Limits To Contextuality

Contextuality, however, is unlikely by itself to be able to provide a totally secure anchorage for theology in the modern, or post-modern, age. In the first place, Christian theology springs not solely from a social context, but from the engagement of the scriptural and doctrinal tradition with the questions and challenges of the context. That is well understood by liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Miguez-Bonino and Clodovis Boff, and by feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether—provided of course debate is allowed on precisely what 'the tradition' is! But it is also the case that 'context' itself always has to be held open to examination. In certain important respects, liberation or contextual theology shares the critical stance of the Marxist or post-Marxist 'hermeneutics of suspicion': claims to absolute truth harbour agendas of social control and dominance (or, at least, defensive self-justification) and should therefore be exposed for what they are. However, once the dynamics of suspicion are set in play, who is to say when they should be halted? Revolutions have a habit of being devoured by their own children. Should liberation, contextual and feminist theologies themselves be beyond suspicion in this respect? Have they identified their 'context' accurately enough—and who is to be arbiter on this question? As a black South African theologian, Itumeleng Mosala, observes in a critical comment on self-styled 'contextual theology': '[All] theology is contextual theology. The real question is.. .what is the socio-political context out of which a particular theology emerges and which it serves' (Mosala 1985:103f). That question has to be put even to those theologies claiming to be 'from below' in their perspective. No such claims can enjoy immunity from inspection. While indeed they are consciously seeking to speak from a certain context, other contextual elements apart from those of which they are aware may also be at work. European and North American 'radicals' may, to their Third World readers, appear to be European and North American in their presuppositions at least as much as 'siding with the oppressed'.

There is a clear danger in the emphasis on the contextual, of Christian theology committing itself to a process of fragmentation, resulting in a multiplicity of peculiar theologies unable to communicate with each other, and each tending to claim the absoluteness of the significance of its contextual and cultural setting over all others. This danger is being clearly recognized in current ecumenical theology where, precisely because of the global and international (as well as inter-confessional) nature of ecumenical relationships, the diversity of expression of Christian belief is becoming starkly apparent. This emerged clearly at the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia, in 1991 (see WCC 1991). There, the claims by some Third World theologians that the Gospel must be radically inculturated in the thought-forms of particular contexts—including the forms of traditional indigenous religions—provoked strong reactions from more conservative Western Protestants as well as Orthodox representatives. It was in particular the Korean theologian Chung Hyun Kyung who sparked controversy. Concluding her presentation on the Holy Spirit, she stated:

For me the image of the Holy Spirit comes from the image of Kwan In. She is venerated as the goddess of compassion and wisdom by East Asian women's popular religiosity. She is a bodhissattva, enlightened being. She can go into nirvana any time she wants to, but refuses to go into nirvana by herself. Her compassion for all suffering beings makes her stay in this world enabling other living beings to achieve enlightenment. Her compassionate wisdom heals all forms of life and empowers them to swim to the shore of nirvana. She waits and waits until the whole universe, people, trees, birds, mountains, air, water, become enlightened. They can then go to nirvana together where they can live collectively in eternal wisdom and compassion. Perhaps this might also be a feminine image of the Christ who is the first-born among us, one who goes before and brings others with her.

This passage focuses, as few others could, one of the critical challenges of contemporary theology, set as it is in the context of global pluralism on the one hand, while acting as trustee for the particularity of the Christian tradition on the other.

Within ecumenism, the issue is also becoming central within the Faith and Order movement in particular. As one recent ecumenical study document states:

Diversity used to be considered acceptable and containable because there was a universal framework of theological understanding acknowledged by the whole Church. Now the universal framework itself is under radical attack. In the absence of clarity about what is to be believed 'at all times, everywhere, and by all' (Vincent of Lerins), local variety looks quite different and raises questions which cause great difficulty.

(WCC 1993a:19)

At the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1993 the relationship of diversity to unity in the faith, the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate diversity, the relation between the Gospel and different cultures, were all recognized to be crucial challenges of the hour (see WCC 1993b). The extent to which the contextual tide will run should not, however, be exaggerated in advance. Even when it comes to speaking on social issues, which one would imagine would encourage the greatest possible contextual perspective in different regions of the world, there is a surprising degree of consensus irrespective of geographical and cultural location (Ellingsen 1993:20).

Questions about the unity of Christian belief, and the essence around which that unity coheres, are therefore as much a part of contemporary theological debate as they were in previous generations. The theological debate, however, has generated a new question: just how important is theology itself, for defining the acceptable limits of belief in the Christian community? Or, put another way, is doctrinal and theological precision the only means by which the integrity of the believing community can be assured? In part, the question has emerged (or re-emerged) in the last quarter-century because of the resurgence in Western Christianity of a new interest in spirituality, or what is traditionally called in Orthodox circles mystical theology. This puts a premium on prayer rather than on theological formulation, on an integrated wholeness of living rather than exact intellectual consistency and uniformity of belief. An Anglican theologian, Stephen Sykes, has challenged the assumed rights of theology, by itself, to determine the boundaries of the community and its unifying beliefs, and indeed suggests that conflict is necessarily inherent within the Christian tradition. 'Christians do discuss their doctrines, and they must do so in a sensitive way; but Christianity is also a community of worshippers, and this fact makes for a decisive difference' (Sykes 1984:261). It is worship, rather than theology or doctrine, which is the crucial organizational context for the community.

Rituals.. .have the function of restoring a system of meaning by constant repetition and committal to memory, and by the reabsorption of individuals into the common fabric. They are the counterpoint to the detachment of rational thought, and are the appropriate means for the expression of profound commitment.

This is by no means to detract from the task of theology which, like any human enterprise, fails if it attempts just too much.

It is in fact at this point that, for all the conflicts and divergences, one can detect a significant convergence in theology now. Theology is perhaps more aware than ever before of the metaphorical and parabolic nature of its language. The recovery of orthodoxy as right-worship rather than simply right-believing (pace Solle, above), and the liberation theologians' emphasis upon ortho-praxis (right-doing), have both contributed to this new perspective. So too, from otherwise contrasting approaches, has the neo-orthodox stress on the transcendence of God on the one hand, and the radical 'non-realist' view of the symbolic nature of religious language on the other. 'The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over.' (Bonhoeffer 1971:279). Theology has always been wont to quote poetry. If earlier generations had a fondness for Robert Browning and Francis Thompson, it is perhaps still T.S.Eliot who expresses the hope no less than the frustrations of theology now:

Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Will not stay still.

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