First thing is to thank Struans for his posts, and Jess for framing them so well with CS Lewis. There is indeed the temptation to say we don’t need theology, just experience of God, when, in fact, we need both. Lewis was right, a personal experience is just that. In fact I would go further than Lewis and question a personal revelation which was unique. It is unclear to me how one characterises an individual who claims to know Jesus and yet whose personal experience fails to map on to what billions of others who have known him say; the comparison seems to me to be with those strange men who think they are the Pope even though no orthodox Catholic, or indeed orthodox anything else, recognises them as such. In the past such men found a place in an asylum, now, if they strike it lucky, they get their own reality TV show. But they are, essentially, self-referential; their experience, whatever it is, is about themselves; this seems to me not the direction taken by Our Lord or historical Christianity. In the context of an atomised society in which individuals are obsessed with themselves, it is perhaps the perfect example what Struans is talking about in his series on theology in context:
Contextual theology then is talk about God arising from a particular social context, relating to the problems and concerns of that particular situation.
Theology, he tells us:
has to take account of all three elements [Scripture and Tradition (the text); the historical situation of the text and the people (context) and the community of faith (the people of God]. A theology which only repeats Scripture and Tradition in an ossified way, does not articulate what the text has to say in the present context. It becomes irrelevant for the people of God who live in a particular context. There must always be dialogue between text and context related to the people of God as the subject of faith.
So we have ‘European theology’ and ‘black theology’ etc. While I agree that all theology has a context, I have two main difficulties with this formulation.
The first is it is far too general. What, when it is at home is “European theology”? As one familiar with Russian and Greek Orthodoxy, as well as Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, I can attach no real meaning to the term ‘European’. Struans has narrowed this down a bit by saying it is “western European”, but I am still not sure that there is a common “western European” way of talking about God. The Thomist inheritance of European Catholicism seems to me sufficiently different from Lutheran or Anglican theologies for me to question whether there is any gain in understanding from lumping them together under the same label?
From my own experience, I would say that theologising comes from the context of our spiritual lives, and that a Benedictine, a Coptic and an Athonite monk have more in common with each other, and indeed with a Buddhist monk (as Thomas Merton recognised) than they have with a Protestant Pastor in ‘Europe’. Here, it seems to me, the context which matters is prayer life and certain insights which come from the silence and the contemplation; nationality and geographical location are the least important things. Theology – talking about God – is done in many contexts, but I am unsure that geography is a useful organising principle.
My second difficulty with this is historical.
All theology is the product of a context. We can only speak about a theology that makes sense at a certain place and in a certain time.
Up to a point, Lord Copper. We can still make sense of the theology of Leo the Great, Luther and Calvin, not to mention St Paul. If we do so solely (and I emphasise that word) by adapting them to our own place and time, we miss a huge amount. Indeed the efforts of scholars like Tom Wright, Richard Bauckham, Rowan Williams and Joseph Ratzinger (and many others) across the last three decades has been largely devoted to correcting the presentism of much theological writing, arguing that we understand, say, the theology of Cyril of Alexandria better if we try to understand it in its own context. That does not mean, and never has meant, that Cyril’s Christology makes sense only in the context of his time and place, as it has become part of the on-going theology of a Church which is global and timeless.
One of the difficulties of academic theology can be that it becomes so tied up with its own trends and recent history, that some of its adherents forget that they are part of a long tradition which has been discussing the same phenomenon – the revelation that Christ is Lord and it is through Him we are saved – for two millennia across cultures as diverse as possible. No Catholic theologian can be unaware of insights from the past and from different cultures. We may express our understanding of this rich tradition in language of our time and place, but a theology which is only of a certain time and place is an impoverished thing.
We are pigmies standing on the shoulders of giants, and Augustine (a North African Latin speaker of the fourth century) Cyril of Alexandria (an Egyptian Greek-speaker of the fifth century), Leo the Great (a Roman Latin speaker of the fifth century), Gregory Nazianzen (a Greek speaker from Cappadocia) all contributed to the understanding of Christology which Chalcedon in 451 represents. Their concepts and ideas fed, and feed, into an ongoing theological stream of great richness; this we all dip into. In that act, it changes, or ought to, our own, present-centred concerns, opening our eyes to the richness of what we inherit. Whether we are capable of passing that on to future generations is a moot point.