Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Theology is Contextual

In May I wrote a post about the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and the "lie of context-less judgment." I had come to the conclusion quite a long time ago that it is impossible to separate completely our decision-making from our contexts. That conclusion had led me to realize that I had lied when I told my draft board - remember draft boards? - that I would have been a conscientious objector during World War II. Of course, the question was not a legitimate one as it assumed that one could know how one would have viewed military service having been raised in a very different time. Context isn't everything, but it cannot be ignored.

I have been reading the first volume - Thinking the Faith - of Douglas John Hall's trilogy, Christian Theology in a North American Context. In that first volume, Hall devotes considerable space to laying out the reasons why theology must be contextual, and the danger of assuming that it can be anything else. Like unacknowledged and unexamined privilege, unacknowledged and unexamined context is very dangerous. When we fail to realize that our theology is contextual we can fall into the trap of thinking that it is universal and, worse yet, final.

I will not rehearse here Hall's argument but I do recommend his books to those who want to explore further the thin tradition of Theologia Crucis. (Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross was my introduction to Hall. The Cross in our Context: Jesus in Our Suffering World is the book that brought me back. Both are considerably more accessible than the trilogy. I have shared some of my thoughts about Hall and the theology of the cross in an earlier post.)

Although we have a desire for finality, for the kind of certitude which is absolute, theology, thinking about God, cannot have that kind of finality. It will always be provisional and contextual, rooted in the here and now. We make a mistake when we assume that medieval scholastic theology or the theology of the Reformation is timeless and isn't contextual. The mistake is a serious one, leading us to try to speak about God in our own contexts with ideas that can no longer convey Good News. But more importantly, simply repeating the theologies of the past won't work because the One about whom we speak is the Living God whom we have come to know as Emmanuel, God with us. Not God without us and not God with some generic us, but God with us in our particularity. The Living God who is on the move, whose work of reconciliation, of redemption is not finished. The decisive, pivotal act has been accomplished and the words of Jesus - "It is finished!" - are true, but the Last Day has not yet arrived and the missio Dei is still a going concern. As the angel said to the women at the tomb, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5) With proper respect for those who have gone before us and with proper study of their writings, we are to be about the business of thinking and talking and writing about God in our own contexts, about God with us here and now.

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