Friday, January 22, 2010

The Importance of Contextual Theology

This posting is a continuation of what I wrote last time about the Justice Summit at William Jewell College last weekend. One of the most impressive people I met at the Summit is Robert Francis, who lives in Bates County, MO.
I had heard of Robert; a year or two ago he had spoken in a Chapel service at Jewell that I was unable to attend. So I was happy to meet him. When visiting with Robert, I asked if he is part of a Christian community. He said that he and other Native Americans like him were followers of Jesus but were not necessarily Christians.
Robert’s name card indicates that he is a Consultant/Helper with the Mid American Indian Fellowships (MAIF), and that organizational name is followed with the words, “following Jesus in the context of our Native cultures.” In a 2006 document available on the Internet, Robert writes about how a MAIF Council meeting in Springfield, MO, decided to work toward establishment of a land-based center for indigenous cultural immersion and restoration.
In the same paper, Robert says that the “overarching purpose” of MAIF is the decolonization of colonized peoples. This is in contrast to what missionaries have done through the years, he claims. Selective reading of the Gospels allowed Christian missionaries “to neglect Creator-Son’s primary work of decolonization.”
Robert’s work is a good example of both contextual and liberation theology. From the late 1970s I began teaching about the importance of contextual theology in my Introduction to Theology course at Seinan Gakuin University’s Department of Theology.
One of the best Asian examples then was Waterbuffalo Theology (1974) by Kosuke Koyama, a Japanese missionary to Thailand. And in that connection I also began to talk about the contextual liberation theologies of James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Rosemary Radford Ruether.
And just this morning I finished reading one of the most challenging books I have read for a long time: American Indian Liberation (2008) by George E. “Tink” Tinker. A member of the Osage Nation, Dr. Tinker is an ordained Lutheran minister and has since 1985 been a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Just like the Black Theology of Cone, the Indian Theology of Tinker is highly critical of much traditional (White) theology. But both are contextual theologies that those of us who are not Black or “Red,” as well as those who are, need to take very seriously.
(Here is a picture of Dr. Tinker.)


  1. I'm glad you had a chance to meet Robert Francis and would encourage you and others to read his writings.

    I'm curious to know what challenges you see posed by Dr. Tinker's work. Another question relates not to your blog specifically but to the labels generally given to theologies other than white theologies. We have liberation theologies, black theologies, Native American/indigenous theologies, contextual theologies, feminist/womanist theologies, but white male theology is just theology without a descriptor --- why is that? Also, isn't all theology contextual? Shouldn't all theologies be described in terms of those (ethnically, etc) who follow/support/assert such theologies, as we do with "minority" theologies, or, in the alternative, shouldn't we simply drop all labels/descriptors and simply refer to theology(ies) with the understanding that all theologies arise from some socio-cultural context?

  2. Another possibility is that we should all consider laying down the heavy burden of calling ourselves "Christian" and try instead being followers of Jesus. There was a time mentioned in the New Testament when the followers of the way first called themselves "Christian," so it would seem we might be at a point to consider a new designation again.

    Now this leads back to where "white" theology does have labels, like "liberal" and "fundamentalist" and "charismatic." So what would it mean to be a "follower" instead of a "Christian?" My personal spin on that would be the retirement of the great metaphysical speculative system that has come down to us in evolving form from proto-Roman Catholicism to the modern variations such as mentioned above.

    Somehow, reading Dr. Cone's book (sorry to go back there again), inspired me to pull out an old book I read long ago in college, "After Auschwitz." The author of that book, looking at the holocaust, and seeing the horrific results of the anti-Christian heresy that was the Nazis, asked whether Christianity itself was just too dangerous to be acceptable as a valid religion. Now, in fairness, his analysis really called into question Jewish foundations as well, such as the disastrous claim to be the chosen people. Is the "Christ-killer" theology so deep and so flawed as to doom Christianity itself? Well, I am only part way through the book, so I will give another report later. For now my point is that it really might not be a bad idea for any of us to think through what an alternative vision of Christianity might be. Robert Francis might be pointing The Way.

  3. As always, this blog evokes thought; I suppose we also want something to evoke action, even action regarding thought as well as thought regarding action. I'm just reading the articles CT gave us; several things come to mind, though I doubt they have a bearing upon the notion of "contextual theology." Not least are Eastman's words, "The worship of the 'Great Mystery' was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration" (4). The Hebrew prophet Micah might have been thinking similarly as he is remembered saying, "The LORD has told you mortals what is good, and what it is that the LORD requires of you: to do justice, to love loyalty, and humbly to walk with your god."

    Silence follows; there is only room for commentary, and precious little is needed. Justice, loyalty, humility. In any and all contexts, at least these three provide for clarity about what we should do, and a justification for letting our adoration of the Great Mystery be offered in silence.

  4. Let me make just a brief comment about one of the questions Chris included in his comments above. The same sort of response was received from another Thinking Friend, one who I was happy to hear from for the first time. That friend wrote,

    "Your blog today caught my attention and I read it with interest. I'm not sure if you were (or were not?) saying this, but I think ALL theology is contextual. I don't see how it can be otherwise. It's just that some people are honest enough to say it out loud and be intentional about it - and others just assume 'their context' is universal and needn't be addressed."

    I certainly think all theology is contextual, but those that are so labeled are usually minority positions that in some way challenge the dominant theology, which is primarily the theology of white European and American males.

    Until recently, it was quite clear that the latter is the main theological position which has been taught in European and American seminaries, as well as in many seminaries in other parts of the world.

    Those who began to stress contextualization have, correctly, challenged the hegemony of "traditional" theology, and there is a growing awareness, I think, that all theology is, in fact, contextual. But that doesn't mean that those in the "main stream" are fully aware of how much the context(s) helped shape the dominant theological tradition.