Stephen Bevans on contextualized theologies

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I’m running a backlog on blog posts at the moment, but while it’s fresh, I should blog about the guest lecture we had on Monday from Professor Stephen Bevans, talking about his new book An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective.

The book is aimed at training people to become theologians, but with an interesting slant; Bevans’ thesis is that doing contextual theology, something we’re familiar with - or ought to be familiar with - as missionaries, is only the first step. Applying the principle that theology can only be done in community, rather than in individual isolation, he encourages us to bring our contextual theologies into dialogue with each other.

In his talk (and, to be honest, his lecture at CMS as well) he was rather vague, not really going into details about particular instances of contextual theology, but this time that wasn’t his aim; he was trying to share lessons that he had learnt while writing the book.

He took the now popular position that we need a sort of theological affirmative action, privileging theologies from the margins and the global South, which was funny to hear from an old white male. But he has a point; dethroning Western traditional theologies, seeing them as contextual and unreasonably privileged at present, is an important project and will require serious engagement with the majority world. Part of this includes something that Bevans is already doing - trying to highlight some of the historical contributions of woman and non-Westerners to theology, from the African and Middle Eastern Church fathers, mystics like Julian of Norwich and Macrina, the great Cappadocian theologian, through to Arabic Christian apologists in Middle Ages.

And speaking of the “Middle Ages”, he made an interesting point with the way we name periods of time; we’re very Eurocentric, and we say the “Middle Ages” when we mean “the European Middle Ages.” Now this is not merely political correctness (gone mad or otherwise) - there are solid reasons to believe that in a couple of hundred years, the majority of Christianity will be in the Global South. Bevans rather cheekily suggested that looking on a sufficiently long timescale, histories of the Church will talk about the 17th Century not as the time of the Reformation - a fairly small power-struggle in Western Europe - but the time of the first real evangelisation of South America and parts of Asia. But then, he is a Catholic, after all.

And as a Catholic, he’s got a great big hole in the middle of his argument.

Bevans wants to argue that we are not creating a “global theology”, a single unified theology suitable for all cultures, but wants to see “theologies in global context”: “theologiolae in theologia”, in a sense. But equally, he doesn’t want a complete pluralism of theologies, and he acknowledges that not all theologies have equivalent quality; and that means that when different contextual theologies rub up against each other, each context needs to decide what is right and what is not right to take away.

But Catholics already have a concept of a global theology, and they do have a decision procedure for what is right and what is not right to take away in theology; it’s called the magisterium of the church, and it proceeds from the Pope on those occasions when he has the Holy Spirit on him. Decisions in theology are centralised, and Bevans is arguing for a decenteredness. It isn’t going to work.

I asked him about this, and I didn’t really find that he answered the question, but then I didn’t really ask it particularly well either. He said that context needs to be made an equal partner with Scripture and Tradition, which is something I agree with but I wish him luck in persuading the institutional Catholic church of this. (I also thought that if we could get him to add Reason to that list, we could make a great Wesleyan of him yet.)

There were a couple of other great takeaways from the talk, too; one was the need to consider non-discursive sources of theology. Works of art like the Keiskamma altarpiece are theological reflections, and that means so are Matt Redman songs; but they’re often ignored as such because we look for theology in a particular category and style of material. He spoke about his regret in not writing more in his book about engagement with other religions - which is where most theology gets developed in the first place.

But he left us with a wonderful reminder from Anselm, that theology is faith seeking understanding: it must be faith, as the theologian must be committed to God and committed to living out his findings; it must be seeking, as it must humbly recognise that it has not yet found; (he contrasted theology with fundamentalism, which is “faith finding certainty”!) and it must be understanding, as it must be done with the mind as well as the heart.

The Catholic Church is lucky to have Steve Bevans, and we were lucky to have him on Monday.