Contextual Theologizing: Future Perspectives

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 3 »Contextual Theologizing Future Perspectives

Joe M. de Mesa, a Filipino lay theologian, is professor of Applied Systematic theology at De La Salle University, Manila. He earned a PhD in Religious Studies from the Catholic University, Louvain, Belgium. A member of the Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs, he is also on the advisory board of Concilium. He has written extensively on issues of theology and culture.

Concept of Contextual Theology

Negatively, contextual theology is not adaptation, assimilation or indigenization. It dissociates itself from the assumption that there is only one theology which is considered readymade, perennially valid and applicable to all places and all times.  This kind of theology needs only to be learned and passed on from church to church, generation to generation.  Contextual theology is a radical critique of such theology and theologizing.

Rather, contextual theology is the doing of theology with keen awareness of contextuality.  Contextuality connotes a number of things.  It means attentiveness:  it listens to the cry of the poor, the marginalized and the excluded, and hearkens to the Spirit active in the history of humankind and in the world.  It meansconditioning, conscious as it is of being affected by the context in which it is done.  But it also refers to its conscious and intentional rootedness in the culture, in religion, in the historical currents, in the social locations and situations of people as well as in gender.  Contextual theology, furthermore, is transforming.  It takes shape according to the demands of the context, but is also aimed at altering conditions in the Church and in society that are counter to the deep intent of the Gospel.  Finally, contextuality means inclusivity as it endeavors to include voices which have been excluded in the participative process of theologizing.

In view of these considerations, it can be asked whether even the very notion of theology itself needs to be changed.  In our use of the word, we necessarily bring with us its past, perhaps more as a liability than as an asset.

 Philosophy of Contextual Theology

All theology is contextual.  Every theology, for good or ill, is conditioned by its context.  In this sense, there can be good and bad contextual theology.  If context affects theology this way, it must be said that theology done in a contextual manner also affects context and aims at transforming it.  Doing theology in a contextual manner means taking experience as a constitutive element in understanding, appropriating and communicating the faith.  This implies a dialogue with praxis and requires taking, in accord with the Gospel, a stance vis-à-vis the context.  All dimensions of the context, local as well as global, impinging on the local, are taken into account so that contextuality pervades all theologizing, teaching and structuring of theological education.  As such, this way of understanding and transforming reality requires an interdisciplinary approach.  Its way of theologizing implies the integration of context rather than a negation or separation from the context as was the case in pre-Vatican II theology.  Such contextual mindset is not realized by adding some new subjects about contextual theology in a traditional curriculum of theological education, but by a restructuring of it so that all the subjects support the main concern of contextual theologizing.

By way of deepening our reflection on the contextuality of theology, we can consider the points presented by the document, Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973) of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the historical conditioning of doctrine (Cf. Neuner and Dupuis 1998:63-4). It states that doctrine, while not merely relative, is nevertheless influenced in four ways: by the question it is trying to answer; by the presuppositions operative in the Church and in society; by the thought patterns being utilized in formulating the doctrine; and by the available vocabulary which can be utilized to express the intent of the doctrine.  Thus neo-scholasticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, can be contextually analyzed in this way. Answering the questions posed by science regarding God’s existence, authorship of creation and significance to humanity, neo-scholastic theology worked with the presupposition that the essence of being human is rationality aimed at true knowledge, utilized the thought patterns associated with “natural” and “supernatural,” and articulated the meaning of “revelation” and “faith” in terms of “truth.”

The diversity of understanding and expression which contextual theologizing engenders leads to the question of the relationship between the local and the universal.  This indeed is an important question in doing theology contextually.  One can further ask how the contextual way of doing theology will affect the denominational accents in understanding the Christian faith.

 Method of Contextual Theology

The basic framework of contextual theologizing is the mutual interaction between the Gospel and the context.  It may be described as a mutually radical critique, where a fresh understanding and an impetus to action are given birth to and expressed in an open-ended formulation of theology. Contextual theologizing begins with a risk-taking experience, from one’s context, from below rather than from the bible, doctrine or any church document.  To make clear the context of theologizing, a critical analysis of it is imperative.  In no way does this imply a devaluation of the Gospel.  Rather, it wants to bring out the meaningfulness of the Gospel precisely in context, so that not only will the Gospel impact on it, but that the context may bring out its real meaning through a deconstruction via a hermeneutics of suspicion and a reconstruction of its particular expression.

As we are discussing theological education and the need for interdisciplinarity in contextual theologizing, it may be helpful to look into the area of education itself as a dialogue partner.  It has been said in educational circles that in order to teach Johnny arithmetic, one has to know both Johnny and arithmetic.  In trying to enhance the learning process in theological education, we may want to consider the theory of multiple intelligences of Howard Gardner (Lazear 1991). According to experts of this way of thinking, the right question is not how smart you are but rather in what way you are smart.  Thus learning is not restricted to the logical/mathematical way, but includes the verbal/linguistic, the visual/spatial, the musical/rhythmic, the body/kinesthetic, the interpersonal and intrapersonal as well.  We may want to connect to this what has been articulated in our discussions about the importance of incorporating the experience of the beautiful and the appreciation for the arts or even the performing arts.  Besides, the Theological Commission of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences has already recommended the development of storytelling as a theological method.1 Stories, like that of the parables of Jesus, are a participatory way of analyzing life situations.

Brain studies point out the manner of thinking done with the left brain or the right brain and suggest that the two sides of the brain should be developed together (Jensen 1998). It has also been discovered that the brain emits different electrical frequencies or waves for different activities.  Studies indicate that certain brain waves are conducive to learning. Alpha waves, for example, occur when we are both calm and still aware of our surroundings. At such times, we are most receptive to information. Creativity and insight, on the other hand, are associated with theta waves, which predominate when we are in a state of deep relaxation like between moments of being awake and being asleep.  Brain studies suggest too that listening to particular types of music enhances learning. 

Contextual theologizing requires attentiveness to the ever changing contexts of societies in which we live as well as to the advances in the various theological disciplines.  In relation to this, the growing trend in education regarding “learning how to learn” can benefit professors and students alike in their collaborative study of the various aspects of contextual theology.  The accelerated pace of change necessitates continuous learning in the most effective manner (Gross 1991).  In short, theological education may find a real partner for inter-disciplinarity in the discipline of education in general, and in brain studies in particular.

Contextual theologizing, because of its inclusive character, may be a fruitful way to transcend the historically-caused divide in churches between a theologically educated clergy and a theologically non-educated laity. As education in the style of contextual theology aims at equipping the church community as a whole theologically (Cobb, Jr. 1994),  its development can provide an opportunity and the occasion to ensure the education of the whole people of God. Besides, a theologically educated laity is likely to enrich both the contextual theological process and content.  They are normally already immersed in the realities that candidates to priesthood and pastorship still need to be exposed to in their training.  As a result their knowledge and understanding of life as well as insight into it come from their first-hand contact and experience of the context, a desirable in present-day theological education as a number of newly developed curricula indicate. Such experiences will throw light on the Gospel even as they allow the Gospel to throw light on their experiences and permeate their lives. 


1. “Theses on the Local Church: A Theological Reflection in the Asian Context,” FABC Papers 60, 54.


Cobb, John Jr.
1994 Lay Theology (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Pres).

Lazear, David
1991 Seven Ways of Knowing: Teaching for Multiple Intelligences (Palatine, Illinois: Skylight Publishing).

Gross, Ronald
1991 Peak Learning: A Master Course in Learning How to Learn (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam).

Jensen, Eric
1998 Teaching with the Brain in Mind (Alexandra, Virginia: ASCO).