Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why All Theology is Contextual and Why It Matters

For the last forty years there has been an increasing shift in the academic study of theology towards an understanding of theology as contextual. This is both a good thing and a scary thing and its something everybody needs to get a handle on and understand. I am currently reading a book called Models of Contextual Theology by Stephen Bevans (Orbis, 2005) which I found for a bargain price on Trademe (the NZ version of EBay). I thought I would share my reading/thinking with you on the blog and I would appreciate your thoughts, whether you can see the relevance and importance of thinking contextually, and how the insights of thinking about faith contextually affects your own thinking. What follows here is not so much from the book as a prelude to the book from me. After this I intend to deal with the book chapter by chapter...

What is contextual theology?

Contextual theology is an insight coming from the post-modern era that essentially recognises that depending on who, where, and when you are things can look very different than if you were someone, somewhere, sometime else. This obvious when we apply it to something like fashion. In the 80's fluro socks and 'power ties' were the height of fashion. Wearing clothes like that now would be a shortcut to ridicule. Old music videos that were once the height of cool are now the epitome of kitch. Now that is fine for something obviously changeable and subjective like styles of clothing or dance moves but surely that cannot apply to issues of truth? Surely if God is real then theology should be like maths. 2+2=4, how can who, where, when you are change that? Well Theology, like maths, is language dependant, the language you use enables you to express concepts but also limits you in the concepts which you can express. Not only that, but your language is embedded in your culture which creates further potential but also limits the concepts you can express. Now I expect that 2+2=4 in any language, but once you try and explain concepts like 'pi' or the 'square root of the hypotenuse' then you are relying on concepts and language that has been especially created around those concepts. If you do not know those concepts then maths is meaningless. For theology the situation is more extreme because all theological language is analogy.

Why is all theological language analogy?

If I say "there is a rock" and point somewhere, and you know what the word rock means, then you can look at what I am pointing at and see if there is a rock there or not. But what happens when we say something like "God is a/my/our rock"? When I say that you do not think of the same thing that you think of when I say "there is a rock." Instead you think analogically: perhaps that God is big, unmovable, reliable. That is certainly what I tend to think of when I read such language in the Bible. But what if I come from a tribe in a rain forest where the only rocks are small and good for throwing at monkeys? To say "God is my rock" has a very different meaning, the analogy does not work. Now suppose I am from a culture that has lots of big dependable rocks but no concept of a supreme being called God. If you say "God is my rock" I merely think you have a rock, whose name is "God." The difference between talking about rocks and talking about God is that you can take someone who has never seen a rock to a rock and say "there is a rock." But when you are talking about God you are always reliant on comparing God to something else because you cannot actually point to God. Now while those example were a little extreme to make the point what happens everytime Christianity is brought to a new culture and/or language the analogies we use potentially take on a different meaning. So theology must be done in a way that is aware of the way culture/language changes things.
Here is a more likely example: I am used to talking about God as 'Father,' because I came from a stable and happy family home this is a positive image for me. But what is my context was different? what if I had had an abusive father? Would that still be an apropriate analogy if the word 'father' only meant hurt and betrayal and abuse? It surely wouldn't. Either the word would need to be filled with a new meaning or a new analogy found. But regardless of positive or negative experiences of 'father' how does a 21st century western experience of 'father' differ from a 1st cetury middle eastern one? Are the analogies the same or are there subtle differences? How do we decide if those differences are important or not? And how do you decide if the analogy needs to be replaced or if you can just modify it a little?

Why is Islam like Maths?

Now Islam gets around this problem the same way that Maths does. Rather than try to translate concepts from one culture to another, if you want to comprehend those concepts you simply need to learn the language. So to become Muslim you really need to become, at least in part, Arab. The scripture must be learnt in Arabic. The prayers must be said in Arabic. and your lifestyle and world view must become, in part at least, Arabic. (This is of course a broad generalisation) If you want to learn Maths you simply cannot avoid learning the language of Maths. But Christianity is different because it carries in its very DNA the drive to jump culture and context rather than transplant the same culture/language everywhere. In the Bible the same God is worshipped, encountered, and described in various Hebrew (tribal, monarchial, and exilic) and Greek (Judean, missionary, persecution) Contexts. To do theology you do not have to be a Hebrew or a Greek, you only have to be yourself. But to do it well you do need to be aware how who, when and where you are can affect what you read and think and know. And when you do that you are doing contextual theology, theology that is aware of its own context.

Let me know what you think :)


  1. Actually, 80's fluoro socks and power ties are now in fashion - I know, I can't believe it either! But seriously, this contextual issue is very important.

    Recently, I heard a radio interview on Radio NZ National about a former missionary, Daniel Everett, who became an atheist because of the language barrier with an Amazonian tribe - the Piraha. This missionary had grown up in an evangelical background and when trying to convert the Piraha, he had failed to create any kind of God analogy for him. They were a gracious people who had no concept of sin, and would not believe in the person of Jesus because Daniel had never seen him. (The Piraha have no genealogy, and have no concept of history that they have not themselves experienced)

    It is a sad, and fascinating story, but clearly Daniel's evangelical upbringing had not equipped him to deal with this sort of situation. I don't blame him, I'm not sure that I have been equipped to either! God really is bigger than the boxes we try to stuff him into.

  2. Its not something I had thought too much about before, but surely its fundamental to understanding god's message to know the context behind it. And if you are to preach it then surely you need to know the culture and the understanding of the people you are preaching too.

    On a personal level, the context of what you already know and how you try to understand new concepts has become increasingly apparent to me with my 4 year old. Who wants to know who is God, what is a God, Where is he? Why can't he have a conversation where he will answer him (literally) and when I told him God is everywhere, the ideas he is coming up with as to how God could be everywhere are baffling. But reading this last blog has helped me to realise it's just my little boy trying to process a very hard concept in the context of what he already knows.

  3. thanks guys, excellent thoughts. be interested to see what you think of the book as i share it.