Chapter 10: The Contours of Third World Contextual Theologies, by Felix Wilfred
(Felix Wilfred is Professor at the Department of Chrisitianity, University of Madras, India.)
When I recall Dr. K.C. Abraham’s great contributions to theology, a threefold “E” comes to my mind: They are Ecumenism, Ethics and EATWOT (Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians). In all these areas he has made his mark. It would be appropriate I thought that in a volume meant to honor him, I should take up for reflection some line of thought that is closer to his own theological vision. With the following reflections on contextual theologies of the Third World, I wish to express my appreciation of this great ecumenical and Third World theologian on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday.
One of the stories collected by a popular story-teller in India goes something like this:1 Once a parachutist found himself caught up in a storm, and he was swept off several kilometers away from his original destination. He landed on the top of a tree, and was only happy his life was saved. He saw someone passing by, and called out to him and asked, “Sir, can you tell me, where I am?” Came the answer, “You are on the top of a tree.” The parachutist said.” Are you a theologian?” At this the other man was simply wonder-struck. He asked the parachutist. “Yes I am, but how do you know that?”. The parachutist replied. “Oh that is easy. Because what you said is correct, but useless!”
Theology can state many correct things, and yet become quite useless and even ridiculous when it fails to identify its topos, its location. A general theology would be a theology on the top of a tree, in the clouds. That is why every theology has to be really located, has to be contextual. This is what the experiences in our Third World societies continue to impress upon us.
In the shorter first part of this article, I will try to highlight the difference of Third World contextual theologies by contrasting it with other types of theology in contemporary times, and in the second part, I shall attempt to delineate in seven sutras (aphorisms) some of the salient features of contextual theologies.
Contextual Theology – A Different Approach
There are several ways in which the contemporary trends in theology could be characterized. My purpose is not to go into any detailed survey of these various trends. My purpose here is to highlight the newness and difference represented by contextual theology. With this in view, I would like to make three typologies with one or other of which most theological attempts in recent years could be identified. Against these three types, one will be able to understand better the originality of contextual theologies of the Third World.
1. If we view the developments in and around the Council Vatican II, we can notice how the project of going back to the resources (resourcement) constituted an important force for the renewal in theology that had turned arid through exaggerated ratiocination and speculation. By bringing into theological reflection the early Christian and artistic sources, there came into being the so-called ‘new theology’ (theologie nouvelle). One must acknowledge the merit of this theological enterprise whose influence in the Council and in the post-Conciliar period has been remarkable. It brought greater historical concreteness to faith, to Church, to the Scriptures. It contributed to the overcoming of Tridentism.
This theological orientation has also its implicit hermeneutics. The hermeneutics at work in this type of theology is a hermeneutics of retrieval. The assumption is that the true and authentic lies in the past, in tradition. Consequently the present experiences are judged as either conforming to the tradition or as deviations and distortions to be overcome by recapturing the original. In biblical studies this method of retrieval is exemplified in the historico-critical method which attempts to reconstruct the original setting of the text and the meaning of the author.
Let me illustrate the difference of this theology from contextual theology, with reference to the issue of the local church. A theology of renewal would see the importance of a local church by contrasting it with a centralized and universal ecclesiology of the Middle Ages. It would recall the importance of locality, place. The local of the local church is with reference to the place where eucharistic celebration takes place (epi to auto). It would underline the importance of the Word of God, episcopal ministry, etc. as constituting the essential ingredients of the local church. Further, in contrast to an universalistic and centralized ecclesiology, it would remind us that the Church is a communion of churches.
Contextual theology does not deny the importance of all this. However, its starting point lies somewhere else. It rests on the conviction that the anthropological precedes the theological. This is a very foundational principle. If we begin from the anthropological foundations, then we have to go deep into the world of the culture of a people and its understanding of what is to be a community, and study the already existing forms of togetherness, community, group, etc. Then it has to enter into the conflicts and contradictions that characterize a particular situation and the struggles that are being gone through to become truly a people, a community. A contextual theology of the local church will begin from the cultural reality, from contextual experiences.
2. The second type of theology is one that wants to explain and justify faith in relation to contemporary philosophical and cultural quest. It has a strong anthropological basis in relation to which truths of faith are explained and made relevant. It tries to build a bridge between our faith and philosophy by investigating the transcendental conditions for the possibility of understanding the various truths of our faith by probing into the very foundational structure of the human spirit. We have the foremost representatives of this type of theology in K. Rahner. As expressed in the preface to his Foundations of Christian Faith, his theological intention was “to reach a renewed understanding of this message and to arrive at an ‘idea’ of Christianity . . . and . . . try as far as possible to situate Christianity within the intellectual horizon of people today.”2 This theology so rich in its speculative rigor and so very influential, turned out to be something which tried to respond mostly to the spiritual and cultural situation of the postwar Europe, and is quite removed from our Third World situation.
3. A third type of theology is represented by a revised co-relational model. It is called “revised” to distinguish it from the co-relational model of liberal tradition. Here the concern is to reinterpret Christianity as well as the contemporary situation in their mutual and critical relationship. At an international seminar held in Tubingen a few years ago, one tried to characterize this type of approach to theology as a paradigm shift. The shift envisaged is from the de-historical post-Tridentine model of theology as the bastion of certitudes to a model in which Christian understanding of faith takes place in the midst of changing modem situations.
Though the theology here is co-relational, nevertheless, one can see that its chief axis is on the interpretation of Christianity and its tradition resulting from the contemporary (Western) situation. In the words of David Tracy who summarized the proceedings of the seminar, “In one sense, this hermeneutical formulation is simply a rendering explicit and deliberate of the fact which unites all forms of theology: that every Christian theology is interpretation of Christianity.”
Here lies the chief difference. Contextual theology is not primarily interpretation of Christianity and its tradition. It is interpretation of life and is in service of life and its promotion, and in defense of life when it is threatened. We need to only recall at this point the words of Jesus: “I have come to give life, and life in abundance” (John 10:10). Contextual theology is interpretation of life in concrete context as lived, as practiced. In service of this goal, theoretical frameworks and interpretations come into existence. To the extent Christian faith is brought in relation to the promotion of life and its defense, it acquires the character of a living faith giving birth to a living contextual theology.
The differentiation we have made permits us to glean through some of the features of contextual theologies. With that I come to the second part of this contribution.
Some Salient Aspects Of Contextual Theology
Attempting to delineate commonalities of various contextual theologies would go against the spirit and orientation of them. In spite of the unique nature of each particular context, we can observe certain convergences. On this basis, I want to highlight some of the salient features of contextual theology.
By context is not meant simply the geographical locality. The fact that theologies are pursued in Asia, or Latin America does not turn them into contextual theologies. For, as we know from experience, right in the heart of Asia or Africa or Latin America there could be Mediterranean or Central European theology of medieval times very much at work. Context is made up of a people living in a determined cultural environment with its own history and tradition and amidst particular neighbors. Context is made up as well by the contemporary socio-political realities in the midst of which life is carried on. Contextual theology could also come out of particular experiences which cannot be reduced neither to geographical, cultural or socio-political dimensions. Such is the case for example of contextual theology that is pursued by the oppressed dalits of India. Contextual theology is a general designation, and it exists concretely as dalit theology, as eco-feminist theology, black theology, Minjung theology, etc. And in some cases, the geographical factor may circumscribe a particular contextual theology.
Contextual Theology has no pretension of being a total theology.
The preoccupation of contextual theology is not to construct a comprehensive explanatory system of faith. Contextual theology is only partial and fragmentary, but always engaged and in dialogue. In everyday life-situations when we are faced with critical issues, certain dimensions and aspects of Christian faith get accentuated. No serious Christian would wait for total clarity on all the dimensions of faith, before he or she plunges into action. Such a thing is an unrealistic pretension and it never happens in real life. With the conviction and insight faith gives here and now, we try to respond to vital issues — not seldom questions of life and death. We try to get enlightened on the situation through the light of the Gospel and bring into the context a sense of hope. In the concrete it means that we cannot have a general Christology or general ecclesiology. We get to know who Jesus Christ is concretely in the context. So too, what it is to be a community of the disciples of Jesus will depend very much on the context and not who our neighbors are.
All true theology can only be partial. Expressing paradoxically we can say that, precisely because the Ultimate Reality is total, all our theology can only be partial. This is not something new. In fact it has always been so. But the difference is that certain theologies claimed to be total theologies are unaware of the fact that they were only universalizing what has been a particular, historically and culturally limited experience. Let us take the example of Christology. There is the general assumption that the Chalcedonian formula has given us in a nutshell the essence of Christ’s mystery. And yet we know that this formula does not express all the aspects of the mystery of Jesus Christ. Where in Chalcedonian formula is the mystery of Jesus’ death, his passion and resurrection?
The partial and provisional character of contextual theologies are not to be understood as though they are waiting to be completed and made definite. Rather the partial and provisional character is the strength of contextual theology rather than its weakness. For, in this way, contextual theology understands itself as always on the way, always in search of new and wider horizons.
Here I would like to recall an experience narrated to me by a friend from Nepal who is an expert also in Buddhism. He took a group of theology students to a Buddhist monastery. After the chief monk spoke, the young students were vying with each other in putting critical questions to the monk. One of them argued this way: If Buddhism teaches that desire is the root cause of all suffering and that we should free ourselves from desires, then, there will still remain at least one desire the desire not to have desires. Perfect logic, of course! But the response of the experienced monk was simple: “This means, my friend,” said the monk, you are not yet ready for Enlightenment.”
We need to first walk a bit on the path to experience and understand it. This is how every authentic theology needs to begin. But where does this path lie? Life is today the path on which we encounter God, and it is in walking on the path of life in a determined context that true contextual theology takes flesh and bone.
Contextual theology is one that is sustained and nourished by a definite option. It is nothing but the very option of God for the poor, the powerless and the marginalized.
In its analysis, formulation, choice of sources, etc. contextual theology is centered on what happens to those who are continuously pushed to the margins of society. It is through identification with the excluded that contextual theology derives its power and incisiveness; it acquires its true evangelic character.
If it is true that the quality of a civilization is judged ultimately not by anything else but by the way it treats its weaker ones, this can be applied in a way to theologies too. The various theologies can be judged on the basis of the extent the poor figure in its overall framework and orientation.
What is remarkable is the fact that this definite option of contextual theology represents a crucial turning point in the history of theology. For, if we look back the path theology has traversed, we can note that for the past one thousand years the central preoccupation of theology has been to assert its scientific character and within this dynamic to reconcile the demands of reason with the truths of faith. As I see, the different theologies since then have been variations on this fundamental motif or paradigm.
It is for the first time with the emergence of contextual theologies of the Third World, this foundational scientific paradigm of theology has been broken. And that explains much of the conflict and misunderstanding between the classical theologies of the First World and theologies of the Third World. Through what may appear as loss of its scientific character, contextual theology gains in its evangelical quality. It is not a matter of bidding good-bye to reason, but to rediscover reason through another path. Here is the case, wherein, to quote Pascal, “the heart has its reasons which the reason does not understand.” Here is the case in which — to state with contemporary Taiwanese theologian C.S. Song — theology starts with the aching of the heart. This option for the poor and the marginalized will turn all contextual theologies into truly theologies of the heart, into theologies of liberation. If the option for the marginalized impregnates contextual theology with evangelical spirit, it is the same Gospel which demands it to be truly prophetic.
Contextual theology calls for a different conception of universality.
Relating particularity with universality is one of the crucial philosophical questions of today which has far-reaching consequences and implications in all fields — political, cultural, economic, religious, etc. The same problem is reflected in the field of theology also. The problem is concretely posed in terms of how we could reconcile the universality of faith or the Gospel and the particularity of theology as represented by contextual theologies.
In the first place, it is not proper to contrast the universality of faith with the particularity of the context. For, faith or Gospel is as much particular, concrete as it is universal. The problem lies somewhere else. What is required is that we need to revise and redefine our conception of universality. In other words, contextual theology requires revision of the dominant understanding of the universal which is still very much marked by the ecclesial praxis and attitudes of 19th century Europe.
We gain a proper understanding of the question involved if we widen our perspective and view it as part of the larger question of the relationship between the Gospel and culture. There is a sense in which we can and ought to speak of faith being above cultures. But what is meant by “above” is not simply that we refer to a “transcendental signified” existing outside the concrete encounter of the Gospel and culture. If we have truly various cultural forms of faith, we need to also recognize that none of them is capable of expressing all the aspects and dimensions of faith. Every form stands in relation to others. What we call “above” is in reality the recognition of the inherent limitations of each cultural form of faith-expression and an invitation to reach out to other forms through dialogue. There takes place, then, truly a communion of faith which is at the same time a communion of cultures. This dialogue and communion are truly the way for saving the faith from being reduced to any one particular self-enclosed cultural form. Such a dialogue appears to be also the best way to effectively maintain the authenticity and orthodoxy of our faith.
Implicit in all this is the difference in the understanding of universality. No culture, no people, no institution can lay claim that Christian faith is its possession. It belongs to the whole of humanity, to all the peoples. The problem arises when one culture, one tradition pretends to be the judge and the normative instance for the faith of other peoples, other cultures and other traditions. Here then arises the conflict of universalities. To those who believe that the expression “inculturation” could still be redeemed from the misconceptions to which it is open, it should be made clear that such redemption would require, in the first place, the undergirding of the concept with a fresh and different conception of universality. If we arrive at the realization that faith is above cultures through the recognition of the limitation of all its particular expressions, we become aware of its universality by recognizing the richness of each and every cultural expression of the same faith.
In other words, we need to recognize that there is transcendence of faith. It is above cultures. But this “above” or transcendence is not achieved by creating a form of formula that is supposed to be common to all, or a form that would not belong to anyone. Rather, the “above” is primarily in the fact that no culture is able to adequately express the Christian faith, and therefore the concrete forms of Christianity as lived among the various peoples need to be in dialogue and communion with one another. Unfortunately, because of excessive centralization such a process of horizontal dialogue among people of different cultures has not really started.
In short, contextual theology calls for both rootedness and openness. None of these two poles can be given up. What that signifies could be gleaned through a thought that Gandhi made in some other context. He said that he wanted the doors and windows of his house to be wide open, but refused to be blown off his feet.
Practice of Dialogue is the foundational method of all contextual theologies.
Method is a central issue in every theologizing. It also marks off one theology from the other. Where theology has been conceived as an intellectual activity, method served to build up a system of explanation for the understanding of faith — fides quaerens intellectum. But when we understand theology as having its point of departure in the real and is centered on life, then we need a method that corresponds to such an-approach. Dialogue is the process and method through which contextual theologizing takes place. I think it is appropriate to perceive contextual theology today as “vita quaerens dialogum” (life-seeking dialogue). Dialogue is open-ended. It is the pedagogue leading us by hand into the wondrous land of the Ultimate Mystery. The path of contextual theology is not so much one from faith to the clarity of knowledge about it, but rather a movement from life to the faith-experience of its mystery through the process of dialogue. Knowledge and understanding do have a role; they are not excluded, but subsumed into the process of dialogue.
Dialogue is involved on many fronts. The exigencies of a particular context will set the accent on one or other form of dialogue. Contextual theology means, among other things, entering into a fresh dialogical relationship with our roots, our own cultures, our own primordial language through which we are, and experience the world. Particularly important is the dialogue we foster with our neighbors of other faiths with whom we share the same context of life.
Ultimately, the method of dialogue goes to the very heart of theology itself. For, we understand the divine mystery not so much as a substance as relationship. In fact, St. John reminds us repeatedly in his Gospel and letters, that God is love. The dialogical relationship in love fostered among human beings becomes the appropriate language and sacrament for the experience and expression of the divine mystery.
In the light of all this, we can say that there is no greater preparation for doing contextual theology than to increase the capacity for dialogue. That also indicates something of the type of theological programs required in our Third World countries and the type of theologians we require.
Contextual theology is based on the conviction that God’s saving Word comes to us today concretely within our context and our historical circumstances. Context, therefore, is not only a place of questions but also of saving answers.
The goal of contextual theology is the encounter with the real. It is in the immersion of the real that one comes to experience the truth. That is precisely what incarnation is. In recognizing and encountering the real of every context we recognize the truth of God’s Word here and now. In this way, incarnation ceases to be simply an event of the past, and it becomes the very structure of our faith whereby we constantly encounter the real of God in every moment of our context. Otherwise, as Jon Sobrino rightly points out, “it would be contradictory to say that God really communicates himself in history and at the same time to say that this history nowhere perceives such a communication of God.”4
The spirit behind contextual theology is that today Christianity needs to have at least as much confidence and trust in the present grace of God and in what God is revealing today, as in the grace of his past revelation embodied in tradition. In methodological terms, contextual theology breaks the simplistic framework according to which the context would be that from where questions emerge and Christian tradition are reservoirs from which the answers are derived. If we take earnestly that the present self-revelation of God in our context is part of our Christian faith, then the context is not only a place of questions, but that it contains indications for answers as well which need to be discerned through the process of dialogue. In other words, the context is itself part of the answer. This, I think, is a principle, which the experience of any authentic contextual theology will confirm. And that indicates also the different attitude of contextual theologies to the past tradition.
To express it differently, once we are really convinced that there can be no such thing as universal theology, nor can there be, on the other hand, any pretension on the part of the contextual theology to be total theology, then these convictions will naturally bear upon the relationship of contextual theologies to tradition. Congar once remarked that Christianity does not begin every time from zero.5 One can hardly dispute the truth of such a statement. But we need to add in the same breath that the past tradition of Christianity may not be equally applicable to all contexts. That would be to contradict the very spirit and nature of contextual theology. In any case, we cannot build everything of our future on a past in which we do not fully recognize ourselves.
As the present experience of God’s self-manifestation and the challenges it brings will be the entry point for a discerning appropriation of the Christian past, one will discern all those things which really contribute to the present. A contextual theology which is sensitive to listen to the speaking of God today will also be in a position to discern from the Christian past also those things which enable it to listen to his Words today and translate them into action. Such a starting point places us also in a position of openness and dialogue with our neighbors of other faiths.
Contextual theology is one which is in constant dialogue with other sciences
This dialogue needs to be understood in its proper perspective. The motive behind this call for dialogue is not because theology is a science, and therefore it needs to relate to other sciences. Rather it is because the promotion of the grace of life, which is the vocation of theology, demands the enlisting of the support of all sciences that can throw light on the reality of life and help to respond to its contemporary exigencies. It is a common experience today that the sciences insulate themselves and thus believe to maintain their autonomy. We are far from an organic, integral and holistic vision. The fragmentation of knowledge that is happening today is one of the chief causes for the fragmentation of life in its integral nature.
Contextual theology is an attempt to gain the wholistic approach to God-given life. And in this task, theology cannot rely exclusively on any one single discipline. In the classical approaches of the past as well as in the continuation of those traditions in present times, philosophy has taken a prominent place as the science most congenial to theological enterprise. This is understandable in a situation in which the major preoccupation was to harmonize reason and faith, or faith with the modern thought. But today in our Third World contexts, for obvious reasons, theological enterprise needs to be nurtured by other disciplines such as social sciences, cultural anthropology, study of religions, political sciences, economy, etc. Theology in our Third World societies can ignore dialogue with such sciences only at the risk of betraying its vocation. But one more important word needs to be added. We envisage these sciences to be critical and not simply descriptive and functional. It is in relationship with critical sciences that theology will come to expression as a prophetic enterprise.
Today, sociology of knowledge has made it amply clear that there is nothing like a neutral standpoint. All human and social sciences have their orientation and choice. It is of decisive importance for contextual theology. which instruments, which tools it employs in analyzing, understanding and interpreting the realities around. In its dialogue with these sciences, authentic contextual theology will be guided by its fundamental option of being on the side of the powerless, on the side of the victims.
In contextual theology, it is people themselves who do theologizing and in this process from their own resources.
The professional theologians have a subordinate role in so far as they help to formulate and articulate what emerges from peoples’ encounter with the realities of their context. Even to be able to do this service, the professional theologian has to immerse herself into the experiences and life-realities of the people.
As experience testifies, the most innovative and creative theology taking place today is not in academic centers or institutes of higher learning, but right in the midst of the conflicts and contradictions of everyday life.
When people are the subjects of contextual theology, the resources they employ will also be different. They will not be far-fetched, but closer to their everyday life and experience. I do not intend to present any comprehensive list of such resources. Speaking from Indian experience, I could think of, for example, in the context of dalit theology, the importance of the forgotten stories of their origin which are so very crucial to reconstruct their identity as a people. Then, there are the streams of neglected Indic religious traditions which differ from the classical Brahminic sources. We have the dalit versions of the classical epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, in which we find reversal of roles — the heroes of the classics turned into villains and those vilified get reinstated as heroes. In modem times, the emergence of dalit literature in almost all the Indian languages is a very remarkable phenomenon.6 They constitute a very important resource for the dalit people for the development of a dalit theology from out of their world of experiences. The same can be said of the tribal people in their development of a truly tribal theology.
The implications of people being the subject of theology and for employing their own resources, could be illustrated by an example. For the past one hundred years, in one form or other, there developed an Indian Christian theology. Analyzing it, we note how it has been a theology which tried to express Christian truths through the help of categories drawn from the dominant Sanskritic culture and tradition. In my view, such a theology, though taking place in India, in the Third World, does not merit to be called contextual theology. It is not a theology by the people — the oppressed and suffering — who would not certainly employ the tools and resources of the upper castes and classes. On the other hand, dalit theology, tribal theology are examples of true contextual theologies. Similarly, one may attempt to do theology in Sri Lanka by trying to relate with the religious world of Buddhism. And yet, it would not be a contextual theology if it fails to start from the traumatic experiences of people themselves caught in the midst of the Tamil-Sinhalese bloody ethnic conflict.
Now, to conclude, one of the early Christian writers if I rightly remember, Dionysius the Aeropagite said something like this: God’s center is everywhere and his circumference is nowhere. What he said of God is true of theology as well. There is no center for theology, for it could spring up from anywhere, from any context. It has no circumference either, because every contextual theology knows that it has not fully exhausted the mystery of God or the human, and therefore is open and in dialogue with other contextual theologies.
Contextual theology belongs to the realm of organic realities and not to the world of architechtonics. Its growth needs to be understood not in terms of a building as that of a tree. And no tree grows according to standardized patterns or pre-set programs. It has an inherent dynamics of its own, and it unfolds itself in its splendorous beauty overshadowing the world of architechtonics. It is this same dynamics which symbolizes the power of the inexhaustible mystery of the divine and the human.
With contextual theologies we stand in the face of a rich theological pluralism. In each context the truth of God’s self-communication acquires new light, new accent and emphasis. The basic pattern of God’s self-revelation as life and grace, on the one hand, and the response in human freedom through faith and deeds to the same revelation, on the other, is such a complex and multifaceted reality that it can never be imprisoned in any one single mould. It takes all the different contexts of the world to have a glimpse into the great mystery of the continuing dialogue between the divine and the human. Attempting to express it calls for a different language on our lips and a new departure into the endless horizons of that mystery into which we ourselves and our life-contexts are enveloped.
When our words fail, poetic intuitions come to our aid. Let me then conclude with the words of Rabindranath Tagore, a great modern poet of India, to say what kind of feelings and excitement the venture of contextual theology could bring to our hearts:
When old words die out on the tongue
New melodies break forth from the heart
And where the old tracks are lost
New country is revealed with its wonders7
1. Anthony D’Mello, The Prayer of the Frog. Book of Story Meditations (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988), p. 88. 1 have adapted the story to suit the theme on hand.
2. Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (London: Darton. Longman & Todd, 1978), p. xi.
3. David Tracy. “Some Concluding Reflections on the Conference” in Hans Kung, David Tracy (eds.). Paradigm Change in Theology. A Symposium for the Future (Edinburgh:, T. & T. Clark Ltd, 1989), p. 462. Emphasis mine.
4. Jon Sobrino, ‘Theology in the Third World. Reflections from El Salvador” in T. K. John (ed.), Bread and Breath. Essays in Honor of Samuel Rayan S.J. (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1991), p. 36.
5. Cf. Y. Congar. “Christianisme comme foi et comme culture,” in Evangelizzazione e Culture. Vol. I (Rome: Pontificia Universita Urbaniana, 1976), p. 99.
6. By way of example. I refer here just one work that has recently appeared: Arjun Dnagle, Poisoned Bread. Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1994).
7. Rabindranath Tagore. Gitanjali (Delhi-New York: Macmillan, 1918). no. 37.