16 Melaysian Brothers Pray for new Bible translationAnd so, without further ado, let me continue with more of these lecture notes.  This part I suspect may particularly cause some reflection for some of the people here.  Well, either reflection, or reflexion (as of the knee) 🙂

The photograph to the right, by the way, is of Brothers of the Melanesian Brotherhood praying for a new Bible translation.

Here we go then with the notes:

Why Theology must be Contextual

The realization that no one theology is unchanging, culture or context-less or a finished product has challenged European theology to its foundations. Missionaries in the nineteenth century often assumed that the theologies that they represented could be applied universally to all contexts and were often seemingly unaware of how culturally relative their theologies really were. Christians in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific are questioning the culturally relative theologies that they have received, as not making sense within their own cultural patterns and thought forms.

For example some traditional theological positions do not seem to fit well with some aspects of non-western cultures. Bevans writes of a colleague who was dismayed by the importing of wine into the Philippines for the celebration of the Eucharist. What better symbol, he argued, can we have that Christianity is something imported, Western and non-Filipino?

Similarly, how can the important symbol of baptism express cleanliness and inclusion when, in Masai culture in Africa, pouring water over a woman’s head is a ritual that curses her to barrenness.7

Melanesian theologian Henry Paroi talks about how in his own culture (Shortlands), sitting down for the Gospel reading expresses more respect than standing up.

Western theologies, influenced by Enlightenment thinking, scientific rationalism and reason often tries to explain away beliefs in witchcraft, sorcery, miraculous healings or events and the existence of spirits, good or bad. These are concepts central to the beliefs of people across, Asia, Africa and the Pacific, to name a few. In addition, classical Western theology has often emphasized the importance of individual salvation and morality, which does not always fit cultures that only recognize the individual in the context of the group. These are a cause of unease and dissatisfaction among non-Western Christians across the world.

Traditional theologies are often accused of being oppressive towards “traditional cultures”. In that, in some cases, it was the missionaries who decided what was best for the people and who decided what cultural concepts to keep and what to discard. Missionaries who interpret through European eyes. In some cases as in the Black theologies of the United States, it is claimed that black experience was ignored by white theologies that made black people invisible and inaudible. In Latin America, Liberation theologians claim that “traditional” theology is often used ideologically to justify the continued domination of the rich and powerful.8

How does the continued celibacy of Catholic priests fit in with African cultures for example, where one’s place as a man in society is determined by one’s proven ability to have children. Or in Melanesia where marriage is part of fulfilling tribal or kinship obligations?

The growing identity of local churches demands the development of contextual theologies in that former colonized countries are recognizing that traditional values in their own cultures and traditions are just as good or better than those of their colonizers. The assumption that the values of the colonizer were somehow superior to those of the colonized is being challenged across the world, particularly as former colonies, churches and nations have the confidence to work things out for themselves, on their own terms and in their own way.9

All of this stems from the shift in understanding what culture is. The assumption that there was one universal theology applicable to all accompanied a belief in their being one universal culture, largely synonymous with Western culture and civilization. It was assumed that people’s could be civilized by listening to or reading great works of European art, literature, philosophy etc.and become “cultured”.

However, this view of culture is challenged by those who define culture as a set of meanings and values that informs a way of life. There is no one “set” rather there are many and people are “cultured” within their own particular societies and cultures. Culture is not something “out there” but rather something that everyone participates in. This makes the development of contextual theology essential for every time, place and culture as people’s try to make sense of God from diverse cultural traditions and worldviews.

At the heart of this process is the challenge of the incarnational nature of Christianity (John 3:16). If God wants to share the divine self with everyone and invite all into a life-giving relationship with the Godhead, then it has to be in a way that all human beings can grasp. Christ became flesh, not generally but in a particular way. He became a human being, a man, a Jew, the son of Mary. In this way Jesus became a particular human being with a particular skin colour, particular hair colour, a particular personality, likes and dislikes and so on. The challenge for contextual theologians and all Christians is to continue this incarnational process. If God is to speak to all peoples and cultures of the world then through us he must become those people and speak to them directly from within those cultures. God must become, African, Asian, Melanesian, rich or poor, black or brown in order to speak to people’s within specific cultures and contexts and in a way that people understand and identify with.10

Who Does Theology?

“Many people nowadays think of “theology” as something beyond them. It seems to be too difficult, or too abstract, or it’s better to leave it to the experts. Somehow, somewhere, someone has misled them. Theology is no more difficult than any of the other life-skills that we can and need to acquire. Those who think that it is too difficult have been cheated—or perhaps it is just that no-one has ever shown them how.”11

Classical theology understood the process of doing theology as academic. The theologian had to be a scholar, an academic, a highly trained specialist with a wide knowledge of Christian doctrine and tradition. This makes sense when theology involved reflection on documents and books that needed considerable skill to understand.

But contextual theology is conceived in terms of expressing one’s present experience in terms of one’s faith. This means that ordinary people who are in touch with everyday life, who experience anxiety, oppression, the joys of work, married life, raising a family, life and death are the real theologians here. The so called experts become auxiliaries to the theologies of ordinary people.

The role of the trained theologian here (the priest, minister or teacher) is that of articulating more clearly what the people are expressing more generally or vaguely, deepening their ideas by providing them with the resources of Christian tradition and challenging them to broaden their horizons by expressing the whole of Christian theological expression. Mercado—the role of the theologian is to function as midwife to the people as they give birth to a theology that is rooted in a culture and moment of history.

As the context is taken seriously, on the one hand, theology can never be understood as a finished product, produced by experts and delivered, signed and sealed, to a Christian community for its consumption. On the other hand theology cannot be a mere recording of what “the people think”. Theology needs to be an activity of dialogue emerging out of mutual respect and an interaction between the faithful people, who are not technically trained and the faithful trained professional who listens and articulates the theologies of the faithful.

Importantly everyone does theology, it is not a matter of choice because we all do it when we make a moral decision or decide that one action is better than another, or when we take a stand on anything, or when we make any kind of commitment. All of these involve whether we realize it or not a theology of what is most important or valuable in human life and existence.12

It is not a question of whether or not we do theology. It is a question of whether we do it badly or whether we do it well.

Moving From An Implicit To An Explicit Theology

Most of our theology is carried out implicitly. We make decisions based on what we think at the time is the most appropriate action to take. Often, however, we are unsure just why a decision was made in such a way. Our parents, school, cultural values etc. help us to do implicit theology, but often the theologies we have absorbed from them are incomplete and/or distorted, depending on our experiences of family life, culture, school etc. It is the recognition of this incomplete and distorted condition of our implicit theology that gives rise to the search for a more explicit theology. (Darragh p14)

Our decisions about the worth and the goodness or badness of our actions become more explicit when we look more carefully and more critically at what we do, why we do it and what is done to us. Explicit theology is a way of becoming more reflective and more self-critical about what we do and what we undergo. This is a process which takes place over time and is never finished, we are continually developing theology from an implicit to an explicit state.13

We are not, however, the first people to do theology in an explicit way. There are already existing explicit theologies that we have access to, but which we haven’t worked out for ourselves. Such theologies are available to us through parents, teachers, books, sermons, theological libraries etc.

The problem however is that these explicit theologies have often been developed in quite different circumstances from the ones in we live. However good these theologies may have been in their original construction, they may be quite out of tune, inappropriate, even delusory in regard to our context and way of life.

This is particularly noticeable when such explicit theologies available to us, have traveled from one culture to another. If we understand “culture” to be the total way of life of a people, then a coherent and productive theology in one culture can become a fish out of water in a different cultural context.14

This can result in a gap between “life” and “theology”. Between the implicit theology that we all do anyway and a more explicit but culturally irrelevant theology.

This is a problem for cultures and communities that are not used to doing theology themselves but which have been accustomed simply to receiving it from elsewhere. We cannot do our own theology, however, without any help or criticism from other communities or cultures.

We need both to “do” our own theology and to “receive” theologies worked out by others. We need to be doers of theology in our own context, because no one else in the world can understand nor become involved in the world or God from this particular perspective except ourselves. But we do not start from scratch, but from already existing theologies and we have a great deal to learn from the rest of the world. We need then also to be receivers of the theologies from other contexts. For us, doing theology is a reinterpretation of our inherited theologies based on an understanding of our own circumstances and the characteristics of our own context.

The important point here is that doing theology in this more explicit or formal sense of the term does mean taking a step further than just our own implicit feelings or intuitions about living a Christian life or about what is right or wrong, good or bad. It also means getting out of the condition where we are mere consumers of the theological ideas originating from other contexts. It means doing our own explicit theology and on the basis of the progress we make here we can receive theologies from other contexts not as mindless consumers but as receptive partners. The end goal is to produce a theology which balances the doing and receiving of theology.

7 Bevans, 10.

8 Bevans, 10.

9 Bevans, 11.

10 Bevans, 12.

11 Darragh, 13.

12 Darragh, 13.

13 Darragh, 14.

14 Darragh, 17.