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TOWARDS A CONTEXTUAL THEOLOGY 

by Lourdino A. Yuzon

Dr. Lurdino A. Yuzon is Joint Secretary for Council for Mission and

Ecumenical Cooperation, Christ Church, Aotearoa-New Zealand.

 

         I am grateful for this opportunity to engage in a dialogue with you on issues related to the church’s task of contextualizing theology. I assume that we share a common view about doing theology as the responsibility not only of professional theologians, but also of lay people like you and me. I also assume that we agree on the significance of contextualization as a method of doing theology.

     My task is to set the table. I will try to place before you foods for thought on this topic which others more qualified than I am have prepared. Here and there I will add my modest personal comments, most of which do not constitute a connected trend of thought, but are anecdotal in nature. What follows is intended to serve merely as a starting point for a more learned discussion on this subject matter. Like a car starter it could put aside once the engine of our dialogue gets going.

 

A Suggested Definition of  Contextual Theology

      At the outset it is helpful for us to set forth a working statement on contextual theology. (It may be borne in mind that contextual theology is an umbrella term. This is to say that there are many, not one, contextual theologies. For instance, Black theology, feminist theology, Minjung theology (Korea), Dalit theology (India), theology of struggle (Philippines), Latin American liberation theology are all contextual theologies that have emerged out of particular historical realities to which the liberative aspects of the Christian message are addressed.)

     In his book, Models of Contextual Theology (1992), Stephen B. Bevans defines contextual theology

as a way of doing theology in which one takes into account the spirit and message of the gospel; the tradition of the church; the culture in which one is theologizing; and social change within that culture, whether brought about by western technological process or the grass-roots struggle for equality, justice and liberation.(p.1) 

     According to Bevans, contextual theology is a way of understanding the Christian faith not only on the basis of Scripture and tradition – the two main theological sources of reflection of classical/traditional theology – but also on the basis of concrete culturally conditioned human experience. This is not to say that contextual theology is anti-Scripture. In fact, it has been said that Latin American liberation theology has been deeply rooted in, and nourished by, the underlined bibles of poor and marginalized peasants and urban dwellers. Neither is it anti-tradition but it appropriates the teachings of the church in a critical manner. Through concepts, symbols, stories and other forms of expression it has received from the church it reflects on the “raw experience” of people. Contextual theology differs from traditional/classical theology in two ways.

     First, it recognizes the signal importance of human experience as a source for reflection on Christian faith and morals. Second, since it is rooted in concrete human experience in a particular culture and society, it speaks primarily to that context. For that reason, it does not (and one may add, it must not) regard itself as unchanging, above culture and universally applicable in a normative way to all other particular contexts at all times and places. A contextual theology that emerges out of a particular context is something that makes sense in relation to a certain place and time and, therefore, can be definite, at best, but not definitive. It is more apt, as Robert J. Schreiter puts it, to speak not of universal, permanent and unchanging theologies, but of “local theologies” (Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies, 1986).

 

A Mandate 

      Why should theology be contextual? Doing theology in context is not something optional. It is a mandate, an imperative which, as Bevans says, is based on external and internal factors. The external factors include a feeling in the Third World (and to some extent in the First World) of “general dissatisfaction with classical approaches to theology” (Ibid., p.5) which do not make sense in non-western cultural patterns and thought forms and have been perceived to be irrelevant in Third World historical realities characterized by rapid changes brought about by western technological advances and the struggles of suffering people for justice, power-sharing and freedom from anti-life forces. Another external factor is the reaction to the “oppressive nature of older approaches” (Ibid., p.6) to theology. For instance, individualistic and other-worldly theologies from the west have functioned to justify authoritarian governments and the exploitation and oppression of marginalized and powerless peoples not only in the Third World but also in the First World countries. Also, male-dominated theology and structures have served to exclude women from their rightful places in the life and work of churches the world over. In the Third World, there has been a growing awareness of the fact that a “colonial theology” has nothing to do with the real meaning of Christian faith.

      Contextualization is an inherent dynamic of the Christian faith. This is to say, the imperatives of contextual theology are derived from the way God has related Godself to the world. Put simply, through the incarnation event, God comes to us and establishes us in life-affirming, life-giving and life-sustaining relationship with Godself. The world is the object of God’s unqualified and out-going love (John 3:16). God expressed God’s love through an act of self-giving and in sharing our human exper­ience (John 1:14). If the church is to touch peoples’ lives with God’s message in a meaningful way it must communicate that message incarnationally. Contextual theology reminds us that theology is not just a view of life, but also a way of life. And based on what God did in and through Christ and is doing in the Spirit, that way of life should be incarnational through and through. Another internal factor “is the sacramental nature of reality. The doctrine of incarnation proclaims that God is revealed not primarily in ideas but in concrete reality” (Ibid., p.8). God’s encounter with the world through Jesus Christ takes place through the ordinary things of day-to-day life which are transparent of God’s presence. For instance, bread and wine used at the Lord’s Table mediate to us the presence of the loving and living God who makes all things new. The world of things and all that “hath life” remind us of the creative power of God. If ordinary things are transparent of God’s presence, then in the same way, we can speak of culture as something that is revelatory of God’s presence. Hence, the continuing task of theology “... is to reveal God’s presence in a truly sacramental world” (Ibid., p.9). Any culture, whether “Christian” or shaped by other faiths, is not without witness to the presence of God in the midst of people. The task of theology is to discern “signs” of God’s presence and make that presence explicit or manifest. A third internal factor that has contributed to the development of contextual theology is the shift in understanding of revelation. In traditional/classical theology revelation is presented “in the form of eternal truths handed down to us from Christ and the Apostles. Faith is understood to be the intellectual assent to those truths. All these are systematically arranged and presented as the... Faith” (Jose de Mesa and L. Wostyn, Doing Theology; Basic Realities and Pro­cess. Manila: Maryhill School of Theology, 1982, p.80). A more recent understanding of revelation speaks of God’s ongoing act of self-disclosure in inter-personal terms. According to this view revelation means the offer of Godself to women and men “by means of concrete actions and symbols in history as God’s self-communication to men and women” (Bevans, op.cit., p.9). Consequently, this calls for faith in terms of a response of the self as a gift to the personal God. And God’s offer of God-self to women and men could be made in ways that they can understand within their cultural contexts. This inter-personal view of God’s self-revelation highlights the need for theology to take seriously the contexts in which women and men encounter God.

    It is not farfetched to say that, in fact, all theologies including classical theologies are contextual. “Creative moments in theology have arisen out of the church’s response to new challenges in a given historical context. They bear the cultural and social imprints of the time” ( K. C. Abraham, “Third World Theologies”, CTC Bulletin, May-December 1992, p.5). It is said that the theology of St. Thomas of Aquinas was a response to the challenges of Aristotelian philosophy, and the hierarchical structure of Medieval society greatly influenced the Thomist system of theology. The crisis theology of Karl Barth was, in large measure, a response to the crises of Western civilization brought about by the First World War and the failure of liberal theology. “Theologians of every age are committed to interpreting the Gospel of Jesus in a way (that is) relevant and meaningful to the realities around them” (Ibid., p.5).

 

New “Partners” of Theology

      In the past it was believed that only philosophy served as the language by which people described and interpreted their experience. Consequently, philosophy became a principal conversation partner of theology. Karl Barth himself repudiated all claims of human knowledge for faith. But he resorted to existentialism in his Dogmatics.

     Currently, and particularly in the Third World contexts, theologies have found new conversation partners. Many respectable Third World theologians now draw knowledge and insights from other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science and economics that describe, analyze and interpret people’s experience. In addition, there has been a recognition of the fact that grass-roots people, not just professionally trained theologians, have begun to articulate their world views through their stories, symbols and myths even though these have remained in the form of oral tradition. These “provide insights on their perspectives on their origin, their struggles and values that hold them together” (K.C. Abraham op.cit., p.7). Contextual Asian theologies, for instance, take the articulation of the experience of grass-roots people as a basic source of theological construction. (It may be mentioned in passing that in Christian Conference of Asia circles, the term people is used not in a generic sense to refer to people in general, but to a particular class of people, namely, the poor, powerless, marginalized, suffering and struggling people in Asia such as the minjung in Korea, the Dalits in India, et al.)

      There has also been a shift in the language of theology. In the past, the emphasis was on “static continuities of human life”. The new language of theology emphasizes the “dynamic aspects of human relationships”. This is consistent with the view (mentioned above) about the inter-personal view of God’s self-disclosure to the world. Instead of futile dichotomies which the old language of theology has engendered – nature vs. history, grace vs. law, individual vs. community, spiritual vs. material, etc.– the new language of theology affirms a holistic view of reality.

 

A Praxis Model of Contextual Theology

     Asian situations have spawned a good number of contextual theologies. One of the most common has been called the praxis model. This is a departure from the assumption that theology is a systematic articulation of timeless truth and the practical application of a body of ideas to concrete historical situations.

Though theologians continue to employ adaptation, which seeks to reinterpret Western thought from an Asian perspective, or indigenization, which takes the native culture and religion as its basis, there is a newer thrust to contextualize theology... As a dynamic process, it combines words and action, it is open to change, and looks to the future. (Virginia Fabella, ed., Asia’s Struggle for Full Humanity, Orbis Books, 1980, p.4).

     The aim of contextual theology is not only to understand and interpret God’s act, or to give reason for their faith, but to help suffering people in their struggle to change their situation in accordance with the vision of the gospel (K.C. Abraham, op. cit., p.8) of justice and freedom from bondage to fullness of life. In a very real sense, the praxis type of contextual theology is liberative. It seeks to raise the critical awareness of people about their situation and to empower them to change cultural values and social structures undergirding human relationships.

      The praxis model opts for the action/reflection method of doing theology. As set forth at the Dar Es Salaam meeting of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) “reject(s) as irrelevant an academic type of theology that is divorced from action.” The statement goes to say: “We are prepared for a radical break in epistemology which makes commitment the first act of theology and engages in critical reflection on the praxis of the reality of the Third World”. In other words, as K.C. Abraham puts it, “liberative praxis is the methodology for contextual theologies”. The praxis model is nothing new. In fact, it continues the prophetic tradition which insists not only on words but on action (Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah) and the New Testament injunction to communicate in action the truth in love. It is also in keeping with the view that theology and ethics are inseparable.

      As mentioned above, the praxis model of contextual theology affirms the conviction that “truth is at the level of history, not in the realm of ideas” (Quoted in Bevans, op. cit., p.65). Action is reflected-upon and reflection is acted-upon.

      To appreciate why commitment to reflected-upon action and acted-upon reflection is the preferred method of the praxis model of contextual theology, it is important for us to have a glimpse of one massive fact of the Asian context. Reference is here made to the fact that the masses of people in Asia are in bondage to dehumanizing, exploitative and oppressive con-conditions. Bishop Julio Labayen describes this common reality of suffering in Asia in these words:

...What makes Asian suffering different from the rest of the world? Most obviously it is the extent, the sheer magnitude of the suffering. More Asians are hungry, homeless, unemployed and illiterate than all the rest of the world put together. More men and women are despised, humiliated, cheated; more suffer the tyranny of governments and oppressive elites, and the fear and shame that tyranny brings than in all the rest of the world combined... There may be areas of poverty around the world as bad as Asia... but there is nothing anywhere to match the sweep and unrelieved misery of Asia’s suffering. (Julio Labayen, “Asian Suffering and the Christian Hope”, Testimony Amid Suffering, ed. T.K. Thomas, Singapore: CCA, 1977, p.9) 

     Such suffering and misery are caused much less, if at all, by people’s congenital deficiencies (e.g., that, allegedly, they are unimaginative and lazy), but very much more because of structures of oppression, exploitation and domination. This situation uses people as means to serve the self-interests of a dominant few. It runs counter to the basic (and humanist) view that persons are ends in themselves and should not be treated as means only.

      The face of suffering varies.

     In the Philippine context suffering takes on the face of endemic poverty where about 80 percent of the people live below the poverty/bread line. This is a situation that is replicated in places like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Burma and Cambodia.

      In other Asian countries relative economic affluence has been bought at a high price. People have to forfeit their right to participate freely and responsibly in the political process because of the institution and maintenance of centralized, authoritarian and repressive regimes which are legitimized by an appeal to the idea of national security. Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and, to a certain extent, Malaysia, come close to embodying this reality.

      The response of Asian churches to situations where people are forced to suffer has been far from encouraging. Most have been apathetic or indifferent. This is the inevitable (though not necessary) consequence of an individualistic, apolitical and other­-worldly theology they have inherited from their “mother churches” in the West. They have been more concerned about the pastoral dimension of their calling to be engaged in God’s mission. They have carried out vigorous evangelistic programmes for the purpose of saving individual souls, but have left untouched situations in which people are being systematically “sinned against” (Raymond Fung). Some churches, however, have shown considerable sensitivity to the problems and challenges taking place in the larger human communities in which they are situated, and have intentionally attempted to respond to them in prophetic ways. In some instances, where the official position of established (mainline) churches have been characterized by “neutrality” and tentativeness, some sensitive people within their fold, both clergy and lay, have opted to live out their Christian faith by a single-minded commitment to action aimed at radically changing dehumanizing situations. Where their own churches have stayed at the sidelines they have joined peoples’ movements that struggle for the kind of future that will ensure fullness of life to suffering and struggling peoples not only for rice but also for human dignity. They have opted to be with people, sharing their suffering and hope and determined to “...proclaim (by) word (and) by their own efforts the power that will permit them to guarantee the satisfaction of their needs and the creation of authentic conditions of liberation” (Tissa Balasuriya, “Theologizing from the Other Side of the World”, Logos, Vol. 20, No. 3, Sept. 1981, p.31). With people they are saying “No” to anti-life forces and “Yes” to human freedom and dignity. They have made common cause with people who affirm that as subjects of history they are committed to a radical process that will ensure their true liberation and authentic humanhood. In such a process they have demonstrated a spirituality not only of meditation but also

a spirituality of involvement and engagement of active obedience, and collective commitment  towards a new social order and political well-being; of sacrifice and service to the people that is embodied in a life-style of econo­mic discipline, sharing and mutuality; of a sense of enmity and anger to those things that cause the suffer­ings of many; of undying courage and love and of longings for justice and freedom for all. (Feliciano Carino, “What About the Theology of Struggle?”,  in Religion and Society, Manila: FIDES, 1988, p.xii)

     Such a spirituality means no less than an act of sharing in the broken Body of Christ for the healing of the world, a commitment to the mandate to give oneself to God and to the world so that God may be honoured and that all may enjoy God’s gracious gift of fullness of life.

     It may again be called to mind that for practitioners of the praxis type of contextual theology commitment to action for radical social change is the first act of theology, followed by reflection on that action, issuing in further action and reflection in an ongoing spiral process. In doing that, they claim that they can develop a theology that is truly relevant to a particular context in Asia. But this “theology from below” recognizes the salutary importance of grass-roots people who play a central role in acting on their situation. They are the primary theologians even though they arti­culate their faith mainly in an oral form. Professionally trained theologians relate to them not as teachers having all the answers to peoples’ questions, but as co-learners, theologizing with, not for, people within, not apart from, their particular contexts. The role of a professional theologian is similar to that of a midwife: to help facilitate the process of giving birth to peoples’ theology. He/she can make available to people his/her conceptual tools, analytical skills and the power to put together disparate ideas in organized and coherent form. He/she has to learn to trust in peoples’ capacity to reflect critically for themselves. At the same time, as a responsible partner in the birthing-of-peoples’-theology process, he/she should be prepared to challenge them if and when that is necessary. Being for, and with, people who suffer and struggle for freedom and human dignity does not mean idolizing or idealizing them. Rather, it means that solidarity with people involves a ministry of enabling them to experience ongoing renewal as they engage in a process of bringing about radical change to situations that have held them in bondage. 

      A practitioner of the praxis model of theology must be prepared for surprising ways by which God’s will is discerned in context. Experience in the Philippine context has revealed that people of other faiths and ideologies popularly regarded as subversive of the Christian faith are capable of articulating profound theological knowledge and insights. Professional praxis theologians who have worked with peoples’ movements have been amazed by the single-mind commitment to the ethical values of the Kingdom of God (God’s sovereign rule in love) such as freedom, justice, righteousness and care for the welfare of people on the part of suffering and struggling people. Instead of talking about those values they live by them, even if in the process they have to face high risks. Praxis theologians have learned to be humble in the face of the surprising ways by which God’s will and ways are disclosed in the world and, through the world, to the church. They have learned to accept the fact that not only does the church have a mission to the world, the world, too, has a mission to the church.

 

Its Appeal 

      Praxis theology has come under considerable criticism particularly in its liberation theology type (e.g., in Latin America and the Philippines). Some critics have deep reservations about the use of Marxism in liberation theology. Others point to the seeming naiveté and selectiveness in its reading and interpretation of Scriptures. There are those who are unhappy about the almost exclusive emphasis on the negative aspects of society and inability “to see intermediate manifestations of grace” in society (Schreiter, op. cit., p.15). Some of these criticisms are valid; others, however, are a misunderstanding of praxis theology.

       In the main, however, the praxis model of contextual theology is “basically sound”. There are legitimate reasons for making this claim. As Bevans aptly puts it:

The praxis model gives ample room for cultural expressions of faith, while providing exciting new understandings of the scriptural and older theological witness. In some ways this model takes the concrete situations more seriously than any other model, since it regards theology not as a generally applicable, finished product that is valid at all times and in all places, but as an understanding of God’s presence in very particular situations (cf. the call of leaders of churches in New Zealand for fair housing laws and practices, the sending of “baked beens” letter to the Prime Minister to call his attention to the need for a caring society, the call to honour the spirit of a social covenant as enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi, etc.)... There is a certain permanence and even generality needed in the theological enterprise, of course, but the  praxis model offers  a corrective to theology that is too general and pretends to be universally relevant. (Bevans, op. cit., P.71)

     To this may be added the observation about  praxis  theology’s  sound theory of knowledge, its fresh understanding of revelation and its rootedness in the theological traditions of the church.

      Despite its limitations as pointed out by its critics, it commends itself in a compelling manner to those who are serious about their task of doing theology in an Asian context of suffering and hope.

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