Contextual Theology and Integration

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 3 »Contextual Theology And Integration

Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J. is professor of Theology at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi, India, and Director, Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions, Chennai, India. A well-known international speaker and writer, he has written extensively on issues of mission, spirituality and liberation theology. He is also a regular lecturer at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila.

Our sharing and discussions for the past two days have shown that every theology is contextual.  Not that every context gives rise to a theology.  The context is not the source of theology.  It is a starting point. It conditions the quest for meaning that leads to the correlation between life and the Word of God.  Theology is therefore rooted.  It is not an abstract, rational discourse.  It arises out of the life of faith as questioning and leads back to it as praxis.  Theology is integrated with life.  It becomes therefore, a spirituality, a way of life. It is transformative. It is not alienating.  Life, therefore, is the focus of an integrated theology. 

The Pastoral-Theological Cycle

The wellknown theological-pastoral cycle illustrates this integration.  Life in a particular context raises questions of meaning, especially when confronted with the problem of evil: death and seemingly meaningless and unmerited suffering.  Theology looks to answer these questions in the light of faith.  There is a correlation, therefore, between life and the faith tradition including revelation and the Scriptures.  The meaning that emerges out of the correlation shows us a way to continue living meaningfully.  In the light of this meaning therefore we discern concrete ways of action in the world.  Continuing action in the world gives rise to further questions. (Please read the following diagram clockwise.) 




                                 /                                                    \

Options for action                                 Analysis of life-reality           

                                \                                                      /

                  Discernment                             Correlation with faith-tradition                             

                                         \                                      /

                                             Reflection Theology


Contextual theology is necessarily pluralistic since it depends on a variety of contexts. It is not totalizing. It is also ongoing, since the pastoral-theological cycle continues to move.  Since it touches the problems of life, it is for every person, not merely the elite. 

Integration and Interdisciplinarity

A second type of integration in theological reflection is the manifestation of inter-disciplinarity.  As an abstract science, theology was dialoguing with philosophy.  Both were quests for meaning. While philosophy remained within reason, theology also took into account the data of revelation.  But as quests for truth at various levels, theology and philosophy cannot contradict each other. On the contrary, theology sought the help of philosophy for its method.  Philosophy was seen as the handmaid of theology.  Continuing scientific enquiry into reality, however, has given rise to many other human and social sciences like psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science and economics.  Today, therefore, philosophy alone is not an adequate tool to understand reality.  Anintegral (or holistic) analysis and understanding of reality has to take into account its various aspects studied by the various sciences.  Today we look at life-reality from the economic, political, psychological (personal), social, cultural and religious point of view.  The method of theology, therefore, becomes inter-disciplinary.  Theological search integrates the perspectives of the other sciences.  Today, programs in seminaries treat philosophy and theology as two different, though related subjects.  I think the time has come not only to integrate them as part of a single search for meaning in life-reality, but also to integrate with them the perspectives of the other human and social sciences that I have mentioned above.  This will make our search less abstractly rational, but more holistic.

For example, if we take any context of life-experience, we can look at it from the following angles.Economics deals with the production and distribution of goods. This in turn involves the activities of commerce and banking. Economic activity itself depends on the resources of science and technology. Ideologies like capitalism and consumerism control the choices of people. Politicsexplores the power relations between people and groups.  Power determines who controls production and the market.  It is supported by the control of the means of coercion like the police and the army. Social relations structure activity in society. There are natural and voluntary groups, racial and ethnic divisions, caste discrimination. People often search for identity through exclusion and affirm and defend it even through violence. Pluralism is not encouraged unless it is structured hierarchically. Individualism and competition drive people in contemporary societies. Social movements bring people together in a common effort towards economic, political or social liberation. The human person is the agent.  But his/her creativity and freedom are often conditioned by various factors. Human rights are violated. Persons are alienated by the social conditions of their life.  On the other hand, people search for meaning and fulfillment in life in various ways. Culture consists of the world views, attitudes and value systems of a people.  It gives meaning to the world and human life.  It is expressed, lived and interiorized through social symbols and rituals.  Language is a vehicle of culture.  There is an ongoing tension between tradition and modernity.  The contemporary media can facilitate communion.  It can also alienate people through misinformation and manipulation. Religionis the quest for ultimate meaning when life is faced with the reality of death and of unmerited suffering. This quest brings people face to face with the Ultimate.  Religions, in their attempt to find roots in a particular people and culture, tend to legitimate existing social structures.  But in the light of the Ultimate which they experience they are also prophetic, seeking to transform life and reality in the context of their ultimate vision.  Prophetic religion can be tranformative.

Of these six elements that constitute society, economics-politics provides the material base of life.  Culture-religion provides the meaning. The person in society is the agent of life in history. Contextual theology  sharpens the religious role of prophecy challenging the other social factors and also religion itself to change in the light of faith in the Ultimate.  It remains contextual precisely by being in constant transformative relationship with the other elements that constitute society.   In the pastoral-theological cycle, the human and social sciences intervene at two stages: while we are analyzing life and reality and while we are discerning concrete steps to take for the transformation of life and reality.

A Problem-centered Method

A multi-disciplinary method like this is not thesis or treatise-oriented, but problem-centered. Analysis, correlation and discernment focus on concrete questions or problems.  Theology is not interested in “proving” abstract statements of timeless truths but in addressing actual problems of life.  Faith-tradition is handed on, not as a creed, but as a narrative of God’s interventions in history.  Theology, then, no longer appears as the queen of the sciences, but as their servant.  Ultimately all the sciences are at the service of life.  It is life that brings them together in a common project. 

Asian Histories as Salvation History

Since we believe today that the presence and action of God is not limited to the Jews but extends to all peoples, Asian theological search enables another type of integration.  The Asian theologian integrates the story of the Bible with the stories of Asian peoples.  These too are histories of salvation and liberation. The spirit of God is present and active in their various struggles for liberation. Asian contextual theology then is inevitably dialogical.  It is in continuous dialogue with the other Asian religious traditions.  Every religious tradition, being at once divine and human, is subject to limitations and even manifestations of human sinfulness.  These negative factors can be sources of tension—even conflict.  But, since God is one, we hope that there will be a convergence which can be discovered through dialogue.  The focus of such dialogue is not the religious traditions themselves but their common prophetic involvement in life and reality.  We have an example of this in Korean Minjung theology which takes the various struggles of the Minjung even in the pre-Christian past as inspired liberation struggles.

An Asian Way of Thinking

I now come to my final question.  Does Asian theology have to contend not only with a variety of Asian contexts, but also with an Asian way of thinking?  Here I am not focusing on the rich internal cultural and religious pluralism within Asia, which Asian theology cannot ignore.  I am looking at Asia as a whole as opposed to Euro-America.  Euro-American cultures, thanks to the legacy of Greece, are dominated by rationality, logo-centrism, concepts and linear, logical thinking.  These characteristics are affiliated with the activities of the left-brain.  Asian cultures, on the contrary, are dominated on the whole by the activities of the right brain.  They are more symbolic and based on narrative rather than concept, inductive and intuitive rather than deductive, proceeding by the circular, but dynamic movement of the yin and the yang than by logical argument.  Asia might share these characteristics with many popular cultures of Africa and Latin America and even of Euro-America. 

But there are other factors that set Asia apart.  One of the important instruments of thinking is language.  The languages of East Asia are based on ideograms, whereas the languages of Euro-America are based on a double articulation of sounds.  Whereas the signifiers of the Euro-American languages are arbitrary, the signifiers of East Asian languages evoke images of objects that are referred to.  The kind of conceptual abstraction possible in Euro-America is not possible in East Asia.  This will certainly condition the way East Asians reflect and express themselves. Euro-American concepts and statements can hardly be translated adequately in East Asia, just as East Asian symbols may not evoke the same resonance in Euro-America.  In this respect, India with its languages, especially Sanskrit, which is an Indo-European language goes rather with Euro-America.

But language is not the only determinant of culture.  Euro-American cultures have a dualistic view of reality.  God is seen as the great Other when compared to God’s creation.  The body is different from the soul in humans.  Humans are different from the cosmos or nature which they can dominate and exploit.  The Indian advaita (non-duality) and the Chinese tao (one) deny such a dichotomy. Reality is inter-dependent. It is inter-being.  There is a fundamental unity in reality. Being is holistic, not dichotomous.  Existing apparent dualities can be and have to be overcome. Yoga means linking. It offers psycho-physical techniques to realize this basic oneness.  The Asian stresses realization more than knowledge.  The people who have such a vision do not look at God, the humans and the world in the same way as the Euro-Americans do.  This affects their experience, reasoning and reflection.

Since God is the great Other for the Euro-Americans, their religious gaze is turned outward and even “upward.”  For the Asians the Absolute is within, immanent.  One’s gaze is turned inwards.  The Absolute is experienced as the depth of one’s being.  The whole of reality is gathered and integrated around this center. Concentration helps such integration.  This integration is not merely personal, but cosmic since, in the Absolute, one rediscovers and realizes everything. That is why such a concentration on the person does not lead to individualism, but rather to a sense of community. People are aware not only of their rights but also of their duties towards others.

We can see then that there is a special Asian way of thinking and reflection that will affect our contextualization of theology.


In conclusion we can say that contextual theologizing will lead to inter-disciplinarity and holistic integration. Theology will cease to be a rational pursuit and become a holistic, spiritual one facilitating a ‘cosmotheandric’ communion.