Fully-immersed: The Contextuality of Contact
“There is no such thing as ‘theology’; there is only contextual theology,” writes Stephen Bevans in his Models of Contextual Theology. There are a number of critics that take him to task for this statement and also for limitations they see in his six (used to be five; Bevans made it six in the current expanded edition) categorizations of “types” of contextual theologies that he delineates: Translation; Anthropological; Praxis; Synthetic; Transcendental; Countercultural. Some people see the first statement as an unfalsifiable claim and see the categorizations as ironic metaanalyses contradicting the very nature of contextuality.
Well…okay…to an extent. However, overall, I don’t buy the critiques.
To suggest that we are finite and subjective doesn’t ipso facto mean that we are completely solipsistic condemned to infinite, unmitigable relativism. As well, yes, categorizations are limiting and limited tools, but they are often ‘necessary evils’ allowing for further conceptualization. The key is to keep boundaries understood as semi-permeable.
To play a bit loose with terminology, I lean toward practical application (the contextualization) rather than systematization of public theology. I note this to just emphasize my appreciation of ‘the particular’ and of ‘the present moment’ before noting that I think sometimes people should be a bit less cranky about limitations of categorization. Of course categories are limiting; that’s actually the point. It means to bring comprehensible order to the vast cacophony of data that is existence. Apparently the silver lining of doing this is that it gives people room to offer critique and publish more articles and books. 🙂
In the midst of Bevans offering us some overview and categorization, Tanner’s Spirit in the Cities. gives us a closer example of the particularity of first-hand narrative arising out of lived experience – particularly for her, shifting from car to train as transportation in LA, USA after having been broken of the automobile habit while residing in London, England. The exceptionally simple and rather mundane act of riding public transportation allowed Tanner to see with new eyes the connectivity of the world in which she lived. As I have often said, “it is difficult to establish and sustain empathy without proximity.”
Rounding out the ideas presented by Bevans and Tanner is a book by David Neville titled, The Bible, Justice and Public Theology. I’ve already quickly noted the term public theology above. Neville does a great job moving into this vast topic in his introductory chapter to this substantive reader. He sums up the topic well in a just a couple of sentences by noting Jim Wallis being fond of saying, “Christian faith may be personal, but it is never strictly private” and Jurgen Moltmann noting, “From the perspectives of its origins and its goal, Christian theology is public theology, for it is the theology of the kingdom of God.”
Neville’s compare and contrast of public theology and political theology is important. In offering his thoughts he lands on noting that public theology is a broader conceptualization of theological structuring of social life. And vitally, he suggests – in my opinion – that public theology tends to be a bottom-up approach while political theology tends toward a top-down approach. I offer this as my opinion because he specifically notes at one point that public theology shares a top-down conviction like political theology. However, the author goes on to further note that he means for this similarity to be understood to be the case in relation to a sense of connection with the Divine, not as necessarily related to human interconnectivity and communication.
I greatly appreciated the author’s connecting with Hauerwas and the Anabaptist tradition – both its moral/ethical components as well as its strategic orientations – in discussing both the strengths and the difficulties of moving forward related to seeking the betterment of society. But perhaps most of all, I appreciated his discussion of Christ’s genius in using parables as a strategic function of seeking to elicit the deepest affective as well as cognitive responses in his listeners. Far too the socio-political acumen of Christ gets lost in an inappropriately dichotomized and un-grounded spirituality. It was great to see this not happen to be the case in these three texts.
These texts remind me of one of my favorite quotes. The quote is by G.K. Chesterton, “Heaven is a house with a hundred gates and no two people enter at exactly the same angle.” There’s enough difference to go around, but we’re also all in this together.
 Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 3.
 Kathryn Tanner, Spirit in the Cities (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009).
 David Neville, The Bible, Justice and Public Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 26.
 Ibid., 28.
2 responses to “Fully-immersed: The Contextuality of Contact”
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I love reading your writing — always good insights!
This was tough reading for me. I am not much of a theologian, although I know we all are theologians in our own ways. I guess my beef with some of the theology that is coming out today is my wondering if some of these authors might have something more practical to do with their time. But then what would we have to read for class? 🙂
On a more serious note, I thought there were some good insights in some of the reading for this week. Contextualizing theology is an important topic that must be practiced more often, particularly by those entering different cultures. Too often when this is not done, we end up with a “one-size-fits-all” kind of Christianity that doesn’t work well anywhere, let alone in a new cultural setting. This breaks my heart since I have seen it too often in places I have been.
I want to thank you for the Chesterton quote. I will use that. Would love to chat about your thoughts on that quote over noodles in Hong Kong!
Clint, I always enjoy reading your writing. My vocabulary is enhanced and my mind is stretched with the intricacies of your thoughtful analysis of our readings. I so much agree that public theology is kingdom theology for it is theology done for the greater good. It is a theologian who thinks and analyzes taking into account scripture, tradition, and history in the context of the biblical writing and then deciphers and brings forth an interpretation that blesses the society and addresses the injustices of his current civilization, he is the one that does authentic Theology. That is what I believe to be good contextual theology and public theology. As you noted it is a top-down theology. However, it is a top down from the Supreme Being himself. This is where all theology ought to originate, from the top, i.e. God himself.
Lastly I appreciate your quote from GK Chesterton. He is one of my favorite authors though I do not get a chance to read him as often as I would like.
Bless you my brother. Continue to press on and inspire us to greater depth of academic thought and progress.