The Shape of Progressive Theology, Part 2--Context

Rev. Greer, in a short and pithy tweet, sums up the substance of the second big idea in progressive theology—all theology is contextual theology.  Upon further reflection, I have come to believe that this principle represents the biggest departure from the theology that has come before, and the biggest challenge to our more conservative brothers and sisters.  The fighting that we see between “conservative” or “liberal” has its origin and draws its strength from this divide.

To begin, we have to talk about what contextual theology is.  In general use, and this is the thing Greer is challenging, contextual theology is used as a catch-all category for theological projects that come out of, and are explicitly done in reference to, some particular group of people who are coming out of some particular experience.  So, for example, we have black theology, womanist theology, feminist theology, Latino/Latina/mujerista theology, LGBT theology, Asian theology, etc.  Because they come out of some specific “context,” they are referred to as “contextual” theologies.  In labeling these as “contextual” theologies, there is a tendency (and, in some cases, an explicit attempt) to silo or ghetto-ize those insights away from the mainstream of theological thought.  The claim is that because those theologies are drawing on and tying themselves to a specific group of people in a specific context, the contextual theologies are, at best, relevant only to that specific context, and can thus be safely ignored by those who are not coming out of those experiences or places.

Usually unspoken but nevertheless necessary to this move is the assertion that there is an alternative—a non-contextual theology that is not grounded in some specific experience, location, or group profile.  This non-contextual theology has essentially been the Holy Grail of Christian theology for most of its history—a way or system for understanding God that is universal, out of time and out of place, and can be applied always and everywhere without reference to what might be going on in the particular place and time.  Such a theology, so the claim goes, is the only true theology, as it reflects an unchanging God.  Of course, there have been wild disagreements over what the content of this One True theology is over the course of the history of Christian thought, but there has been a general agreement that such a theology exists, or at least is possible to find.  The existence, or at least the conceptual possibility, of a non-contextual theology means that whatever limited value can be found in contextual theologies, it must ultimately give way to the "real deal" of this "real," universal theology.

The core claim being advanced by Rev. Greer, and he is not alone in making this claim, is that there is no such thing as a non-contextual theology.  It is not so much a claim that all of the strands that are lumped together under the heading of "contextual theology" deserve a place at the table (though, that too), but that the theology that has been treated as non-contextual is actually every bit as contextual as black theology, feminist theology, et al.  Thus the thing that most of Christian intellectual history has been trying to chase down--the One True theology that transcends time and circumstance--doesn't exist.

A couple of observations before we get to the consequences of this view.  First, when I say "theology" here, I mean it in the broadest sense--the same broad sense I referred to when talking about the Princeton story.  So by theology I mean the structured explanation of the Christian faith, but I also mean the way the Bible is read is interpreted, the way the faith is expressed in liturgy and other forms of the worship, the way God is understood in a subjective sense by a Christian, and a host of other elements great and small that make up the full expression of Christianity.

Second, if there is no such thing as non-contextual theology, what is the context underlying all of these purportedly non-contextual theologies?  The first and foremost adjective that must be applied retroactively to the overwhelming bulk of Christian intellectual history is "male."  The second adjective would probably be "white" or "European."  The third, especially for the Roman Catholic or eastern Orthodox tradition, would be "celibate," at least in the sense of "not a part of family life as an adult."  The fourth relevant adjective would be whatever specific time and place the theology comes from (i.e. "the 4th Century Byzantine Empire" or "the High Middle Ages in Western Europe" or "20th Century Eastern European Catholicism" or "the post-Cold War United States").  Each and every one of these descriptive adjectives impacts the theology that has been produced under its heading every bit as much as the African-American experience impacts black theologies, or the experience of being a woman impacts feminist and womanist theologies.

Third, just because a theology is contextual doesn't mean that it is without value beyond the confines of the group that produced it.  I don't come from the same context as an African-American woman working out a womanist theology, but that doesn't mean that somehow what that woman has to say is going to be impenetrable or inaccessible to me.  It may require some work; it likely requires me at a minimum to understand the context from which it comes.  But I can appreciate the insights that are being offered, and I can recognize that they provide a perspective that I would likely not be able to get on my own.  Everything that is true of womanist theology is equally true of 4th Century Byzantine theology or the medieval scholastics, as they are theologies that come from a context that is not my own and provide a perspective that I might not get to without diving into what they have to say.

Fourth, saying that all theology is contextual does not necessarily imply that God is contextual.  Process theology-oriented folks very well might make such a claim, but one isn't required to give up the idea of an unchanging God in order to accept the idea that God is contextual.  If the touchstone of religious life is the individual experience of the divine, then that experience is going to be shaped by the contours of the person who is having the experience, even if the underlying reality being experienced is always the same.  In other words, it's the blind people feeling the elephant metaphor--depending on who is touching what part of the elephant, the description that will be provided will be radically different, even though the elephant remains an elephant.  Or, to say it in a different way, we all see through a mirror, dimly.

Enough background--what are the consequences of this view?  Primarily, saying that all theology is contextual undermines the authority claims of pretty much every branch of conservative Christianity.  The eastern Orthodox tradition sees theology as, essentially, a closed project--the Church Fathers answered all of the relevant questions we need to know, and now we are just spinning out the application of those answers.  That claim is simply nonsensical if theology is contextual--how can a group of people from basically one place, one time, and one set of experiences answer all of the relevant questions that every group in every place and every time could ever have?  Theology can never be "closed" in the way the Orthodox tradition insists if theology is contextual, since new contexts are always coming into being.  And if, as Orthodoxy does, you are privileging one particular context above all other contexts, it becomes reasonable and necessary to ask why that context is different and special--why is 6th Century Byzantium more important than 21st Century America?  Again, that is not at all to say that the Church Fathers are without value, but more to say that there is no warrant for taking one particular time and place and elevating it to a place above and beyond any other contexts.

A similar issue exists in Western Christianity.  The magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is, at the end of the day, a more complicated version of the eastern Orthodox theological canon.  It comes from a more diverse set of times and places that are being synthesized into a whole, but it still reflects the specific context of its component parts.  And, perhaps more to the point, the folks who are able to do the synthesis, who are able to decide what gets added and what is left on the cutting-room floor, are all of a very specific context--celibate males formed in a particular monoculture that is the Catholic priesthood.  This gatekeeping function means that voices coming from outside of that particular viewpoint are unlikely to be incorporated into the mix.  Thus, the thing that looks universal and comprehensive actually is deeply contextual and specific, particularly in the moment you see who is making the soup.

The conservative Protestant world shifts the locus of discussion from the tradition to Scripture, but the same basic process is in play.  Biblical interpretations that are pitched as "clear" and "self-evident" are often anything but, or otherwise are such only insofar as you come out of the same context as the pitcher.  Indeed, one of the big advantages the Roman Catholic/Orthodox/high church tradition has over evangelical Protestantism is the vast library of different interpretations of key Biblical texts provided by saints and commentators throughout the years, making plain that there is no single, universal understanding of any particular text.

Two other, more specific consequences of this approach.  First, the recognition that context matters makes it extremely important to have a diverse set of viewpoints and starting-places at the table if you are trying to hammer out an agreed-upon theological position.  To pick what is to me the most glaring example, the idea you can "settle" questions related to gender without having any meaningful input from one of the two primary genders--which is a fair description of eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and conservative Protestantism--is laughable.  It's particularly laughable when the very same dudes who claim to have a comprehensive picture of female sexuality insist that women and men are fundamentally and ontologically different (in "complementary" ways, of course).  I've said this before, but the conservative approach to gender and sexuality, by their own terms, is an enormous exercise in mansplaining--telling women how they really are while asserting that that way is super different from the way men are.  You cannot have a comprehensive picture of gender issues without incorporating women and women's voices into the conversation.  Leaving them out means you are not really trying.

Along the same lines, saying context matters makes you less afraid of change.  After all, contexts change, so it makes sense to say that theology will change to some degree along with those context changes.  By definition, there will be insights that have never come to surface before, or at least have never been formulated in the same way before.  Saying that one must reject a particular idea because it is new is a tautology.  We would laugh at a theology that says "I find no discussion in the tradition prior to 1900 of airplanes, and thus flying in airplanes is anathema."  Of course there is no mention of airplanes prior to 1900, as airplanes hadn't been invented yet.  But our bad airplane theology is not that different from the argument that there is no warrant in the tradition for ordaining women.  Of course there is no mention in the tradition of ordaining women prior to the 20th Century--you didn't let women speak or write or do any sort of public theology, in the main, until the 20th Century.  Just as the technology to make an airplane didn't exist until the 20th Century, the social "technology" that could comprehend a woman priest didn't exist until a similar time.  If you accept the idea that contexts change and we need to place our context into a level dialogue with what has come before, we don't need to be afraid of the fact that this dialogue might end with a different conclusion than what has come before.

Of course, if you view religion primarily as a vehicle for delivering certainty and surety, all of this is dangerous nonsense.  That's why I think this principle is ultimately the most radical--there are warrants in the history of the church for some version of the other five ideas, so you could construct a theology that tells you that all of those other things are part of the One True Way.  But the moment you accept the idea that theology is contextual, the possibility of One True Way is out the window.  That will make this approach dangerous and scary to many people, even nihilistic and destructive to religion generally.  But for folks who are finding the answers that have been passed down to them are no longer working in their time and place, the idea that theology is contextual is a breath of liberation.


Carl said…
First, I overall agree with what you are saying.

Everybody will interpret scripture and tradition and religious experience through the lens of their culture, gender, personal experience, etc.

However, “religious” or “spiritual” people want to know what “God” is like.
Is God nice? Does God exist? Where is God? Etc.

“Theology” is really just a way of getting at these basic questions.

So yeah, certain people from certain homogeneous backgrounds will tend to converge around certain “theologies.”

Other people from other homogeneous backgrounds will tend to converge around other theologies.

But does this mean that both equally describe God? I don’t know.

Let’s think about Nazi Germany for a sec.

In Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion,” he describes how German churches leading up to and during WWII changed. How do people keep going to church while supporting the Nazi government? Use your imagination.

Was the prevailing Nazi German theology of God equally valid with all other theologies? Umm. No.

But how do I say this? How can I say that the Nazi German theology is less valid than others? It was arising out of their context at the time, right?

I realize that I am overstating your case for contextual theology, perhaps to the point of setting up a straw man argument.

Again, I overall agree with your point that all theology is contextual. However, it’s easy to go from here to the “everybody’s view of God is equally valid” point.

So we need some way to converge; otherwise, we will disperse. Can we even agree that God is good? Can we even agree about whether God exists?

John Wesley’s Wesley Quadrilateral is an example of a way to converge: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

Obviously, even with that, protestants, including Methodists, do not agree on everything.

Same with Catholics and their whole priesthood/tradition thing.

But I’m not sure that it’s helpful to say, “Well, everybody’s theology is contextual, so it’s all whatever you think.”

And you aren’t saying that exactly, but…


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