I was in a board meeting yesterday for a committee at the GTU (to protect the innocent, I’ll leave out the name of said committee) during which one of the members mentioned something about contextual theology. Now, the GTU is by design an interdisciplinary and multi-faith institution, which means that folks routinely drop discipline-specific terms in ways that folks from their same discipline understand while leaving others, like me, sort of scratching our heads. Not that I’m bothered by that; each of us uses language in this contextually specific way. Were I to say “Critical Buddhism” at a meeting of the International Association Buddhist Studies, I’m sure the folks the room would immediately get the reference while, sitting here, decontextualized in this paragraph, it may not be immediately clear to others.

But what this person said about contextual theology struck me, so I thought I’d do some quick digging. Unfortunately, there’s no Wikipedia page about it (which may mean that it doesn’t really exist), and the few articles that did pop up in my one-and-only Google search were pretty specific to a Christian theological context and, as a result, were either over my head or not interesting enough for me to really want to spend the afternoon doing any further research. If I’m going to spend an afternoon doing further research, chances are it’s gonna have the word “Buddhism” in it!

What I did gather, however, is that contextual theology has something to do with how scriptural interpretation is done outside of a systematized orthodoxy. This seems to be of particular concern to modern Protestants because, in part, Protestantism is based on the idea that scripture represents the final authority on what God wants (as opposed to papal authority in the Catholic church); but, because everyone can read the Bible, what the Bible means is up to some serious interpretation. Thus, the “contextual” part has to do with the various contexts in which the Bible is read and interpreted (i.e., different ethnic, linguistic, cultural, political, etc., communities and contexts).

I’m paraphrasing here. But it’s all leading up to a good ending. Bear with me.

This all seems very much related to the post-modern issue of cultural and moral relativity. That is, in the absence of a single, essentialist, unchanging, universal “truth,” each person becomes free to interpret reality according to his or her own particular cultural context. And in the modern age, where globalization, tourism, migration, etc., bring multiple cultures into close proximity with one another, it’s easy to question whether or not our particular perspective on the truth is really true when your next-door neighbor has a seemingly contradictory perspective and, despite that, hasn’t been sucked into a hell-hole by marauding archangels.

The problem with contextual theology seems to be that in a Catholic or Orthodox setting where there’s a clear hierarchy of authority, knowing what the scriptures really mean is pretty clear: when in doubt, ask the pope or the bishops. But in Protestantism, where there are literally hundreds of different denominations and sub-denominations, each with slightly different understandings of the text, who’s to say which one’s right? Or, to put it another way, if everyone is interpreting the same text in different ways, what is it that makes everyone a “Christian”? What unites if everyone’s different?

All of which is, I think, some of the background to the comment I heard yesterday in the board meeting. The comment was something along the lines of: if we’re so wrapped up in our contextual theology, we end up digging ourselves into a hole where we can’t get out, we can’t connect with other people and their contexts.

Right now, you may be wondering what, if anything, this has to do with Buddhism. Maybe nothing. I am not usually one to use the discipline-specific language of another academic or religious tradition to explain my own. But this comment got me thinking. There is much hand-wringing on the Internets regarding the “right” way to be a Buddhist or practice Buddhism — whether it’s the “right” way to practice as straight white man or a Buddhist of color a woman or an Asian or an Asian American. In other words, how much do our specific contexts affect (or should affect) how we go about practicing and understanding (i.e., interpreting) the Dharma.

Because let’s be honest. When we write these obsessively long and passionate blog posts (or, yes, glossy magazine articles) about how to be a Buddhist, we are, either by intention or accident, interpreting the Dharma. We are choosing the bits of Dharma that support our ideas and ignoring those pesky ones that seem to contradict our thesis. We are playing with language, and we are merely offering up our particular point of view, our contextualized opinion, on what we think is “truth” but in point of fact probably isn’t.

And as the hand-wringing gets stronger and we become more and more attached to our perspective on the “truth,” we find ourselves deeper and deeper in that hole. And we run the risk of loosing touch with the very people we’re trying to reach.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that contexts aren’t important. Even if contexts are merely perspectives on the truth, they remain important for any number of reasons. For example, this post began with the phrase “contextual theology” and mentioned the phrase “critical Buddhism” — two phrases that have specific systems of meaning within specific contexts. Knowing the context helps others understand what the hell it is you’re talking about in the first place. Moreover, contexts are real, at least in the second-truth sense of Nargarjuna’s two truths, and I could wax philosophically about that for hours on end; but the present context is a blog post, and blog posts aren’t always the most appropriate place to wax philosophically about Nagarjuna.

I ran into Harry the other day here at the JSC, and he mentioned that my last couple of posts had been downright depressing. So I’ll do my best to end this post on a hopeful note: while we’re all talking about the truth from our respective contexts, let’s try and be mindful of our biases, be mindful of our outright condemnation of others, and speak to the truths our contexts while acknowledging and respecting the contexts of others. Because in the end, we’re all in this together.


2 thoughts on “contexts

  1. I wasted several minutes looking for a “like” button for this post. Bah.

    In any case, I have been thinking a lot about context, perspective, and relativism lately, in part because I was recently admonished by a failed romantic prospect that if I only recognized that each of us has a different reality then I would be able to accept and forgive and blah blah blah. This is relativism taken, as it often is, in a reductio-ad-absurdem kind of direction, without recognition of the “absurbem” part of that equation. And it is used to justify ego-driven behaviors that hurt other people.

    In any case, my lousy romantic life, is not the point, but serves as an excellent jumping off point for the dangers of overdetermination of difference. And as you know well, Scott, I am generally speaking, a staunch supporter of the (respectful) recognition of difference.

    But recently, in part because of the tenor of recent political debates, I’ve been wishing for a bit more emphasis on… not commonality per se, but on ways of thinking difference without shutting down on identification and communication across contexts… which is, in a way, the *real* goal of relativism, yes? So, what I’m saying with more words than sense, is simply: WORD.

  2. Hey, just came across this blog today. Name’s Stamati.

    Coming from years as a Christian, I can say confidently that one of the greatest things about Buddhism is that its practitioners are, as far as I know, discouraged from taking the Buddha’s words as a Christian would take God’s. This gives us I think much more latitude in our interpretations of things.

    I am a beginning Buddhist, so correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it a possibility within Buddhism that different methods and interpretations fit different kinds of people?

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