What is contextual theology?
The shorter/easier answer
One common definition of theology is simply “faith seeking understanding.” It’s a good one, I think, and if were to change it to Christian theology, we might say “Christian faith trying to understand the things of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Yet one thing that strikes us if we start to read theological literature is that it can sound very different depending on when and where it was written. Today’s African Christians (e.g. Lamin Sanneh or Kwame Bediako) are writing things about Jesus that do not sound very much like what Frenchman John Calvin wrote in Switzerland in the mid-1500s. And Calvin does not sound very much like the Great Cappadocians—great Eastern theologians of the 4th century who lived in what we might think of as modern-day Turkey. It’s not that Scripture has changed, or God himself. The difference is the place and cultures—the setting of the faith that “seeks to understand.”
Because the settings change, the questions change. And because the questions change, our theology changes. And this is why I believe that all theology is “contextual theology”—that is, it is from a context. For some evangelicals, this might sound troubling. How can we know anything for certain? Does this mean truth changes through time and cultures? The answer is no—we can trust in a God who stays the same while humbly realizing that the theological answers we come up with today might be very helpful for us, but possibly don’t answer the questions for all time.
Orthodox theology (within the main consensus of scripture and the church through time) is always equally true, but it may not always be equally relevant.
I assume that my vantage as a digital native means that there are certain questions and approaches that I (and others) have to thinking about God that will be different than those who have come before me. What are they and what difference does that make? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
The longer/brainier answer
To speak of contextual theology today calls to mind one of two possible approaches to theology and culture, distinguishable by both their roots and their intention. Though they share the same label, they’re not often found in the same academic walls (if we can forgive some painting in rather broad strokes).
Evangelical academics are likely to locate the discussion in the missiology department, where examination of culture has an evangelistic impetus. With roots in the successes and failures in the nineteenth-century Western missionary societies, these approaches are primarily praxilogical, discussing custom and ritual and global cultures. Anthropology and sociology are engaged for their descriptive powers, and missionary-theologians like Paul Hiebert and John and Anna Travis are referenced in an effort to understand the incarnation and communication of the gospel, especially in non-western environment.
Mainline academics, on the other hand, are likely visit contextual theologies as an invited critique on the Western hegemony of the academy. The approach is postmodern and plural, and builds on the foundational stones of liberation, feminist, and black theologies, citing Gustavo Gutierrez, Mary Daly, and James Cone. In intention, these voices are studied to rectify a missing voice to marginalized people groups, a segment that is destined to continue its expansion even beyond Womanist, Minjung, and Queer theologies.
Each general approach—the missiological or the postmodern—maintains some suspicion of the other, not least because of their perceived (and not without cause) position as liberal or evangelical approaches. But both share in common a potential marginalization in the theology classroom which implicitly (and unintentionally) accepts the mainstream of Western theology as neutral, generic, or context free. That course catalogs will allow “Feminist theologies” or “African Christologies” but not “European Reformed Theologies” or “Germanic Pre-Modern Doctrine” underscores the point. The Frankfort school’s Herbert Marcuse helpfully speaks of “repressive tolerance” to describe a hegemonic system that receives minority views with open arms, but in treating them as such uses them as evidence to reinforce the dominant view. And Dutch Catholic Frans Wijsen laments that contextual theologies are treated like “exotic fruits to supplement their traditional Western theological dishes.”
If these two approaches were to have more than just casual interaction, one might imagine they’d band together on a protest march with slogan posters held high: “All theologies are contextual theologies!” And this is the approach this study takes, attempting a theology from context because all theologies—as faith seeking understanding—seek from their point of view.
Catholic theologian Stephen Bevans writes, “There is no such thing as “theology”; there is only contextual theology… the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context is really a theological imperative” and cannot be “something on the fringes of the theological enterprise. It is at the very center of what it means to do theology in today’s world.”
Bevans provides six detailed sketches of contextual theology, set out as “inclusive models.” The translation model seeks adaptation; the anthropological model seeks to preserve cultural identity; the praxis model is “faith seeking intelligent action”; the counter-cultural model seeks prophetic voice; the synthetic model seeks dialog; and the transcendental model seeks paradigm shift. It’s these last two models that may partially describe the approach that will be attempted here. The transcendental model, describes Bevans, requires, “a radical shift in perspective, a change in horizon.” Jesus says that a new patch cannot be put on an old garment. (Mark 2.21-22). This model begins with the individual or community’s experience of itself, and sees God’s revelatory action as received by real human people. The synthetic model, on the other hand, assumes that context have both uniqueness and similarity to other contexts. It emphasizes dialog, and while it does not begin with “Christianity’s previous inculturations,” easily borrows resources or language from other contexts as it seeks to explain.
It’s probably important to note that the cultural context in view—digital information culture—cannot be defined geographically or generationally. Though American children and teens in middle-class settings are a staple of the online demographics, research shows us that younger adults (the latter half didn’t grow up with e-mail) are still highly digitally active—84% of 18 to 29 year olds check social networking sites at least once a week. Exceptions abound, and the Washington Post reports on examples of both “resisters” and “adopters” in the mostly-connected age groups. And Pew Internet demonstrates effectively that the “digital divide” between poor and rich, urban and rural, and elderly and young is rapidly vanishing. So for theo|digital, instead of defining a digital native by “generation” or social location, we instead say that a digital native is simply one who lives in digital technology as an environment. The description still may not encompass certain teenagers, while it could easily include a Blackberry-armed business person that exceeds the typical age assumptions, but the cultural links between digital natives remain.
© 2009 Chris Ridgeway
theo|digital by Chris Ridgeway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.