Thursday, November 16, 2000

Book Report: Models of Contextual Theology

Back in the fall of 2000, at the suggestion of my spiritual director, I took a course in systematic theology at Washington Theological Union. As part of the class, we read and discussed Models of Contextual Theology by Stephen B. Bevans. Here is my book report.

The celebration of the liturgy, therefore, should correspond to the genius and culture of the different peoples. In order that the mystery of Christ be "made known to all the nations . . . to bring about the obedience of faith," it must be proclaimed, celebrated, and lived in all cultures in such a way that they themselves are not abolished by it, but redeemed and fulfilled: It is with and through their own human culture, assumed and transfigured by Christ, that the multitude of God's children has access to the Father, in order to glorify him in the one Spirit. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1204)
The relationship between Christianity and culture has been addressed in this century by H. Richard Niebuhr, and before him by Ernst Troeltsch. But consideration of the problem goes back much further, to the fathers and even to the apostles. Since the Church must always exist, in this world, in particular historical settings, all Christian communities are faced with the question of how to be the Church in a given cultural context. Paul began the transmission of a Semitic religion into the Greco-Roman world, and the fathers and the Ecumenical Councils continued this process. Augustine considered the end of that world, as it had been known in the West, and its impact on the Church. All of these dealt with particular context of the Greco-Roman world. Troeltsch and Niebuhr, on the other hand, took a more theoretical approach, though assuming, for the most part, a modern Western setting. As valuable as their contributions are, none of these authors addresses, in a general way, the practical problem of how one might do theology in cultural contexts other than the author's own.

This is the problem that Stephen B. Bevans sets out to address in Models of Contextual Theology. He sketches five different approaches to carrying out the task of theology in ways that take into account the Church's tradition, on the one hand, and the local context supplied by culture and social change, on the other. This book report will describe and critique each of the five models in turn, then consider how the models relate to each other, and finally assess Bevans's overall approach.

The Translation Model. The first model is an extended analogy on linguistic translation. And translation can be as much literal description as analogy, since the model is most applicable to a context of initial evangelization of a culture with little previous exposure to Christianity, and which may therefore require new translations of the Liturgy, the Scriptures, and other written materials. More generally, the translation model assumes that an indispensable core message, which constitutes the essence of Christianity, is to be expressed in a new cultural, linguistic, or historical context. The core message itself is not dependent on the setting(s) and language(s) in which it was previously expressed, but is seen as transcending any particular expression (with the possible exception of the original expression?). The theologian's task is to express this core message in a way that is meaningful to members of the new culture. As with linguistic translation, there will often be a trade-off between 1) accuracy, or consistency with previous expressions of the message, and 2) comprehensibility and relevance in the new context. While advocates of "formal" translation would be more concerned with the former, Bevans emphasizes the importance of the latter, though he seems to assume that accuracy is not compromised in the process.

The translation model brings the Gospel, exogenously defined, into a culture. It thereby provides a method of contextualization in which the integrity of the Church's tradition can be maintained. It also permits the presentation a strong Christian identity. The unadulterated Gospel can then serve to critique aspects of the culture that do not measure up the standards of Christian social teaching, possibly engendering social change. It is particularly useful – in fact, there might be no alternative – in presenting the Gospel to a culture for the first time. Unless an evangelist is a member of the target culture, his ability to do theology as a member of that culture is limited. The translation model allows him to present theology that has already been tested in other contexts and to focus on making that theology comprehensible in the new context without worrying about developing the substance of the message.

Because this model tries to bring answers from outside the culture, these answers might not address the questions that people in the culture are actually asking. Making the message comprehensible, therefore, might not make it relevant. It is also hard to see how the translation model's assumption of a supracultural core message can be reconciled with an incarnational religion. How can the core message be understood to exist unmediated by language and culture?

Bevans does not adequately consider the trade-off between accuracy and comprehensibility that is inherent to the translation process. He does not acknowledge the difficulties entailed by the functional, rather than formal, approach to translation, which he advocates. How far can one carry functional translation before it begins to merge with the anthropological model, in which the identity of the target culture takes precedence over the message?

The Anthropological Model. Where the translation model sees Christianity as something the missionary brings into a culture from outside, Bevans's second model allows that God's grace might already be at work in a culture before the missionary arrives, predisposing its members to hear and understand the Gospel message. But, hearing it within the framework of their own culture, they are likely to understand it differently than the missionary could anticipate, mapping it onto their culture in unexpected ways and gaining insights into both the Gospel and their culture that no outsider could have provided to them.

This model takes a charitable view of human cultures. Its practitioners therefore take care not to undermine a functioning culture whose members depend on it for their economic and social well-being. Moreover, it does its best to preserve the culture out of respect for the culture and its members. When the people understand that the new religion does not require them to betray their old culture wholesale, they are likely to be more open to adopting it. And they are also more likely to participate wholeheartedly in contextualizing Christianity for their own culture. In time, their unique contextual theology might supply interesting new insights to Christians of other cultures.

A weakness of the anthropological model is that its charity towards a culture can easily be extended into a totally uncritical attitude that turns a blind eye to dysfunctional or unjust elements of the culture, which could stand to be critiqued from a distinctively Christian viewpoint. The primary loyalty to the culture might also result in an idiosyncratic version of Christianity that sees itself as beyond critique by the wider Church, and which cuts itself off from the Church. Indeed, this model seems to assume an extraordinary degree of cultural purity rarely found in the real world. If a culture is being exposed to Christianity, it is probably being exposed to foreign cultural elements, as well. Efforts to seal off a culture from other cultures are unlikely to work in the long run, and are likely to benefit one class or faction at the expense of others, creating division within the society. Finally, some practitioners of the model have a tendency to romanticize the natural theological aptitude of those who happen to be least exposed to foreign cultures. Since these are likely to be the least sophisticated members of the culture, though they might produce some interesting and valuable practical insights, they are unlikely to sustain the ongoing debate and reflection necessary for constructing a comprehensive, well-developed contextual theology.

A big question left by the anthropological model is, Why evangelize? If one believes that God's grace is already operative in cultures before the Gospel is introduced, and that faithfulness to the culture is paramount, then it is not clear why one would want to introduce an unnecessary foreign element.

The Praxis Model. The two previous models address the scenario where Christianity is being introduced into a new culture, laying out two different approaches to integrating culture and Gospel in ways that are faithful to both. The praxis model assumes a scenario where Christianity already has at least a foothold in the culture, and where Christians must deal with practical problems of life within their culture. It is similar to the anthropological model, in that it envisions theology being done for a given context by the participants in that context. But, where practitioners of the anthropological model tend to take an uncritical view of their culture, defending it from contamination and change, praxis theologians judge their culture critically according to the standards of the Gospel and commit themselves to changing social structures that do not measure up. And, where both the translation and anthropological models tend to look to the past, with a concern for discerning and maintaining a certain cultural/religious identity (being), praxis looks to the future, with a concern for achieving social objectives (doing).

The method of praxis works in a way similar to the hermeneutic circle, with committed action filling the role of interacting with a text. The community begins with committed action towards its objective. It then assesses the impact of its actions and re-evaluates both its goals and its actions in the light of the Christian tradition. The community can then begin a new round of action, refined by the process of reflection on the previous round of action.

Praxis is a way for people who are oppressed, marginalized, or afflicted with the difficulties of deleterious social change to participate in creating and using theology that is relevant to the immediate context of their subculture. Because the situation in such communities tends to change rapidly and unpredictably, professional theologians and the Church hierarchy might not even be aware of the details of the community's situation at a given time. At the same time, this unstable situation is the day-to-day milieu of the people, and therefore the overriding reality that they must interpret if they are to make sense of their lives. Under these conditions, if the people themselves do not do theology at a practical level, they might find no theology at all that is relevant to their lives. With praxis, they can strive as a community to discern God's presence in their midst, his solidarity with their suffering, and his guidance for their actions.

But because praxis is bound to its immediate, changing situation, it tends to result in ephemeral, throw-away theologies. By the time such theologies are subject to critique, they are obsolete. Potential dangers also come from praxis' radical orientations to the future rather than the past, and action rather than being. Whereas practitioners of the translation and anthropological models might romanticize the past, the future is inherently romanticized. There are limits to how far one can plausibly go in reinterpreting the past, but the future is a blank slate. Karl Marx, for example, whose work has heavily influenced this model, set out the revolution of the proletariat as both prediction and objective. Subsequent history has shown it to be wrong as a prediction and harmful as an objective. The praxis model, employed as envisioned, provides opportunities for adjustment of objectives according to reflection on experience and the Gospel. But are the poor really more likely than the rich to engage in this sort of self-criticism?

Moreover, if one carries out the spiraling path of praxis faithfully, how does this differ from the evolutionary development of tradition? A trial-and-error process that weeds out unsuccessful innovations and retains successful ones should eventually lead to a stable culture a la Edmund Burke, not the revolutionary society of Marx. In a theological context, it would seem to lead similarly to tradition.

The Synthetic Model. In this model, theology is a process of dialogue among participants who bring differing approaches, viewpoints, and concerns to the table. It accepts the concerns for faithfulness to Christian tradition, local culture, and the immediate context of people enunciated by the three previous models, and it tries to accommodate their contributions. But it rejects their implicit claims that any one of these concerns must always trump the others. Rather, it sees the various approaches and concerns as complementary, with something to teach and something to learn. Furthermore, it allows that most participants in the dialogue do not represent a "pure" type or culture, but represent unique composites of various shared influences.

The strength of this model is its openness to the best or most applicable ideas from all sources. If the various strains are synthesized properly, the resulting theology will come together as a consensus of the community, and will therefore be relevant to that community. On the other hand, the theology of the community will not be the exclusive property and product of one community, but will be open to conversations with the theologies of other communities, which can result in further refinement of both. The synthetic model assumes that communities have enough in common to be able to communicate with one another.

A drawback of this model is the difficulty of achieving a true synthesis, rather than a mere juxtaposition of ideas. Early stages of the process are almost certain to look more like a strange jumble of diverse elements than a comprehensive theology. It might therefore have difficulty attracting participants from the culture, who cannot recognize adequate expression of either their culture or Christianity in the jumble. Another danger is that theology from one source or point of view might become dominant not on the strength of the theology, but on the basis its proponents' greater power, numbers, or opportunities for articulation. This danger might be especially operative in the case of advocates of Western theologies.

The Transcendental Model. In this model, theology begins with the individual subject, as an expression of her own religious experience. Since the individual exists within a particular historical and cultural context, her theology, if done honestly, is an authentic theology of that context. Shared human nature makes it possible for the individual to communicate her theological reflections to the wider community. Therefore, what originated in the experience of one individual can become an authentic theology for others who share the same cultural context.

While all of the preceding models seem to envision an arena where pre-conceived theological ideas vie with each other for adoption and expression, the transcendental model allows for the emergence of ideas that cannot be inferred from past religious and cultural expressions. In this respect, it resembles an Eastern approach to theology, which sees the true theologian not as one who studies and debates, but one who has cultivated a relationship with the Holy Spirit through long years of discipline and prayer.

A weakness of this model is the hard-to-define concept of authenticity. It serves as a criterion for who may do theology in a given context and how to judge that theology. But the vagueness of the criterion makes it difficult to apply in practice. And if no such criterion is at work, there is no way to judge among potentially competing theologies of various individuals in a given context, each claiming to represent an authentic expression of theology in the context. The resulting theologies can degenerate into mere idiosyncrasy, while other members of the culture are left in confusion.

Conclusion. In the course of this book, Bevans leaves a big question largely unanswered: What is culture? In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr spent ten pages working towards a definition of culture. Bevans briefly mentions, on page 7, an "empiricist notion of culture" that he attributes to social scientists, but it does not seem to reflect culture as most social scientists understand it. This allows him to use the term in vague and inconsistent ways throughout the book.

Finally, the very assumption that translation/contextualization is necessary might be somewhat patronizing. It assumes that people are stuck in their own culture in a way that prevents them from understanding untranslated truth. But, in practice, the Church often retains many elements untranslated, for example the words Christ and Messiah, which are usually transliterated from Greek and Hebrew, rather than being translated into the English Anointed. Part of becoming a Christian might be learning elements of the cultural context in which Christianity originated.

Despite these shortcomings, Bevans's systematic delineation of these five models brings them together in a way that makes them easy for a layman to understand, compare, and critique. We can therefore be more conscious of the fact that we all do theology within particular contexts, and have models at our disposal of how we might go about harmonizing message and context.