Jesus Creed

We are committed to fighting racism on the Jesus Creed blog, and that means reviewing the best books available today about racism. This series deals with the subject of how Christian theology has been gripped by racism … and we are hoping this series can “loosen the grip.” The post today is by Mary Veeneman, professor of theology at North Park University. She has a fascinating and informed approach to the next chp in Carter’s book. The big question Dr. Veeneman asks us to think about is this: Does our context shape our theology? More: Does our racialized consciousness shape our theology?

Karl Rahner was a German Jesuit (1904-1984) who was arguably the best
and most well-known Catholic theologian of the 20th century. 
Foundational to Rahner’s entire system of thought is his assertion that
the human being has a fundamental and pre-thematic openness to and
awareness of absolute mystery.  What he meant by this is that every
person is aware of and in some way encounters God whether or not this
is consciously recognized.  For Rahner, even the avowed atheist is
somehow in contact with God, even if that person does not realize it.

This assertion underlies every other theological claim made by Rahner and it is ultimately rooted in his readings of Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger.  Many people who have read and studied Rahner’s work have had strong reactions to it.  He has been the subject of much praise and the subject of much criticism. 

One of the strongest critiques made of his work was by his student, Johann Baptist Metz.  Metz was a German theologian trained by Rahner, but he ultimately disagreed with his teacher on the question of the context of theology.  Metz objected to Rahner’s failure to consider the context of individual human beings and the reality of their life experiences.  Coincidentally, towards the end of his life, Rahner said that of the many critiques of his work, the critique of Metz was the one that he took particularly seriously.  He seemed to acknowledge that the problem identified by Metz in his work was a significant one
In the fifth chapter of the book, Race: A Theological Account
, J. Kameron Carter notes Rudolph Otto’s Idea of the Holy, which asserts that “‘the category of the religious [is an] a priori in the human consciousness'” (204).  In other words, “‘formally speaking, the religious experience is the same for the earliest man as it is for the mystics in the highly developed religions of Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism'” (204).  This view is very similar to Rahner’s:  each person has an experience of God that is common to all people and thus universal.
A friend of mine was present during the interview of a candidate for a position teaching theology in a seminary.  The candidate, a woman originally from Latin America, taught a class of students that were very receptive to her and asked her a number of questions after her lecture.  One of the questions asked of her was whether or not her personal context as a woman from Latin America in any way informed the way in which she approached the theological task.  She replied that it did not, which seemed to disappoint some of the students.

Rahner, Metz, Otto and my friend’s experience all approach a question that Carter seems interested in addressing in this chapter.  Does context matter?  Does the theology or biblical interpretation we do look different depending on our own personal location?  Does it matter for my own work (for example) that I approach the theological task as a woman?  Does it make a difference if one approaches the theological task from a cultural background and context than is different than the dominant one?  Of course it is clear that whether or not context should matter that it does matter.  To grossly oversimplify the hermeneutical work of Hans Georg Gadamer, each of us has a tradition or a context out of which we operate.  The only major question is whether or not we are honest about it.

The question that still needs to be addressed is whether or not context should  matter and whether or not we should be intentional about considering context in our theological work and in our readings of scripture.  Should the contemporary context inform what we do in this arena?  If Otto is right, as Carter depicts him, and “the religious embraces the totality of human existence” (206), does the particularity of one person or one group’s human existence have a role to play?

Carter tells us in this chapter that Charles H. Long’s critique of modern theology holds that wealth, fullness and Western culture are aligned with Christianity (which is seen as the “absolute religion”) while poverty and marginalization is associated with the non-Western and non-Christian other (207).  As a result, Long sees theology as inherently tied up with the Western philosophical tradition.  Responding to this, Carter writes, “Long’s reduction of Christian theology to its [Western] performances does not allow him to reckon with other types of Christian theological performances, both within and on the underside of the West, performances that might actually be consonant with and perhaps even radicalize his own brilliant insights into the poverty and wealth of existence” (208).  Carter seems to think that context should matter.  What do you think?

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