Contextual Theology: Medium, not Message

Contextual theology is in danger of becoming a “universal signifier” (i.e. an absolute non-contextual container) which excludes principles and norms which don’t fit our case/agenda. What is, in principle, a much-valued attempt by theology to think with, in and along a context and community (i.e. asking the community’s deepest questions, using the cultures’ voice and symbols, appropriating their models, historical horizons and ways of thinking) can, however, lead to a restricted and rigid perception of both the context itself and the redemptive responses available.

Contextual theology is wonderful if it forces us to focus on issues we never would without a prompter (e.g. whether or not Biblical inerrancy is ‘as big a deal’ in the East as it apparently is/was[?] in the West). Yet being sensitive to local concerns is not by itself a guarantee of anything truthful or right. The Pharisees, the Qumran community, the Zealots, the Sadducees, even Herod and Pilate themselves(!) could certainly claim to be acting ‘contextually’. If so, how does one arbitrate between all these varied responses to the socio-political crisis of Israel? How did Jesus himself do it?

Ironically, the justification provided by all of the Hebrew groups (including Jesus no less!) was to claim the ‘higher ground’ of an absolute norm which is binding on all i.e. faithfulness to the idea, faith and praxis of being the true people of God. In other words, the contextual horizon is a given — what’s contested is the best alignment of any specific contextual response to that which is ultimately common to all and thus beyond the “unique value-proposition” of any one group’s position.

Contextual theology’s concerns should be primarily about method or medium, not about message. Jesus’ disagreements with his contemporaries (and to this you could add Paul, Luther, etc.) was not that these competing groups weren’t contextual enough but precisely that they had failed to see how God was doing a ‘new thing’ within the context.

Judith Butler, to bring in an idea from a non-Christian feminist, suggests that cultures “are not bounded entities; the mode of their exchange is, in fact, constitutive of their identities.” (Butler, Zizek & Laclau, 2000). If context can be more or less synonymous with culture, then it may also be worth reflecting on how one context deals with something external to it is also A PART OF what it means to be ‘of that context’. This is to say that in an increasingly connected world, we’ve reached a point where everything is contextual to everything else(!), all of which makes it largely errorneous to separate one context too tightly from another.

As such, this would imply that the terms “contextual” and “non-contextual” may be more blurred than initially imagined and to the extent that it is, the entire edifice of contextual theology may be worth some serious rethink.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.