Cultural Context -- A Source for Doing Theology

When we think about God, what informs our thinking? What resources do we rely upon? As a Christian, I would say I turn to Scripture. But as important as Scripture might be to my understanding of God, is that all that I bring to the table?

John Wesley's Quadrilateral is often appealed to as a foundation for doing theology -- Scripture/Revelation, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. My own tradition has placed great emphasis, especially in its earliest years on Scripture and Reason. Ours was a reasonable faith -- as should be expected of a tradition informed by John Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism. We've been suspicious of experience, especially that of the exuberant kind. As for Tradition, well, we've always prided ourselves on being non-creedal (though to be honest, it was a non-creedalism in the sense that creeds have not been made tests of fellowship). That being said, we bring our history, our experience, and yes our rationality to our engagement not just with Scripture, but to our encounter with God.

But what might culture add to the conversation? Chalice Press has issued a most significant theological work for the Disciples of Christ. Entitled Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology (edited by Peter Goodwin Heltzel it was published this fall -- 2008). This book, of which I'll be saying more about in the coming weeks and months, raises cultural issues. It reminds us that we live in a post-colonial world and a multi-cultural nation. Things have changed, and we must take these changes into context.

In a chapter written by Peter Heltzel and Don Browning entitled: "Practicing Reconciliation: A Methodological Proposal," we are confronted with the issue of culture and its impact on how we do theology and practice our faith. They rely on Hans-George Gadamer's work on hermeneutics for their proposal.

So, what is theology?

"Theology is a practical discipline, an ongoing conversation between human others who worshipfully engage the Divine Other. Human truth entails going beyond a simple mechanistic account of human affairs. Gadamer notes: "According to Kierkegaard, it is the other who breaks into my ego-centeredness and gives me something to understand. This Kierkegaardian motif guided me from the beginning." This transcendence is based on the Divine Other that breaks into human reality through the human other giving us a subject and context to understand. In order to understand the subject in front of us embodied in the face of the other, we need to have a conversation. The gospel moment in our three-step practical theology [gospel, historical, constructive] looks in two directions at once -- first, trying to describe, interpret, and understand the human other in her or his context and second, trying to describe, interpret, and understand the Divine Other, mediated in history, that is the foundation of both other and self. This threefold practical interpretive process is naive and impressionistic in its first phase and must be tested and matured through historical theology and constructive-strategic amplification. This is why practical theology, in its first gospel step in both confessional and descriptive modes, should be humble. Faith's first impressions have not be tested. (Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, Chalice Press, 2008, p. 76).

Don Browning is well known for his explorations and development of practical theology, which I don't want to go into at this moment. The question I want to raise concerns the necessity to take into consideration the context in which we live -- the situation that we find ourselves in and how that influences how we see God. Feminist, Liberationist, and other formulations ask us to consider life experience as a foundational piece in doing theology. Experience tends to be personal, but context is communal.

I welcome your thoughts on this idea that we should consider our cultural context in our act of doing theology.


Anonymous said…
I like the engaging post, but I will admit I would love to hear more about a contextual way to look at this question. Meaning.. my brain is to small to understand the philosophical element.. but when I hear culture and religion in the same sentence, I can't help but cringe.

Don't get me wrong.. most of my current religious is culture driven. The fact we are talking on a blog, the church setting, the music, etc.. is all culture driven. Theology is effected too.. but the question is should culture change theology? As a conservative and your liberal bent.. I know where we would fall on this issue. However, the issue should really come down to fundamental, core doctrinal statement. The "non negotiables" if you will. Post modern tells me there is no such thing.. but I would stand firm to differ on this.

More simply put.. the current post modern culture wants to dynamite pillars of the faith.. its those issues I most worry about. (But I may be WAY off what your question is)

Anonymous said…
I used to think that Scriptural interpretation should be static: what Scripture meant to one generation it should also mean to another generation.

I have come to an understanding that God speaks to each of us in a language and in a context we are able to understand. So too, God speaks to each generation in a voice and with a message which is appropriate to the context of that generation. Some messages span generations, some are more limited. James and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 demonstrate just this process with regard to the application of Hebrew law to the new generation of Gentile Christians.

The message of God and the voice of God are not static recordings. Just one example: when Jesus and the first generation of His Apostles walked the earth, His followers formed a small group which was an tiny offshoot of a minority religion operating under a government which was growing increasingly hostile to the group and its beliefs. The original messages of Scripture were directed to the nascent Christian community confronting that state of affairs. Then for 1500 years the Christian community was the religion of the ruling powers. Nowadays, members of formal Christian communities are becoming a minority in most countries. In response to those three contexts, the messages from God adjusted and adapted, speaking something different. The messages and the changes in the messages are not always recognized, but I have faith that Scripture as God's tool of self-revelation is dynamic, organic and vigorous enough to adapt to God's will.

I understand that Scripture is God's voice in this world. Sure there are divine disclosures in nature and there is private revelation, but for most of us, Scripture remains the primary medium through which God speaks to us, individually, as communities of faith, and as generations of believers.

Culture doesn't change theology or Scripture, but changing cultural contexts call upon both theology and Scripture to respond with aid of the Spirit to bring enlightenment to humanity in ways which address issues and circumstances as they are now, and not 2000 years ago.

So too each of us has to learn to listen to the messages of Scripture with new ears and with the help of the Spirit within us or we will miss out on the chance to hear the Word of God.


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