4. The Synthetic Model
Bevans describes this as the middle of the road model as it attempts to balance the three approaches we have described above. Essentially at the heart of this model is the need for constant dialogue as it attempts to hold Gospel, culture, tradition and culture change together in a creative tension. It recognizes the importance of each and then tries to utilise them for the development of a contextual theology. As Bevans notes:
It tries to preserve the importance of the gospel message and the heritage of traditional doctrinal formulations while at the same time acknowledging the vital role that context has played and can play in theology, even to the setting of the theological agenda.2
Key to this approach is the presupposition that every context has elements of uniqueness and elements that are held in common with others. Such an approach will make use of insights from other contexts, cultures, experiences and ways of thinking simply because all of these have something to say not only to the specific culture in which they are developed but also beyond to others. Here there is the potential and possibility for a mutual enrichment when contexts can dialogue with each other. The participants of one context can have something positive to give to the participants of another and each context can benefit from the insights of the others. As Bevans writes, “Attention to one’s own context can perhaps discover values in other contexts that had never been noticed before, and attention to others (including the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures), can transform and enrich one’s own worldview”.3
- Has a basic openness and dialogue. Truth will not be reached by one point of view trying to convince all the others that it alone is correct.
2. It makes an effort to make theologising an exercise in true conversation and dialogue with the other so that one’s own and one’s own cultural identity can emerge in the process.
3. It witnesses to the true universality of Christian faith. The fact that every person in every context can learn from every other person and the fact that the present can continue to learn from the past point to the reality of something that is constant in Christian identity.
1. It is always in danger of “selling out” to the other culture, tradition or social location, particularly strong or dominant dialogue partners, those who wish to dominate the proceedings.
2. Can be too weak or “wishy-washy” too much of a compromise that satisfies no one.
5. The Transcendental Model
The transcendental model proposes that the task of constructing a contextual theology is not about producing a particular body of any kind of texts. What is important is not so much that a particular theology is produced but that the theologian who is producing it operates as an authentic, converted subject. One begins to theologise contextually not by focusing on the essence of the gospel message or the context of tradition as such, or even by trying to thematize or analyse a particular context or expressions of language in that context. Rather, the starting point is transcendental, concerned with one’s own religious experience and one’s own experience of oneself. However what might seem to be a very personal and even individualistic starting point is really one that is both contextual and communal in that the individual as subject is determined by context and the existence of individuals in community. Theology in this model is the process of articulating who I am or who we are—as a person or persons of faith who are in every possible respect a product of a historical, geographical, social and cultural environment.
The experience of individuals is something that can articulate the experience of others who share one’s basic context, it speaks to other individuals, historically and culturally determined subjects—who share one’s own worldview. Experience is also where God is revealed if human beings are open to the possibility of that revelation. This model also presupposes that while every person is historically and culturally conditioned, the human mind still operates in identical ways across all cultures and periods of history. When for example an Asian or African inquires or understands, the concepts and images by which he or she understands will be very different from a North American or a European, but the basic operation of thinking remains the same. The act of knowing or understanding transcends historical and cultural differences.
1. A new way of doing theology. With its emphasis on theology as activity and process rather than theology as a particular content it insists that theology is not about finding out right answers that exist in some kind of transcultural realm but rather a passionate search for authenticity of expression of one’s own religious and cultural identity.
2. It clearly recognizes the contextual determination of the person who theologizes. The turn to the subject is also a turn to the historical and the cultural as genuine theological sources.
3. The universal structure of human knowing and consciousness provides common ground for mutual conversation and interaction. In this way one’s own theologising can be both sharpened over against the “other” and challenged and purified by the other’s questions.
1. It appears too abstract, too hard to grasp. It is difficult to make the shift from thinking of theology as some kind of content to be studied, written about, or lectured on to thinking of it as the actual activity of seeking understanding as an authentic believer and cultural subject.
2. The universality it promotes may not actually be universality at all, but the product of western male-dominated cultural thought forms. Do people really come to understand in the same way, or are there really different ways of knowing?
6. The Countercultural Model
This model that treats context (experience, culture, social location, and social change) with the utmost seriousness. It recognises that human beings and all theological expressions only exist in historically and culturally conditioned situations. On the other hand, however, it warns that context always needs to be treated with a good deal of suspicion. If the gospel is to truly take root within a people’s context, it needs to challenge and purify that context.
What this model realizes more than any other model is how some contexts are simply antithetical to the gospel and need to be challenged by the gospel’s liberating and healing power. To use an analogy to a garden, this model would say that the native soil of a particular context needs to be weeded and fertilized in order that the seeds can be planted. The soil otherwise could not support the healthy growth of the plant and thereafter needs continued care and vigilance.
1. It is rooted in scripture and tradition. It wants to be engaging of and relevant too the context while at the same time remaining faithful to the gospel.
2. It recognizes the deep ambiguity and even antigospel elements in context and notes that Christianity often has to speak a word of radical dissent and offer an alternative way of living.
1. The danger is that the model can become anticultural. This certainly was a danger for missionaries in times past, and while many accusations of missionaries destroying cultures in their efforts to preach Christ are sometimes exaggerated, such destruction did take place. If such disregard for the Spirit’s presence in the human context was present in the past, it is certainly a danger today. No culture is entirely corrupt or evil.
2. There is a danger of withdrawing from the world, the Christian community is in danger of focusing only on its own integrity, the quality of its community, the authenticity of its worship and not moving into the world. Christians need to “dirty their hands” in real work in the world, not isolate themselves from it.
3. This model is often a critique of Western culture and its practitioners are white and often middle-class. This model may be appropriate for affluent white European contexts people from other cultural and racial contexts tend to point to the need for their own cultures to be recognised and valued by the dominant white culture. It is perhaps inappropriate to employ such a model in contexts in which cultural and personal identity has often been threatened.
Is One Model Better Than Another?
Is one model of contextual theology better than the others? Is there one way of taking account of the experience of the past and the experience of the present that is more adequate than another? The answer to these questions might be both yes and no.
Each of these models are valid approaches to doing contextual theology and each has a number of distinct advantages as well as limitations. There was a time when contextual theologians argued over whether one way of doing theology was the only way, but this kind of discussion has been recognized as futile. Every person involved in doing theology needs to be aware of the range of methodological options available. There needs to be a healthy pluralism.
It is also important to recognise that such models are inclusive in nature. There is no need to commit oneself to any one model to the exclusion of one or more of the others. “It is not contradictory to hold a high value of both Gospel and culture, nor is it wrong to take one’s theological agenda from various sources: society at large; the current world scene as expressed in both the economic and political realms; the Biblical data; or the guidance of the Spirit.”4
On the other hand, certain models can function more adequately within certain circumstances or contexts. For example in a situation that calls for radical social change the praxis model may be more appropriate than the translation model. In a situation of primary evangelisation however, translating one’s own understanding of the gospel into the language and customs of another culture, may be the only option until indigenous Christians are able to reflectively construct their own local theology.
Robert Schreiter reflecting on his collection of contemporary African Christologies, notes that “for too long, embracing Christ and his message meant rejection of African cultural values. Africans were taught that their ancient ways were deficient or even evil and had to be set aside if they hoped to become Christian.”5 In such a situation, the anthropological model would be appropriate. On the other hand in a culture such as the Philippines, where despite cultural depreciation there has been constant cross-fertilization for centuries, a more inclusive or synthetic approach may be the best way to capture the complexities of Filipino Christian identity.
The move to understand all theology as contextual is also a move to recognize the complex reality of theological pluralism. In the past we could speak of the unity of theology, and theological students from Manila, Chicago, Solomon Islands, Melbourne, London, Durban and Goroka all studied the same theology out of pretty much the same books. The question of the best model of contextual theology is an appropriate one but within today’s world of radical plurality and ambiguity the best answer to the question can only be: “It depends on the context.”6
An Important Note
While contextual theological method and reflection can make use of Bevans’ models outlined above, such theoretical models do not necessarily take account of the complex interactions and nuances between theological and cultural contexts in practice. While they are helpful in providing some framework for theological reflection, such models as fixed categories struggle to take account of contextual theology in which such categories are fluid and often interconnect, interact and blur into each other.
1 See Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Revised and Expanded Edition (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2002). The following section is taken and adapted from this book.
2 Bevans, 89.
3 Bevans, 91.
4 Bevans, 139.
5 Bevans, 140.
6 Bevans, 140.