How contextual can theology really be?

by Clive Marsh.

Just how many theologies can there be? In one sense, of course, there’s a simple answer: there are as many theologies as there are people wishing to articulate what God means for and to them. But putting it like that makes the meaning of the word ‘God’ too subject to human control. If God is the reality – the one basic reality – in whom we (all living things, not just human beings) live, move and have our being, then it’s not up to us to decide who God is. That said, it’s important to recognize that no-one has the definitive definition. From within a particular religious tradition it is inevitable that claims are made that what believers in that tradition are saying about God are true. But caution, reserve, humility usually goes along with such claims. If that doesn’t happen then dominance, arrogance, even supremacy, quickly get in the way.

I’ve been wrestling with this a lot recently, noting the extent to which much theological exploration at the moment (rightly) emphasizes the significance of ‘context’ and, alongside that, ‘experience’.[1] My recent wrestling has been with the inevitability of the relative significance of particular experience and particular contexts. Both aspects are crucial to the theological task so that whatever is said of God is real, rooted, grounded, connected to the everyday, and to the actual experience of living, but it can never just be an expression or articulation of subjective, human experience presented in the form of God-language. Such a ‘theology’ may end up not speaking of God at all. But specific experience and contexts do need identifying and naming, otherwise dominant (often hidden) experiences and contexts prove decisive and the contributions of multiple voices to the theological task just don’t get heard. It’s why the so-called ‘dismantling of Whiteness’ is underway.[2]

How does all this take shape in practice? Let me give some examples. When I was in Zimbabwe some years ago working within a multi-ethnic team with a group of 13 postgraduate theology students from across 8 different African countries, a few sharp insights came to light. The openness of the group was wonderful. The Europeans in the tutor team were able to voice their (our!) hesitations about speaking of ‘African experience’. The students themselves both laughed, and were self-critical enough, to acknowledge openly that they were quite happy to speak of ‘African experience’ over against whatever may be considered ‘European’. But as soon as any further digging was done, then Kenyan, Nigerian, Liberian, Mozambiquan and Zimbabwean experience would of course become significant. In similar ways in the UK, when working with Black colleagues in theology, it is appropriate for me to recognize the importance of references to ‘the Black experience’ even though I am fully aware (and am made aware of!) the many different kinds of Black Experience (within multiply different British, Caribbean and African life-experiences).

The distinctions and nuances which are needed are not, of course, just to do with ethnicity, nationality or geography. Feminism has been challenging male dominance in Christian theology for fifty years and more. Explorations of sex and gender have now pressed much further than over-simple binary assumptions about male and female/masculine and feminine have implied. Attention to ableism and classism have come more to the fore of late. In short, the multiple voices representing the diversity of human experience in all its various forms are to be respected both locally and globally, not least because ‘all of life is here’ in any local church by the very fact that God is present.

At this point there is a real irony. As a would-be systematic theologian I remain interested in seeing how the different bits of Christian faith all fit together, inform each other, critique each other and generally enable us to get a better understanding of the God in whom we say we believe. It’s vital to hear how people of different backgrounds, with diverse experiences, and working out of differing contexts speak of Spirit, Christ, Church, Human Being, Trinity, and so on. The problem, I discovered years ago, is that it’s often assumed it’s only men (and usually White ones) who try to be systematic about faith and theology. We can, though, dispense with the word ‘system’ whilst being respectful about what systematic theologies have been trying to do. At their best they’re saying: we have a responsibility, within the constraints of all our collective human experience/s, to do the best we can to express who we think God to be. Contextually and experientially responsible Christian systematic theology is none other than the Church’s attempt to be true to the God in whom we believe and letting everyone contribute to that endeavour. Everyone may indeed have their own theology, and no-one has the definitive Christian systematic theology. But between those two extremes – what I earlier called the ‘theological task’ – is the collective effort of doing justice to the God who speaks and acts in and through all manner of different people and contexts. Articulating that is both an act of basic Christian sense-making and a form of mission.


[1] Fairly recent contributions to this site from Ed Mackenzie and Tom Greggs are relevant here.

[2] Just as an aside: I have some reservations about the actual language being used here, whilst wanting to support what is being identified and undertaken.

2 thoughts on “How contextual can theology really be?”

  1. Interesting Clive! Could it be the case that everything in theology is contextual? Incarnation and the embedded nature of the divine in all of life suggests this is so. Put another way God is not just an external being that loves us, but that God is Love. As Rohr points out this effectively universalises and secularises Christianity, and brings into question personal salvation and personal holiness. For me prayer is about looking outward from self to all that is other than self, and definitely not about self-concern. Could it be that God ONLY becomes present to us in the context of our ethical concern for others?

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  2. In Ephraim Lessing’s play, Nathan the Wise, an old Jew is brought before a sultan and required to say on pain of death which of the three Abrahamic religions – Islam, Christianity or Judaism – is true. In response to the question, he tells the story of Gyges who had a ring that made the wearer love everyone and in turn be loved by all. This ring had been handed down from father to favourite son for generations. Gyges, who had three sons, was in a dilemma because he loved all of them equally. He resolved the problem by having two copies made secretly and just before his death he gave each of his sons privately one of the rings.

    Each son thought he had the one true ring. When the sons discovered that their brothers were also claiming to have the ring they were each sure that they alone had received, there was a great argument between them. They eventually asked a judge to rule which ring was the original. He listened to their story; then reminded them of the qualities that the ring possessed. He pointed out that from the way they lived their lives, people would soon know who had the genuine ring.

    We are not called to win theological arguments nor to create creeds and catechisms. We are not called just to preach good news but to be good news. Being good news is the best way of sharing good news.

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