Section 5: Contextual Theology

Culture and Language Houses

Our capacity for thought, including our capacity for theology, comes to us through the language, stories, metaphors and assumptions of our culture. We draw from scripture and tradition, but we read these through different cultural frameworks. So within different language houses we will read scripture and our Christian tradition differently. The language house shapes us, and it shapes our reading.

There is no such thing as “theology’; there is only contextual theology: feminist theology, black theology, liberation theology, Filipino theology, Asian-American theology, African theology, and so forth. Doing theology contextually is not an option, nor is it something that should only interest people from the Third World, missionaries who work there, or ethnic communities within dominant cultures. The contextualization of theology- the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context- is really a theological imperative. As we have come to understand theology today, it is a process that is part of the very nature of theology itself.

The theologies of the Western denominations were shaped within the assumptions, privileges and blind spots of their cultures.  Interpreting a text is not only a literary exercise; it is also a social, economic, and political exercise. Our entire context comes into play when we interpret a biblical text. One therefore has to concede that all theology (or sociology, political theory, etc) is by its very nature, contextual.

Insights from the Global Church

How can the important symbol of baptism express cleansing and inclusion when in the Masai culture in Africa, pouring water over a woman’s head is a ritual that curses her to barrenness

Western philosophy, following its Greek roots, has an emphasis that favours the sort of knowledge we get from understanding theory and concepts. You must believe the right things. This knowledge is generated and developed by intellectual elites. But correct theory and concepts (orthodoxy) will not in itself challenge injustice and oppression. An alternative approach to theology based on practice (orthopraxy) may connect more readily with the promise of the Kingdom of God.

Theological Factors in Contextualization

“Contemporary understandings of God as Trinity speak of God as a dynamic, relational community of persons, whose very nature it is to be present and active in the world, calling it and persuading it toward the fullness of relationship that Christian tradition calls salvation. Through the presence of the Spirit and the concrete flesh and humanity of the Logos, God works for salvation in the midst of human context, its cultures, its events, its sufferings, its joys.” Stephen B. Bevans. Models of Contextual Theology. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.

Is Local Theology for Professionals Only?

Contextual theology has turned away from a top-down, elitist understanding of theology. Schreiter highlights the role of the poet and prophet within a community, who may listen to the questions and the issues of a community, and begin to articulate these. There is a need also for a more specialist role of theologian, and if that theologian has trained and studied, that is helpful, so long as the theologian does not use that platform to dominate the community.

The local theologian can work with scripture and the wider Christian tradition, drawing into the mix local cultural elements and the whole community. This ensures that we do not lose our bearings in the wider Christian tradition, but that we remain rooted in our locality. Local theology as theology on a leaflet scale, closely connected to the immediate concerns of church and community. In the academic world this is called practical or pastoral theology.

Can an Outsider Do Local Theology

“Non-Africans do not know how Africans feel or perceive reality; whites cannot begin to understand the subtle ways in which blacks experience not only overt prejudice but also the more subtle oppression of invisibility and inaudibility.”

A local theology from a non-local will never quite manage to capture the special gifts, insights and issues which that culture brings. However, the fresh view of the outsider may offer a critique of the blind-spots and limitations within a culture. Or their contrasting view may stimulate new reflection and growth.

One thought on “Section 5: Contextual Theology

  1. Why is this such an issue? It seems obvious that all theology (the way we see or understand God) must be affected by the individual receiving and the cultural setting in which that person is lives and understands the world. Is this a case of theologians trying to categorize and formulate what must happen once we move outside of controlling religion and “top down theology”?

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