I have an interview today with Ed Cyzewski, author of a brand new book called Coffeehouse Theology. It’s part of a blog tour that’s been happening for the past month. You can read Ed’s explanation of why he wrote a book on this topic, or jump right in to the interview below.
By the way, I wasn’t sure what I would think of this book. He calls it an “emerging church theology book,” although the blurb at Amazon says that he’s coming “from the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum.” I hope to have a review up early next week.
If you have any questions or comments, leave them in the comment section.
A lot of people have heard of systematic theology and even biblical theology, but not contextual theology. What is contextual theology and why does it matter?
When I talk about contextual theology, I’m speaking most precisely of local theology that is aware of a context. I never want to insinuate that we shape our theology under the guidance of our context instead of God. Rather we shape a theology that is recognized as local and is under the influence of our context. While I’ve been using the term contextual theology, Andy Rowell’s recent review offers the technical corrective: I’m talking about theology that is contextually aware and local, but not necessarily guided by context. So contextual theology as I’m using it is an awareness and a dialogue with our culture as we study God. God, scripture, and traditions still guide us in our pursuit of theology, but my understanding of contextual theology means we take part in these practices with context in mind.
Context matters in our theology because we have a limited perspective, and so we study the Bible realizing that we have a cultural lens–shared values with those in our context–that influences our interpretations. North Americans will read the Bible different from Latin Americans, Asians, and so on.
You’ve said that this book tries to bring “mission, culture, the doctrine of God, Biblical theology, church history, and global Christianity” together. That’s pretty ambitious! How are all of these related to contextual theology?
It is no doubt ambitious and I’ll be happy to follow up on this in the comment section if I don’t answer this question completely. Let’s see if I can keep it brief.
Mission means that we join our missionary God in his pursuit of humanity. It is the love of the Father that sent the Son down into our world, and the Holy Spirit has been sent to guide and sustain us. So we follow God into our world and its culture. We seek to understand this culture where we have been called to know God and to make God known so that we are not blindly influenced by culture. We want to remain relevant in our culture, but to also maintain a prophetic voice in culture as the people who are committed to the Kingdom of God above all else.
And that brings us to the theology that we do as followers of God and as participants in his mission, since theology is faith seeking understanding and comprises the Gospel that we live out and share. God makes the first move to us and continues to guide us in theology through the Holy Spirit since the goal of theology is leading us to God. The Bible is our primary source in theology that some have also called our norming norm. Our traditions and fellow Christians (both local and abroad) guide our theology, inform our decisions, and provide perspectives that challenge and sharpen our theology.
That’s pretty brief. You’ve written, “If we truly want to study God, we must first understand the cultural lens that we view God through.” Why is this so important?
I share a story in the book of how I used to think God was a Republican. I honestly believed that you could be a committed follower of Jesus and vote for a Democrat (for president at least). The fact is we face the temptation to create God in our own image. An awareness of who we are and how that influences our theology will keep us from thinking that God hates all of the same people we do.
How would you respond to those who see contextual theology as a move away from absolute truth?
In a word, “Hooray!” I suppose I should explain myself here. To be honest, space does not permit the kind of response that question deserves.
I find it ironic that many Christians believe we need absolute truth for Christianity to survive. In a sense, we have made God dependent on a concept that arose during the Enlightenment. Let me unpack that a bit.
Absolute truth is completely verifiable truth that can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that is true at all times and all places, crossing into all cultures. So let’s take the Resurrection. Christians believe that the Resurrection happened and is true for all times and all places, but can we prove it definitively in a scientific way? Of course not. We certainly believe it’s true, but cannot prove it in an absolute sense.
When we talk about absolutes we also have to deal with our history. Europeans guided by the belief that their truths were absolute brutally oppressed and colonized other cultures, so while it may sound OK to an American, who lives in the wealthiest and most powerful country, to possess a perspective that is true at all times for all people, we have a problem when we run into countries with different takes on the truth.
I hasten to add that God has the complete picture on truth and we are figuring out parts of it as we go, but we need to keep learning, studying, discussing, and seeking out perspectives outside of our own to get a better handle on the truth. The pursuit of truth goes on even if we don’t have a handle on all of it.
So if I understand you correctly, you believe the Resurrection happened, but you’re saying that the term “absolute truth” is an Enlightenment one that may not be that useful. Would you say that you can know something truly without knowing it fully? In other words, that we can say that the resurrection is true without knowing everything about it?
I’m pretty sure I’d agree with that statement in the sense that Paul says we see in a glass darkly, knowing only in part, and that Isaiah says,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
When Paul talks about knowing in part or dimly, I’d say that pretty clearly says we can know something about God and our world, but we have limitations. So as Christians we live in the power of the Resurrection because we know it’s true, but we can’t prove it conclusively in a scientific manner (we can’t demonstrate it via experiment for starters).
Also, we know a lot about the Resurrection, but our knowledge of both this event and its ongoing ramifications will be limited. Speaking for myself, some white, middle-class guy from the Northeast corner of the US could never have every angle of the Resurrection figured out, and so I rest in the truth and knowledge that I do have, while learning from other perspectives about the Resurrection. If God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our own, then we better believe our finite perspectives on earth will never have these things completely figured out. Fortunately for us, we believe God has the complete perspective, or that God has access to all truth. And that, more than anything else in my estimation, is what keeps Christians from sliding into an anything relativism.
How do you see this book helping the average Christian?
This book is an onramp into theology and a synthesis of the various theology and culture ideas out there: mission, context, the Trinity, the role of the Spirit, Bible study, traditions, and global Christianity. We have a lot of people talking about these topics, but I have yet to see an accessible synthesis of them in one place. I hope my book offers that to both those new to theology and those immersed in the conversations going on.