Knee Deep in Mud and Contextualisation
Updated: Jun 10
During my early years, among the Momina people of West Papua I spent hundreds of hours on the trail trekking between villages. Because the Momina are located in one of the wettest regions in the world, trekking was never easy. However, some treks were much harder than others. One trek in particular still stands out, sending shivers up my spine whenever I think about it. The first leg of the two-day trek from Sumo to Obukain was relatively easy to the midway village of Makoo. It involved trekking through knee deep mud for long stretches at a time, and walking precariously on greasy logs. It meant crossing the Baliem River in an old rickety canoe, sometimes when the river was in full flood, and putting up with unwanted leeches.
The second leg was, however, a different story. The opening hour involved trekking through knee deep mud. The next three and a half-hours were spent in chest high water and mud, tripping over unseen tree roots with only your guide’s knowledge of the trees to determine the direction of the trail. After that it was back to the knee deep mud for another hour and a half, before walking on a man-made bridge of four inch round poles through a sago swamp for the last hour. Loss of balance during this stage involved the risk of being pierced by nine-inch needle-like sago thorns. While climbing off the improvised bridge on the outskirts of Obukain the thigh muscles would be quivering uncontrollably for a good half-hour.
I made that trek on four or five occasions before the people discovered a better route and made it into a less hazardous trail. On each occasion, after my first experience of the trail, I could not sleep for a couple of nights before a trek because of the unpleasant expectation of what I was about to encounter. The journey towards a contextual theology can be just as hazardous as the trail to Obukain. It is fraught with danger, obstacles and fears. Moreover, there is a need to discover and prepare a better, less hazardous route. However, there is a greater danger than the journey on the trail towards a contextual theology, and the search for a better route. That is to remain at home avoiding the journey, perhaps believing that the journey is unnecessary, or that it is too dangerous to attempt. To do that is to risk the gospel and Christianity becoming irrelevant and meaningless for the people of Melanesia. It is to risk condemning the church to foreignness on the one hand, or lack of transformation on the other. It is to risk falling from the greasy log of syncretism or getting bogged down in the mud of nominalism. As Schineller has said with regards to the process of contextualisation: “We have the obligation to search continually for ways in which the good news can be more deeply lived, celebrated and shared.” Yes! There is a risk, but the greater risk is to do nothing.