Context: The Hazards of a Good Idea

Douglas John Hall[1]

There is no such thing as Christian theology without risks. Every good theological idea has its attendant hazards. It is the mark of theological maturity to realize this about one’s own theological work, and to cultivate foresight about the ways in which one’s convictions may be misused.


First, let me reaffirm why I think that contextuality in Christian theology is indeed a ‘good idea’–in fact, an essential one. Permit me to speak about this autobiographically.[2] In the 1960s when I began to think and write with a deliberate view to the importance of our North American context, the terms ‘context’ and ‘contextuality’ were rarely used in theological work. More importantly, apart from Reinhold Niebuhr, the specificity of our own Canadian and American contexts didn’t seem to matter much in what theologians wrote and talked about. One could take the latest theologies from elsewhere—mostly Europe—and, with a slight twist of the wrist, apply them to us.

My friend the late George P. Grant, Canada’s most insightful philosophic analyst of our ‘New World’, stated the matter succinctly:

In a field as un-american as theology, the continually changing ripples of thought, by which the professionals hope to revive a dying faith, originate from some stone dropped by a European thinker.[3]

The late Sixties provided a stunning example of precisely this North American habit of borrowing our theologies ready-made from the sufferings of others. Juergen Moltmann’s brilliant Theology of Hope was published in an English translation during Canada’s centennial year.[4] This book had been received in Moltmann’s Germany as a beacon of light after decades of crushing defeat, social despondency and the repressive rhetoric (Dorothee Soelle called it “lying”) of post-War politics. The book’s 39-year-old author was himself, as a German soldier and prisoner of war, just emerging from the personal humiliations of the war. Like some of my other German friends, Moltmann was able, despite his former indifference to the Christian religion, to find in the gospel of The Crucified God[5] hope for a people that had experienced great failure and shame.

Knowing something of the rather vast difference between the German and the North American situations, I watched carefully to see what was made of Moltmann’s Theology of Hope in Canada and the U.S.A. Alas, it was predictable. We like ‘hope’. Hope is uplifting. Hopeful people are nice. So this latest “ripple of thought” coming from Germany, the homeland of Great Theology, made a huge impact here. Everywhere there were conferences and symposia and lectures on the ‘theology of hope.’ I seriously doubt that very many North American Christians (including professionals!) actually read Moltmann’s difficult book. The slogan was enough!

The contextual difference between defeated Germany and triumphant Americana was immense: for Germans the theology of hope was gospel because they had known hope’s antithesis, despair; for North Americans this theology just postponed any real confrontation with our deeply repressed despair. What was Good News for many Germans was in North America just another phase of the old religion—the religion of progress and optimism. Contexts matter!

Observing the strange fate of Moltmann’s Theologie der Hoffnung in our context drove me to publish my first serious essay, which I called “The Theology of Hope in an Officially Optimistic Society”[6]. I have been guided in all my subsequent work by the realization that dialogue with our socio-cultural context is the condition without which Christian theology, in the authentic sense of the term, cannot be done.[7]


However, to repeat: There is no non-risky theology. And in our “officially optimistic society”, whose rhetorical optimism is driven by capitalist economic logic as well as recurring versions of the much-battered ‘American Dream’ and its pale Canadian counterpart, the hazards of contextual theology become conspicuous. For the past three or four decades, ‘context’ and ‘contextuality’ have become buzz-words, almost clichés. That in itself is enough to kill a good idea; but there are two especially hazardous uses of contextuality that I want to name here:

First, there is a tendency to define context too narrowly and parochially. Too many Christians seem to think in decades, when we should be thinking about epochs or long, deep-seated historical trends. Authentically contextual thinking assumes historical knowledge. Others believe they are thinking contextually when they identify the cultural context that Christian theology need to engage with some particular “issue” (sexual issues are especially popular), some moral or political cause, some quest for ‘identity.’ Such matters are of course aspects of the context in which Christians find themselves today. But they are for the most part consequences—effects–of deeper problems. Authentic contextuality looks for causes.

There are of course contexts within contexts. There are indeed particular socio-economic, racial, ethnic and gender ‘issues’ that all serious Christians must try to comprehend and address. Every area in Canada, every province (I live in Quebec!), every age-group, every community has its own specific challenges and possibilities. When it comes to that, every individual lives in a context that is unique. Good preachers and pastors have always known this.

But with all our specific contexts, great or small, we are all living in a globalized context that tends to erase ancient cultures, we are all part of a technologically-driven society that discourages thought, we are all conditioned by an economic system that creates poverty for the majority of earth’s peoples. Most importantly, we are all living on a planet, perhaps unique in the universe, whose future is profoundly threatened. If we identity our ‘context’ too narrowly with its parts, or some of them, our Christian witness becomes so diffuse and discordant that Christianity will appear more like Babel than Pentecost! Some would say that this has already happened.

The hazard of contextual narrowness, however, goes beyond the habit of identifying our context with specific social and moral and other aspects of the context. Of course Christians are called to address particular questions of human and creaturely well-being, but we are required to listen for the questions beneath the questions, the anxieties beneath the anxieties, the ontological plate-shifting beneath the surface of society. In a word, the context that theology has to try to understand is the moving spirit—Geist—of the culture we want to engage. What is the spiritual condition of this time and place— its Zeitgeist? That is what Jesus was talking about when he said to the most ‘religious’ leaders of his context, “’You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” [Matthew 16:3] The Spirit of God drives faith to become acquainted with this other spirit, the spirit of the times. When these two spirits meet (and only then), something worthy of the term theology may happen.

The second (and more important) concern that I have about our present ‘contextual-ism’ is that for too many of our contemporaries ‘the context’ seems to constitute the whole of the matter. Many appear to believe that if, as a Christian, you have spoken interestingly (perhaps in stained-glass accents) about ‘the context’ you have done your job. But context is only one side of the dialectic in which Christians are called to live and work. The other side of the dialectic can be variously called ‘the Christian message’ (Tillich), ‘the tradition’, ‘the gospel’, etc. In other words, it refers to what Christians bring to their context.

Both components are essential. It is not theology if there is no contextual agonizing, and it is not theology if there is no (or only superficial) wrestling with what has been ‘handed over’ (tradere –tradition). Karl Barth’s well-known bon mot is instructive: “The Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” But Barth didn’t mean just the Bible (though he did give the scriptures priority), and he certainly didn’t mean just The Globe or the N.Y. Times!

Christians who have not struggled to understand their own context end by either perpetuating the truisms of past contexts or by mouthing religious or ethical generalizations that could be articulated by any thinking person. But Christians who have not subjected their minds to the long traditions of theological thought, including the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, end by having nothing much to bring to their contexts by way of another perspective, another possibility—maybe even something ‘new’: Good News!

So Christian theology is never easy. From the experience of six decades attempting it, I can say, with feeling, that theology is often agonizing. One does it on the verge of failure always—and especially today, when the ‘social nets’ that made theology, ministry and even faith itself seem ‘natural’ have all been removed. Trying to live between honest intellectual and spiritual exposure to our times (such times!) and vigorous, continuous and deep probing of the Judeo-Christian tradition is very hard work. Many who ‘put their hand to the plough’ give up after a few years; others find more comfortable ways of being ‘Christian’, ‘ministers’, ‘theologians.’ One shouldn’t be too hard on them. They’ve discovered that one could be crucified living between the Zeitgeist and the holy Geist! Many (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer) have been. But that’s where theology is called to live. It is never without risk, and never without something like . . . suffering.

But that’s not all it is.

Notre-Dame-de-Grace, Montreal,
November 18, 2014

[1] Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University.

[2] My understanding of the importance of contextual thinking in Christian theology has been developed in many places, but especially in the first volume of my 3-volume systematic work entitled Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991] and in The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003]

[3] “In Defence of North America”, Technology and Empire, Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969; p. 16

[4] Translated by James W. Leitch from the German, Theologie der Hoffnung (1965); London: S.C.M. Press, 1967

[5] The title of his second (and perhaps more important) book [German 1973, English trans. by R.A.Wilson, 1974]

[6] Religioin in Life, vol. XL, no.3, 1971.

[7] This essay, which someone sent to Moltmann, that brought about our longstanding friendship. When we first met in 1972, Juergen was working on The Crucified God—because, he said, too many young German theologs have lauded my theology of hope without understanding its foundations in “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”