How often I have heard the story of the six blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. Each man felt with his hands a different part of the elephant. Each man described the elephant in a different way based on what he felt and what he knew of the world. The man near the elephant’s tail said that the elephant was like a rope. The man who felt the animal’s ear said it was like a fan. And so on. The truth of the elephant remained. It was not altered by the way in which it was described by each man. And each man spoke the truth in a relative way. The point, of course, is that each man’s description of the elephant was limited by his perspective, however accurate that perspective might be. None could describe the whole elephant. Further, since none of the men had a language to precisely describe what the elephant felt like, they used metaphors of things common in their world or their context: a rope, a wall, a fan, a cave.
Stephen B. Bevans writes, “There is no such thing as “theology”; there is only contextual theology…”  He goes on to describe contextual theology as adding a third theological source to the traditional study of God. Traditional theology considers Scripture and tradition as the two primary sources of information, while contextual theology adds the present human experience, or context. Bevans provides a solid argument for why such an approach is necessary: in order to understand the truth it must be described in a manner that makes sense in the culture or context that it is being studied. This makes sense to me in many ways. I try to equip my students to be able to interpret and communicate with fluidity as they move in and out of different contexts. This means being able to recognize and speak the language of their family when they are with family, and then to be able to recognize and speak the language of their future workplace, for example) when they are in that setting.
The challenge in this ability to understand and communicate in different contexts is multiple. First, we tend to always be most fluent in our first language. That means when we translate to other languages or contexts we might not always be as accurate or even appropriate. Second, it is difficult not to compromise self when living and communicating in multiple contexts. In the instance of theology and God, it is difficult to not try and adapt Him TO our context, as opposed to finding the best way to experience Him within the context. We need to try, as best as we are able, to communicate the truth of Him as a consistent whole, or else we wind up with an elephant that looks like a collage of images and ideas.
These things being said, we also live with the reality that none of us has a perfect understanding of God and the truth. We interpret these things through our contexts. None of us are purely objective.
Jesus often taught in parables, using stories that made sense in the context of his time and place and culture to reveal truths about God. Though many people can make inferences about the meaning of various parables, the deeper our understanding of the context, the greater our understanding of the story. Further, as we increase our understanding of the original context of the story, it helps us to translate the truth principles into our own context. The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology  brings together a variety of scholars to reflect on how two of Jesus parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, might be used to guide current discourse on public issues such as justice, victimization, and compassion. In each parable, the deeper one’s understanding of the context of the situation, the greater our ability to interpret and apply the story in our own setting.
All of this said, I come to wonder how objective any of us can ever be in describing God, both to those from our own contexts and those in different contexts, whether public, secular, Christian, national, urban or other cultural context. Last year when we read Sarah Pink’s work on visual and sensory ethnography , I struggled with her claim that ethnography could never truly be objective. It was always skewed by one’s personal experiences, cultural context, and place. But I have come to see this as more and more accurate. Though we might try to retain an ideal of non-biased objectivity, in our human condition it simply is not possible. Though the truth of God Himself is not altered, our understanding and our ability to communicate who He is will ever be anchored in our understanding of the world in which we live.
Perhaps the greater challenge is helping others to recognize this limitation. As I read stories in which the authors relate their experiences in physical spaces – Cuba, London, Los Angeles, New York – I travel with them in my mind. I find that the more I travel, the more I am able to attempt to go to those spaces in my mind. As other’s lives and values and theologies are informed by their experiences and contexts, I am better able to try and understand because I have caught glimpses of their realities. But can I fully understand? No.
I have focused my research on the idea of Cultural Empathy. I argue to my students that everything that they’ve been taught about empathy is not true. Most have been taught that empathy is the ability to intuitively understand another person’s feelings. I tell them that this is simply not possible. None of us experiences the same feelings in the same way because it is always impacted by our perceptions of events, the experiences we have lived, and the other factors that make up our culture and context. Rather, I teach them that cultural empathy is the attempt to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other based on their context.
I think then, that our task in theology is to recognize the limitations of our humanity, yet focus on trying, as best as we are able, to tell the story of God in a manner that our audience can understand. Without compromising God. Whatever that might mean.
Postscript: I really, really wanted to write about the reflections by Sheila Briggs and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz . I found myself caught up in their stories of place and identity and how this shapes who we are and how we live. I thought about how I can both relate to the ideas about place – buildings, streets and fields – and relationship with people in those places as deep parts of my own identity. So I decided to include this quote from Jack Kerouac that speaks to the reflective space in me that these two articles invoked:
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. (On the Road)
 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013, p. 3.
 David J. Neville, ed., The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology, Eugene, OR: WIPF & Stock Publishers, 2014.
 Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, Los Angeles: Sage, 2007; Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography, Los Angeles: Sage, 2009.
 Sheila Briggs, “Taking the Train: A Theological Journey through Contemporary Los Angeles County”, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, “La Habana: The City that Inhabits Me,” in Spirit in the Cities: Searching for the Soul in the Urban Landscape, Kathryn Tanner, Ed., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.