Contextual Theology: Liberation and Indigenization

by J. Deotis Roberts, Sr.

Dr. Roberts is professor of theology at the school of religion of Howard University, Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 28, 1976, pp. 64-68. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is our task to observe where God is at work and to join in the liberation of the oppressed. Each must discover God in Christ at work where he or she is and move from that center, being guided by the Spirit, toward making life more human.

(This essay is thirteenth in a series on New Turns in Religious Thought.)

We live in a time in which the entire human situation must be explored, a time in which our perspective must move from the particular to the universal. Universalism is abstract; particularity is concrete. This move implies a serious encounter with ethnic theological programs everywhere. The context of belief, life and action must now be given priority.


Christian theology is required to take the world of all human beings seriously. All must be reached in their Lebenswelt if faith is to be a live option. Theology as developed in Europe and America is limited in its approach. A "universal" arising from the experience of a small sample is a myth. Christian theologians so unaware of the thought and belief of peoples elsewhere in the world make only a false claim to universalism.

There is no completely universal perspective, since all human thought and belief are limited by structural bounds. However, there can be an openness to the universal. When it is objected that we are dealing with a universal revelation, we must raise the issue of finite human understanding, through which God’s self-disclosure is communicated. The eventual locus of divine revelation is our personal, social, cultural and ethnic existence.

Christian theologians may generally be numbered among the colonizers of the peoples of the Third World. Many have been "God’s colonizers" not by intention but by default; the results, however, have been the same. As a theologian, Albert Schweitzer went beyond most of his peers in his involvement in Africa. Paradoxically, it is the manifestation of this European mind, set in an African context, which dramatizes that his philosophy of civilization is pro-Western. Aristotelian logic and Platonic dualism do not exhaust the thought-structures of the human race. It is arrogant for persons who have been exposed only to these categories of thought and their derivatives to speak ex cathedra for all Christians. It is more honest to admit our particularities.

My eyes have been opened by an exposure to the thought and belief of Asian and African peoples. The study of "religion" is the key to a deeper understanding of a particular religion. This is true of the study of theology as well. Paul Tillich said to Mircea Eliade late in life that if he had an opportunity to begin again, he would study the history of religions first. The study of world religions is a great resource for a more meaningful theological understanding. World religions have not escaped the social Darwinism of the Western mind, either. It is essential, therefore, to do some independent study, travel and field work in order to appreciate more completely the unity and diversity of the various religions and the systems of doctrine flowing from them.

Christian theologians and missionaries have often been the "colonizers" of the minds and spirits of non-Western people. Non-Western religions were often dismissed as heathen; the highest compliment was to accept such a religion as a preparation for the gospel. Western missionaries were not aware that the very gospel which they sought to transplant was blighted by the "Constantinian captivity" of the church. In their pharisaism, they did not observe anything of worth in other religions or in the cultures that sustained them.


It has deeply enriched my appreciation of the universal reach of the human spirit to encounter giant intellects and cosmic spirits in Asia and Africa. In an essay on "The Theology of Religion" (I.T.C. Journal, I/1, 1974), I have argued that a theologian can have his life and thought enriched by this experience precisely because he views the faith of other persons from within his own system of belief and thought.

The search for a cosmic Christ has broadened my horizon. Christocentrism has not been abated, but Christ as giver of grace is seen as author of nature and Lord of history as well. The incarnation remains the center of God’s redemptive revelation. The circumference of revelation, however, has been expanded. It is through Jesus as the Christ that we now discover the meaning of God’s all-pervasive cosmic revelation. It is manifest in creation and providence and is in all times and among all peoples.

My studies in Christian Platonism, centering on the Cambridge Platonists, during my doctoral program at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities have made me sensitive to this vision. The discovery of William Temple’s Nature, Man and God, together with my personal conversations with Canon C. E. Raven, a theologian and scientist, opened my mind to this new perspective.

Islam, as I meet it in south Asia and the Middle East, pointed to a legal and political outreach of religion without a rejection of the mystical. One encounters Islamic theologians, past and present, who blend the spiritual and political dimensions of faith in one life. This unity led me to look again at the priestly and prophetic unity in biblical faith.

All my encounters with human religious experience have been invigorating for theological reflection. The élan vital of preliterate religions, the Tao of Lao-tzu, the Jen of Confucius, the compassion of Buddha, the Brahman of the Hindus, are examples of the richness of these explorations. My more recent reflections upon the African roots of black religion have been a great source of insight and inspiration. African religions combine the semblance of the family system of Confucianism with the deep spirituality of Hinduism and Buddhism. In my view, the African perspective provides a basis for a holistic interpretation of religious experience.

What we are developing is a theology of liberation. If theology is to be more than dry bones for faith, if it is to address human beings of flesh and blood, if it is to deal with the ultimate issues of life and death, it must be more than a logical statement of doctrine -- though it should be that. Theology cannot be truly universal if it refuses to deal with the particularities of the human situation. It must not, however, rest with the particular -- it must move from the particular to the universal. In moving to the universal, it must abandon the concrete particular, for there is where we meet the human situation. There is no abstract universal that makes any difference in the relief of human misery. There is no universal revelation which separates salvation history from political history. Systematic theology must become theological ethics. It must speak not merely from ivory towers, but from the marketplace. Theology, to be worthy of the name, must now address "nonpersons" as well as "nonbelievers."


Theology and ethics are inseparable in the black religious experience; The context of the faith of black people is a situation of racist oppression. Religion, and especially the understanding of the biblical faith, has been the source of meaning and protest far blacks. Our religious heritage has nurtured and sustained, us through our dark night of suffering. Without this profound religious experience and the churches which have institutionalized it, blacks might not have survived the bitterness of American oppression.

Consciousness is not adequate by itself to liberate a people; it must be empowered. The assessment of the "radicalism" of black religion has led to a concern for operational unity in order to provide a united front against racism. A black theologian cannot enter into the quest for personhood and peoplehood of his or her people without having his or her ethical concern sharpened. Thus, my recent essay "Black Theological Ethics: A Bibliographical Essay" (Journal of Religious Ethics, III/1, 1975) has argued the case for the ethical bent of black theology. In fact, any theology worth the name must make contact with the human situation in the context of world history. When one takes the biblical faith and the incarnation seriously into account, the result is a theology of liberation. Whether we find ourselves as theologians in the camp of the oppressor or the oppressed, what we have to interpret is a gospel of liberation.

My own pilgrimage has been an extended one, beginning with a search for a reasonable faith. Emotional piety and intellectual honesty provided a serious conflict. Much of my life has been given to wrestling with truth. The encounter with natural science, literary and biblical criticism and philosophy accelerated the crisis. The anchor which sustained life’s purpose in the passage through doubt to a more mature faith has been the Bible, reinforced by a steadfast sense of having been called to a ministry in the church. This philosophical direction of my mind led me into philosophy of religion and later into philosophical theology. Much of my early research and writing were preoccupied with epistemological questions of faith. My first two books, Faith and Reason (Christopher, 1962) and From Puritanism to Platonism in Seventeenth Century England (Martinus Nijhoff, 1968), make this point.

My responsibility has been that of a theologian of the church. As a systematic theologian in a theological school within a predominantly black university, I have sought to interpret the faith for future leaders in the church. Most of my students have been black or non-Western. Their ministry, therefore, has been to all sorts and conditions of people. Almost from the start I was challenged to match intellectual honesty with the social and political imperatives of the gospel. It became clear to me that faith should have the priority but that reason should be included. Augustine, Anselm and Pascal led me to a faith seeking understanding. Or put another way, these theologians helped me to find my way.


What we learned from the Detroit Conference on Liberation Theology (August 1975) was that the North American reality is different from that of Latin America. We also discovered that while the mood of black and Latin American theologies is similar, the context is quite varied. While oppression most often takes the form of classism in Latin America, it is evident that racism is most rampant in the United States. This is not to minimize the obvious fact of oppression based on sex. Black women experience a double oppression, but many of them observe that racism is the most stubborn form of oppression. Furthermore, it is destructive of the entire black family and community.

We may observe, then, that in this country we are faced not merely with an overlap or network of oppressions. There is beyond this, in the experience of blacks, a hierarchy of oppression, of which racism is the most systemic, historical and far-reaching form. Blacks as a people are faced constantly with the threat of nonbeing. On the one hand, genocide could result from repression, given adequate provocation arising from sheer frustration. On the other hand, the negative effects of continued oppression may trigger the self-destructive tendencies now evident in widespread drug abuse and black-on-black crime.

Existentialism has been most attractive to black religious thinkers. The experience of racism has prompted blacks to enter an introspective mood. We are, a long-suffering people. Our psychic health has been sustained by a faith that has defied all human limits of endurance. Amid despair and powerlessness, we have carved out meaning and sanity. We have been able to hold life together through faith even though we have not had the ultimate control over our destiny or the issues of life and death. Existentialism, "a creed for crises," has been useful to blacks as they have faced the extreme situation in this country. In an essay titled "Religio-Ethical Reflections Upon the Experiential Components of a Philosophy of Black Liberation" (I.T.C. Journal, I/1, 1973), I have sought to establish these aspects of the psychology of black religious thought. The existential posture of Augustine’s "self-understanding," Pascal’s "reasons of the heart," Bergson’s "duration," and William James’s "stream of consciousness" have had a marked impression upon my thinking.

Discovery of Kierkegaard was a moving experience. His analysis of human existence seemed unusually profound, but his revolt against reason repelled me. His affirmation of the individual seemed wholesome up to a point, but he did not give sufficient attention to persons in relation to one another. His critique of religion and society stirred up my prophetic instincts, but there was an absence of a profound theological ethic as he insisted on a teleological suspension of the ethical for the sake of faith. However, there radiated from his work a penetrating insight into the human "sickness unto death," which was put in a profound psychotheological context for me in Tillich’s Courage to Be.

This existential posture of my thinking has been mixed with a strong mystic bent. Howard Thurman s writings have been a great inspiration. I find the manner in which he combines a deep spirituality with a passion for social justice extremely attractive. The question of how one maintains sanity in a society bent on inhuman oppression based on race is a matter that must be faced before one can find health and wholeness as a person within a community of persons.


The type of theological discourse suggested in this essay requires unitive thinking. It transcends the split in thought and life of much Western thinking. The discovery of the total person, the corporate personality and the unity of humankind leads directly to an understanding of salvation as liberation.

The existential theologians taught us a great lesson -- that theology can begin with the human situation as the locus of God’s revelation. But for the most part, they overlooked the collective dimensions of human nature. They unwittingly played into the hands of those who espouse a privatized expression of faith. The theologians of hope, on the other account, pushed the collective aspects of human life; they analyzed human solidarity in oppression and expressed faith in political terms. The individual is exchanged for the social being. Anthropology is replaced by eschatology. The either/or mold of Western thought is evident. The holistic outlook of thought in the Third World (including the Bible) is not predominant.

An adequate anthropology will take the insights of Freud and Marx with all seriousness but will go beyond them. The imago dei is at the heart of the Christian understanding of humanity. It is the relation of the human person to God which is the "wholing" dimension of human nature. It is essential to move from the human to the divine and to view the human in the context of this encounter. If the weakness of traditional theologies has been God-talk, may It not be that the shortcoming of much theology today is that Feuerbach’s observation is being fulfilled -- that theology is becoming only anthropology? While it is the person who is being approached by God’s revelation of his saving grace, we should be assured that it is the whole person who is being considered. The human person is a child of God at the same time that he or she is a fellow to all humans.

Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology (Westminster, 1972), my first comprehensive effort to provide a theology of the black experience, was dismissed by some as a social treatise. Curiously, other theological programs developed out of dialogue between the social sciences and Christian belief have not lost their recognized theological character: this is true of existential theology in relation to depth psychology; it holds for Latin American liberation theology as well and the theologies of hope in relation to Marxism. And yet a theology which emerges out of the identity crisis and the social pathology created by racism is ruled out of court by the theological guardians at the gate. There is a sense of urgency surrounding the theological task of black theologians. We will not be silenced by the criticisms of the theological elite, for we are convinced that we have found a different and vital way of doing theology.


A Black Political Theology (Westminster, 1974) builds upon the earlier work. In this more recent book there is an attempt to develop a theological ethic. The context of black theology is racism in the midst of ethnic pluralism: We are oppressed in a society that is highly developed economically, technically and militarily. While Third World countries experience oppression externally from the United States, we as blacks experience oppression internally as victims of racism. A whole set of problems crush our people. We must not, however, mistake the effects for the cause. If there is not to be a root-and-branch dismantling of racism, then unemployment, illiteracy, all sorts of crimes, economic deprivation and political indifference will continue to destroy our people.

We have not to this day participated fully either in the democratic, process or in the prosperity of this nation. America has been more like Babylon than the promised land of freedom and brotherhood. As America embarks upon its bicentennial celebration, it should be remembered that there are millions of citizens who have been excluded from the American dream. These have not known this nation as "a righteous kingdom," but more as an Antichrist. What will America do to correct this situation today and in the future? What will America do about its "prides" of race, wealth and power? These concerns should lay the foundation of a homegrown theology of liberation.

It has been the genius of black religious experience to speak to personal and social needs. Without this bifocal religious affirmation of meaning and protest, we could not have survived the harshness of our oppression in the American environment. W. E. B. DuBois illustrated this point in The Souls of Black Folk, where he speaks mainly to personal faith. In his "Litany from Atlanta" he raises the theodicy question as he cries to a God of social justice. This is the faith of our black parents living still. The "Second Reconstruction" through which we are now passing underscores the need for the faith "that has brought us thus far on the way." It is a faith which is not content with things as they are. God is a God of Promise, and we struggle for the freedom which is a gift from this God who makes all things new.

We need a theology to address the whole person. Human life must be understood from the depths. Economic analysis treats only one important dimension of the human situation. We must consider the existential and the political aspects of human existence together -- both are important. Human nature is more than either in the Christian perspective.

Christology is the capstone of a theology of liberation. The God who wills and acts for the liberation of the oppressed does so as we encounter him through the words and deeds of Jesus as the Christ. It is in and through Christ that we know God, the meaning of history, of life and death, and the direction of events in human communities. Christ is the center; he is the liberator. It is through the incarnation that we discover how we are to become co-laborers in the liberation struggle.

Salvation is the result of participation in the liberation struggle. Christ frees us that we may free others. Christ is the center, but not the circumference of God’s universal revelation. God’s revelation is in all nature, all history, and among all peoples. It is our task to observe where God is at work and to join in the liberation of the oppressed. Each must discover God in Christ at work where he or she is and move from that center, being guided by the Spirit, toward making life more human. It is thus that we are set free as human beings both from the slavery of sin and the sin of slavery. It is thus that we participate in liberation in order to uproot the systems of bondage -- that there may be no slaves or masters, but a co-humanity in Christ Jesus our Lord, in the church as an extension of the incarnation and consequently among all people.