley Ariarajah, Aloysius Pieris, and Lakshman Wickremesinghe from Sri Lanka may not be so familiar to most North Americans. But these are Christian thinkers/writers whom Western theological students should know, for they were/are important teachers and leaders not only in Asia but also in the World Council of Churches. Niles helpfully introduces these significant Asian Christian thinkers to her readers, as she doubtlessly does to her students in St. Louis.
In keeping with her theme, in the next to last sentence of this chapter the author stresses the necessity of “honoring plurality and being enriched by it, rather than abrogating it or being divided by it” (16).
In the second chapter, “Christ in a Pluralistic World,” Niles writes, “In Christology, God is made contextual and therefore is best understood in the contexts in which God is manifest” (19). In this connection, before referring again to Asians, she introduces African and Latin American theologians. Then when she turns to Asian theologians, she quotes her father for the first time. This is an important chapter about theological contextualization, but it would have been clearer if the use of the name Jesus and the title Christ had been more precise. I also wish she could have incorporated ideas from Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ (2019) in her Christological reflections.
In keeping with her Trinitarian approach, the third chapter is titled “Holy Spirit in a Pluralistic World.” Among others, Niles draws upon the writings of Malaysia-born Amos Yong, the noted Pentecostal theologian at Fuller Theological Seminary. She concludes that it is “through the Holy Spirit that the liberative power of plurality comes to fruition” (57).
The fourth chapter is “The Human Being as a Dialogical Creature,” and it ends with words similar to that of the previous chapter: “To put it simply, plurality is the space where liberation is found because it is where our true humanity can thrive” (69).
“Churches as Champions of Dialogue” is the title of the fifth, and last, chapter. This is largely about the mission of the church, and it was a bit surprising that in the first paragraph she quoted, and concurred with, Emil Brunner’s noteworthy words from 1931: “The Church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning.” Somewhat different from Brunner, though, she sees mission primarily as “a liberative activity” by which the Church removes “the powers and structures that deny abundant life to the people” and also removes “the barriers and hindrances that prevent the offer of abundant life from reaching people” (83-84).
The words for which D.T. Niles, the author’s grandfather, is best known for are these: “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” Those would have been fitting words author Niles could have used in concluding her fine book about humility, generosity, and wonder.
The author does resonate with her grandfather’s words when at the end of her book she offers “A Concluding Invitation.” She rejects the way Christianity “became a companion and an apologetic of empire” and then came to see “itself as the true empire.” In contrast, she suggests taking religious plurality seriously in order that Christian doctrine can become liberative in dialogue with others about where and how to find the “bread” necessary for quenching the existential hunger of humankind.
I have no hesitation in recommending the careful reading of this book to seminary students and to all who are interested in studying and thinking seriously about contemporary theology—and especially to those who need to broaden their theological views beyond the usual confines of the North Atlantic perspective.