A God of Oceans and Coconuts
Matt Tomlinson’s God is Samoan is an “anthropological reading of Christian theology in Oceania” (p. 28), presenting the dialogue between how theology is lived and articulated in the Pacific and how both indigenous and typically Western notions of God interact, clash, or cohere. While the work is written by an anthropologist, it competently traces theological terrain and so is genuinely interdisciplinary, showing the rich melding of theology and anthropology, complementing a work like Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology by theologian Todd D. Whitmore.
What/Who/Where is God?
A few basic points may be helpful theologically while touching on some key features of the book. As God (or the gods) are so often a reflection or projection of a people and their culture, it is not unusual to read books or hear sermons where God is deemed a certain color, race, ethnicity, or nationality. Such can be theologically sound as long as the provincial label of God is not meant to be exclusive but recognizes a Cosmic God of all peoples, though here filtered through the languages, identity, concepts, and histories of a certain people. In theological terms, we call this a contextual theology. Going further, theologians committed to social justice and a Cosmic God of Love and Justice will also stress how that Being is particularly invested with the downcast, marginalized, destitute, and broken—what liberation theologians call a preferential option for the poor. Such a term may also be combined with other labels like an ecofeminist liberation theology, which highlights the intersecting strands of feminism, ecology, theology, and social justice to identify or reconstruct how belief in God mirrors or is linked to the care of the environment and the poor – especially black or brown (or red) women, who are often triply stigmatized.
In this regard, distinctions have to be made. Thus, for many black liberation theologians, God is black. This emphasizes that, in the context of slavery and imperialism, God is on the side of the oppressed (though loving all people), while white ethnonationalist ideologies claim that God is (only) white and so God (only) loves white people. The former option can be challenging but spiritually expansive, while the latter is defamatory and dangerous.
God is Samoan succeeds in not only presenting the work and research of contextual theologians within the Pacific Islands and how they understand God, but also how and why their terminology, conceptions, and struggles resonate and can enrich the wider Christian community. The title God is Samoan follows a notable tradition both in terms of book titles or the focused description of God within. Consider, for example, God is Red: A Native View of Religions by Vine Deloria Jr (examining the Transcendent through Native American beliefs) or God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China by Liao Yiwu (describing the persecuted life of religious believers in Communist China). Both of these books are not claiming God is only indigenous or only Chinese. In this regard, the overarching idea is best expressed in the title of James McBride’s novel: The Color of Water, where God is a reflection of all of us.
Coconut Theology and an Oceanic Faith
Pacific Theology as a contextual theology “represents connections across island groups. Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga are very different places when examined up close,” as Tomlinson notes, “…[but the] recognition of shared elements, values, and styles across Oceania is sometimes referred to with the phrase ‘the Pacific Way’” (p. 81). Such a way is embedded in cultures where island life means that ways of living and doing theology are linked to the rhythms of the ocean and a deep sense of interconnectedness with the mysteries of creation. It thus avoids what Winston Halapua terms a “landlocked theology,” closed in on itself. Such dialogue or talanoa, storytelling, sustains the Pacific Way, along with belief in mana(“spiritual efficacy”), and especially the beverage kava consumed at kava-drinking sessions. Tomlinson helpfully provides textual and personal examples of such dialogues and interactions, employing the metaphorical and contextual language of Oceania while also seeking insights into how the local theology dialogues with churches outside Oceania. He not only engages in ethnographic field research and interviews; additionally, he carefully reads theological works by Oceanic theologians and helpfully surveys overarching themes and arguments in The Pacific Journal of Theology to help sharpen and assess the state and salient interest of Oceanic contextual theology.
Thus, Amaneki Havea of Tonga “is credited with developing the first distinctly Oceanic theology called ‘Coconut Theology’” (p. 3). While the label has sometimes been deemed tongue-in-cheek, and at other times been challenged or seen as normative, it is a contextual theology built upon the roots and resources of the land and sea as life (p. 88). While the Christian gospels speak of Jesus at the Last Supper blessing the bread and wine (which became part of what Christians commemorate in the Eucharist), it is the coconut and not wheat or grapes that symbolize basic life and nourishment in the Pacific Way. For many in Oceania, the coconut is identified with “life, time, growth, and Christology” (p. 66). As a Catholic theologian involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I agree with Etuale Lealofi from American Samoa, who stresses that, despite being a beautiful illustration, the coconut cannot serve as a substitute (p.110fn7). A middle way must be found, avoiding the widespread denunciation and dismissal – common among many Western missionaries and colonizers – of native and indigenous spiritual ways and language, as well as, for example, the heresy of Marcionism that sought to deny or extricate the Jewish origins of Christianity through separating the God of the “Old” and “New” Testaments. More common is the still prevalent belief in supersessionist or replacement theology, which claims that Christians, and not Jews, are the (new) People of God. We again come back to how to balance a provincial and cosmic sense of God and religious belief.
I, too, grew up on an island – Long Island in New York – and now live on another, Ireland. I find the ocean and sea metaphors by Oceanic theologians deeply accessible and welcoming, especially with their strong ecological thrust. While mostly ignorant on coconuts, I aver God is certainly Samoan, just as God is also black and red and all the colors of our variegated skins. God is however we identify ourselves – again, so long as that identity is not trampling on the dignity and value of others as equally loved and valuable as part of God’s creation.
While I have never been to Oceania, I am grateful to Tomlinson, who as an anthropologist has introduced me to these penetrating theological voices and peoples. These thinkers have helpfully shown the depths of a contextual Oceanic theology, especially in the metaphor of avoiding being theologically landlocked and, instead, seeing an island and its surrounding seas and oceans as interconnecting all of us. This is especially important in light of rising seas and climate change; for as Pope Francis recently wrote: “We need to develop the awareness that nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved.”
 Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2020), 81 (§137).