One of the most intriguing books I read in the mid-1970s was Waterbuffalo Theology by Koyama Kosuke. In 1999 the 25th anniversary edition (revised & expanded) was published as Water Buffalo Theology. But what kind of theology is that?!
|First edition cover|
Who was Koyama?
Koyama Kosuke was a Japanese theologian who was born 90 years ago today, on December 10, 1929. He was less than two months younger than C.S. Song, the Asian theologian I wrote about in October (see here), but unlike Song, who is still living, Koyama (and that is the family name) died in 2009 before his 80th birthday.
Koyama studied in the U.S. from 1952 until he finished his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959. During those years he met and married Lois Rozendaal, a Dutch-American woman.
For most of the next decade (1960~68) he served as a pastor and teacher in Thailand, being sent there as a missionary by the United Church of Christ in Japan.
Following several years (1968~74) serving in Singapore and then in New Zealand (1974~79), in 1980 Koyama became a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Upon his retirement in 1996 he became the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor Emeritus of World Christianity.
Why Did Koyama Write about Water Buffalos?
Koyama gained attention in the theological world after his seminal book Waterbuffalo Theology was published in 1974. But why did he write about water buffalos?
Because his first field of service after completing his Ph.D. was as a pastor in northern Thailand, Koyama recognized the need for communicating with the people in his congregation, many of whom were farmers who used water buffalos in their daily work.
|Thai farmer plowing with a water buffalo|
In my 1/22/2010 blog article I wrote about the importance of contextual theology. Koyama’s development of contextualized theology in Thailand was one of the main examples I used in the theology courses I taught in the late 1970s, and afterward.
According to an article written soon after Koyama’s death in 2009 (see here), Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Seminary, said that Waterbuffalo Theology was “one of the first books truly to do theology out of the setting of Asian villages.”
In the same article, a historian for the Church of Christ in Thailand called Koyama’s book “one of the classic works of contemporary Asian theology.”
The article concludes with Shriver telling how someone at Union noticed that Waterbuffalo theology had landed on the discard pile outside the library. Apparently, a librarian had concluded that the prestigious school had no program for teaching theology to water buffalos.
But since Koyama was joining the faculty there, his book “was quickly and quietly returned to the shelves.”
What Can We Learn from Water Buffalo Theology?
After locating in New York, Koyama didn’t write about water buffalos anymore. He was in a different context, and his writing reflected that new setting.
Koyama’s second most important book is probably Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai: A Critique of Idols, which was published in 1985. His “context” then was the world threatened by nuclear war. He explained,
I have written this book with a keen awareness of the global peril of nuclear war. Wars are waged ‘in the name of God,’ that is, with ‘theological’ justification. Such justification is idolatry” (p. x).
The background “context” was the destruction of warring Japan in 1945. Koyama became a baptized Christian in 1942; three years later he saw Tokyo “become wilderness by the constant bombings.” And then, of course, there were the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
If Koyama were still writing today, perhaps he would applaud an article that appeared last week on the Rolling Stone website: “False Idol—Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.”
That long article, which I recommend you taking the time to read (here), helps us understand the political context that challenges theologians, and all of us, today.