Quick Hitter: Some More Thoughts on Context and Carl's Comment

On the recent post on contextual theology, reader "Carl" left a good comment that I started to address as a response comment, but it began to get very long so I decided to split it off into a separate short post.  Carl's concern, in the main, was that embracing the idea of contextual theology leaves you in a position where you have no basis for ruling out bad or destructive theologies, since everything has contextual value.

My first response is to say that affirming the contextual reality of theological positions and systems doesn't mean that there is no content to the theological systems that you have.  Theology may come from a place, but the place that it comes from is not the sum and substance of the theology.  Black theology and feminist theology make very specific and concrete claims about the nature of Christian truth that go far beyond "African-Americans and women have a place in theological discourse and in the church."  Even in the narrow world of this series, there are five other very concrete, if broad, principles that I am asserting represent the nature of Progressive theology.  The last post talks about some very specific ways to talk about (and not talk about) our relationship with God and the atonement.  The next post is going to be about reading the Bible, and the one after that deals withe ecclesiology and politics.  My big picture point I am trying to make with this series is that there is definite content to this thing called Progressive theology.

Having said that, Carl's concern about adjudicating between good and bad theologies is a good one.  But I am not sure that having a contextual point of view makes the problem worse, or maybe more to the point I am not sure rejecting the contextual nature of theology makes the problem any better.  The example of the Nazi collaborator churches that Carl uses is a good example.  It has been a while since I've read Bad Religion, but if Douthat's argument is that a lack of expansive claims of one's own universal correctness protects a church from walking a dark path, then his argument is belied by the historical experience.  The two denominations that most aggressively collaborated with the Nazis were the established German Lutheran church and the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church--two of the least contextual theological entities (at least in their own minds) out there.  It was the progressive churches, especially in Germany, that were the primary resistors to Nazism, not the more conservative, triumphalist denominations.

And if we expand our focus beyond Germany, Francoist Spain and the Ustasche of Croatia were fascist movements with essentially the explicit blessing of the Catholic Church.  My point is not to pile on to the Catholic Church. but to point out that assertions of a religious body's a-historical correctness doesn't translate into a resistance to bad and destructive theology.  Now, I would argue that a big part of that is that there really is no such thing as an a-historical and non-contextual theology, so everyone is to some degree being buffeted by what is going on around them, whether or not they are willing to admit that its happening.  But, if everyone is subject to the ill winds in the air, I find it hard to see how recognizing that fact somehow makes the problem worse.

Maybe more to the point, I don't believe there is any substitute for personal discernment and working through the encounter with God in one's own life (see Part One).  Personal discernment is hard, and personal discernment can go astray, absolutely.  But collective discernment can equally go astray, especially when people within the collective body take the position that they don't need to be doing their own personal discernment because there is some book or religious body out there that does their discernment for them.  Obviously, if you think that a religious body is protected from error to such a degree that you can simply trust them in an unqualified manner, then you don't have this problem.  But I would suggest that (1) then you are not a Progressive Christian (which is your right, but we should to be clear about terms); and (2) there is not any religious body out there whose historical track-record would really justify such unqualified trust.

So, I believe Carl's concern is a very real and important concern.  It's just that I don't think there is a magic bullet that gets us around it.


Carl said…
Michael, thanks for the response! By the way, "Carl" is Carl Roberts of http://www.carlroberts.us

I think you have addressed my concerns pretty well.

First, I agree that a quasi- a-contextual, a-historical theology does not prevent mistakes.

Clearly, the Catholic church has made and does make mistakes. Also, the religious establishment of Jesus' time was making big mistakes. Jesus spends a lot of time pointing out those mistakes.

I feel like the whole conservative/progressive debates — both in religion and politics — is often an issue of each side attacking straw men.

I think we would both agree that it is valuable to consider different "contexts" when discussing theology?

Also, I think we would both agree that truth claims about God can be "true" or "false"?

So I think that leaves us in the healthy position of using our personal context, the Christian tradition (because that's the context that we both grew up in, I assume), and our experience to know more about the divine.

Regardless, I agree with Pope Francis ("The Name of God is Mercy") and Richard Rohr ("Everything Belongs") in that we should lead with mercy and understanding, not with rules and judgment.

I discuss this a bit in a post on "The Divine Comedy" called "Christians in Hell" (http://carlroberts.us/?p=451). In a lot of ways, Christianity has become a search for the magic words or the magic rules that will get people to "heaven."

Rather than a list of rules to be kept or a search for a secret incantation to say before one's death, Christianity is a movement toward life which is a movement toward love.

So the whole argument (which you and I are not having) about who is right and who is wrong is the wrong discussion to have.

This is all stuff that I am still thinking through, which is why I am writing it down.

I will be posting more comments on your blog because it is excellent. Feel free to ignore my comments if you want. They help me think.

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