“Every theologian is historically particular … They all struggled with their own particular contexts. These people we consider giants of theology struggled with their own questions.”
Such was the case made by Dr. Daniel Lee, director of the Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, who spoke at a forum on Monday hosted by G2G-KODIA. The organization, which aims to provide contextualized resources for Asian Americans in ministry, has produced Bible study curriculum for Asian American youth, and hosts events like this forum on a monthly basis.
At the forum, which took place at Fuller Theological Seminary, Lee asserted that “all theology is contextual,” and addressed the implications of the term “contextual theology” itself. The term, he said, is evidence of the “white normativity” that is deeply ingrained in theology. Every theologian, when asked, “Is your theology contextual?” would answer that it is, Lee said, but not every theologian would explicitly call their work “contextualized” like some Asian Americans or those of other minority ethnic groups might. Even the act of calling something “contextual theology” assumes that some theology is normal, or “white,” while others aren’t.
“No one should have to justify Asian American theology. If they’re Asian Americans doing theology, then they’re already doing Asian American theology, or theology from an Asian American perspective,” Lee said.
However, he added, ethnic minorities still must use the term because white normativity is currently deeply ingrained in Christianity. “We’re in a strange time where we have to label it because if we don’t, we have no idea what we’re doing because normativity is already so established,” Lee explained.
Some Asian Americans may shy away from doing theology or ministry specific to the context of Asian Americans, and Lee admitted that he had also felt this way. He said he felt that doing Asian American ministry would limit him to a “pond,” when he had wanted to get out into the “ocean” of theology. But he said he later realized that “every theologian does theology in their own pond.”
He noted theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, whom he called “theological giants,” as having been able to produce the theological work that they did because of the specific questions and struggles they had in their specific contexts.
“They all were trying to make sense of the gospel in a particular time and space,” Lee said. “That’s why every theology covers certain questions, and ignores others. It’s because they were interested in those particular questions.”
The problem with some of those in minority groups, Lee said, is that they have a tendency to shy away from those specific questions and struggles that arise from their contexts, rather than embracing them and seeking to resolve them.
“Non-white theologians have already absorbed so much of white normativity that they don’t think of their questions and struggles as valid or important enough,” Lee said. “But theology is born out of pain. Take your struggles and ideas seriously.”
It’s when these specific struggles are embraced that theology is born, and contribute to a wider and universal understanding of the gospel, said Lee. Though “the universal gospel is always going to be mediated in a particular way,” he said, “the particular should always serve the universal.”
Lee said that when ministers fail to embrace their struggles, their contribution to that greater understanding is lost.
“We’re ashamed to connect with our pain, so we’re not contributing theologically,” Lee said. “For us to take our pain seriously — that’s where contextual theology comes from.”
Meanwhile, G2G-KODIA has developed and published a Bible study curriculum with questions and stories that are relatable to Asian American youth since 2012, and provides workshops, forums, and other resources for Asian American pastors and parents.