Contextual Philosophy?

The same professor taught both the Catholicism and the Christian World courses that I took for my undergraduate Religious Studies minor, so I cannot always remember in which course I learned what information; in one or both of those courses, however, he taught us about contextual theology. In its simplest formulation, contextual theology attempts to address the following truth: people in different contexts ask different questions, and people who ask different questions get different answers. What we might call the contextual theology movement came especially out of Latin American theology, though African American, Asian, queer, and feminist theologians also gravitated towards the term. These communities were noticing that traditional European theology—what is often called systematic theology—did not offer much that engaged their contexts or bore any meaningful fruit in their members’ lives. The theological work that they did among themselves, of course, did make valuable contributions to their own lives. Living in a very different political, material, and discursive context than did Augustine or Anselm or Aquinas, they asked different questions and so they received different answers.

Image Source: David Sasaki at flic.kr/p/pRVZ

Image Source: David Sasaki at flic.kr/p/pRVZ

As a consequence, many systematic theologians who want to recognize the legitimacy of Latin American theology, feminist theology, and so on will designate those theologies as “contextual theologies” and speak of the importance of contextual theology. This attempt, even when well-intended, quite misses the point. The fundamental impulse of this idea is not just to insist on the validity of the “obviously” context-bound theologies but also to insist that systematic theology is also contextual. All theology is contextual theology, in the sense that the questions theologians ask are influenced by their context, and the questions they ask result in answers that other questions would not have found. The very universalizing trend of systematic theology does not allow it to transcend its context; rather, that universalizing trend is a result of its context, namely its Roman and Byzantine legacies’ imperial and classical-philosophical worldviews. Colloquially, though, it might make sense to distinguish between contextual theology and non-contextual theology, where the first refers to theology which recognizes it is contextual and the second refers to theology which does not.

In certain schools of social studies and the humanities many researchets have taken to situating themselves in their research. Rather than pretending to an objectivity that is impossible, they admit their own identities and concerns outright in the process of their research. For instance, they might reveal why they ask the particular questions they are asking. Yes, researchers may do this because it helps identify possible outcomes to the grant application review board, but it also acknowledges the same truth that contextual theology acknowledges: people ask different questions in different contexts, and different questions result in different answers.

Image source: QuotesEverlasting at flic.kr/p/f23mpR. Do not let Socrates’s statement here prevent you from asking what conditions had to be in place for Socrates to make this claim, or what it was about Athens that made him feel like it was a claim he had to make.

This makes me wonder: to what extent has there been a contextual philosophy movement? Philosophy is a strange member of the humanities in that it usually prefers universal claims to particular ones, making it more like a science in that respect rather than like the humanities. Even Continental philosophy, which feels much more solidly like a member of the humanities than Anglo-American philosophy does, makes universal claims about human existence. Thus it seems much more analogous to systematic than to contextual theology. Has there been a movement in philosophy analogous to the contextual theology movement?

That is an honest question. If you know the answer, or can point to some resources, I would greatly appreciate it. Of course, perhaps I am displaying my ignorance; maybe this is a well-covered topic.

(Philosophers’ attitudes might be analogous to those in science, though: of course different contexts produce different questions, and so different things are discovered than otherwise would be. Science might therefore not be objective, but it is no less effective for that. Unlike theology or history or cultural criticism, science has mechanisms to ensure that the different questions still assess the actual world and so do not proceed on faulty premises. If the questions did contain false assumptions, anomalies would start piling up in the experimental results. Philosophy might claim the same, but I do not know how true that claim is for philosophy. I’m not sure how true it is for science, either. Perhaps philosophers would be more inclined to say that philosophy is like mathematics, then; it is hard for me to see how mathematics could be contextual.)

Note: During the editing period between writing this and posting it, I have had some conversations which made me realize something like idiosyncratic philosophy might also be relevant to this conversation: it is not just the community, culture, or circumstances (context) which determines a person’s theology or philosophy, but also their own individual personality and so on. I would probably need a separate post to treat this adequately, so I will get started writing it rather than trying to edit this post.

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7 thoughts on “Contextual Philosophy?

  1. Pingback: The Shape of Truth and of Error | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

  2. So… not going at the main thrust of the post… but I’ve got a curious-person question.

    Do you remember titles for any of the books you read for the Christian World course..?
    Did you have any books that contained a lot of stories of how stuff played out in specific contexts?

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    • The only books I remember reading for those courses are Christianity: A Global History by David Chidester (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/262940.Christianity) and Radical Gratitude by Mary Jo Leddy; the second is devotional and a bit repetitive, but the first I would definitely recommend. It is a tome, but it also focuses quite a lot on the historical, cultural, and political context of each of the major areas it covers.

      (However, I know where my books for my undergraduate are, and when I get a chance to check them I will see what other titles I must have read bits of for those classes. That’s also when I’ll get a chance to re-read Home and Gilead.)

      I also know that we read an excerpt from Marcella Althaus-Reid’s The Queer God (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1779227.The_Queer_God?from_search=true&search_version=service); I tried to read the whole thing when I started my first Master’s, and failed to do so, but I do want to try again… maybe after Bonhoeffer and Barth.

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      • Bonhoeffer and Barth.. what are you reading by them?

        I tried reading “Life Together” years ago and quailed.
        I -just- checked out “The Cost of Discipleship” for the first time the other day. (a comment in a Spiritual Friendship blog post helped give impetus, I think) Was kind of happy to find it was smaller than I’d expected. Have not started it yet.

        Btw, I wanted to ask how you heard about Marilynne Robinson. (I heard from you, so I wanted to trace these things backwards.)

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        • I haven’t started reading Barth yet, but I keep meaning to on the advice of a United minister who ran a student fellowship group I visited from time to time. I am currently just starting The Cost of Discipleship; I’ve owned it since my undergraduate, when I received it as a gift, but I’ve never got more than a chapter through it. Maybe this time.

          I first heard about Gilead when it was assigned to a course for which I was a Teaching Assistant. Shortly afterwards I discovered that Eve Tushnet was a fan, and reading her writing helped me get more out of the book, but I first read it for a class (as a TA, not a student). The professor was Dennis Danielson: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/ddaniels/.

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          • I’d only known about Eve Tushnet’s review of “Lila.”
            googles Oh my goodness there’s more:
            “This is the halfway point for my series of posts on great novels about marriage..” <– What, what now?!?!

            Speaking of reviews of Robinson books, I liked Wesley Hill’s reviews of the Gilead/Home pairing. And his review of Tushnet’s “Amends.” Got a lot of good out of that second, especially.

            Oh, you were at UBC! okay.

            Thanks for the link.
            I skimmed Dr. Danielson’s list of published titles… there’s a lot I don’t know (I’m not super literary) but ohmygoodness, intriguing.

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  3. Pingback: An Early Question about Churchpunk | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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