The cultural situatedness of theology

By: Andrew S
April 25, 2012

Over at Zelophehad’s Daughters, Lynnette has written a series of posts about the pieces of her feminist history. While there are a lot of different, interesting things to cover (what can I say…Lynnette has been grappling with a lot of interesting things period), one thing that struck me was a quotation from the third post in the series. She writes about her problems with the sexism inherent in some of the scriptures, and the problem with trying to deal with that sexism:

Well, sometimes it seems like the issue of taking writing seriously leads to a lot of very difficult questions in religion, as I’m sure all of us have encountered as we’ve tried to make sense of our own scriptural texts. What do you do with sexist passages in the Bible? You can throw them out and decide to instead focus on the more egalitarian ones, but what justifies the practice of privileging the stuff you like? Some contemporary feminists will set as their norm the full humanity and equality of women and men, and judge scripture through that light. That certainly sounds good, and yet I am fundamentally uneasy with it, because I do not think theology should be based on current political trends, no matter how appealing; if theology is simply our ideas about what it means to be human, it isn’t theology anymore. But it’s a knotty question, because I’m not about to swallow the sexist stuff, either.

I have seen this methodological issue several times. I think a major critique of liberal Christianity in general is that it has whittled away too many things in the Bible by reinterpreting these things through a modern and modernist, progressive, liberal political framework.

I have read before that one thing that our problematically non-modern religious texts are really very good for is to serve as a way to make us truly consider that our modern values and assumptions can’t be taken for granted. As we grapple with what the prophets tell us are the words of God, we have to take seriously these texts and ideas that seem less civilized or even downright immoral. As Ashley Sanders wrote on her now-defunct blog Project Deseret (fortunately, I wrote twice about the particular blog post to which I would like to refer):

Ashley Sanders

Ashley Sanders

…I am given the Book of Mormon. I am told it is a sacred book, true, the only truth. I start to read it. I find a passage that irks me, but because I think the book is sacred — because I am told to read it again and again and again, and because it is supposed to be “true” and therefore must possess a secret that would satisfy my ire — I do exactly that: I read it again and again, and my reading deepens, and I search out all possible answers. Perhaps I find that my original assumption — this initial feeling that the Book of Mormon is racist, maybe — bends toward a reading that shows that this is simultaneously true and untrue. There are racist ideas in the Book of Mormon, and there have certainly been racist outcomes: people have found verses that were ripe for bad use and used them badly (both the book’s fault and the people’s fault). But because I am reading down, deeper and deeper, I must look at everything, and I discover, too, that for Joseph Smith’s time period it is actually quite progressive: a book about the American continent belonging rightly to the Indians, a book about white people needing brown people to save them. And then I must think the next logical thought — namely, how much was this book influenced by Joseph’s personal history and the larger histories unfolding around him — and I am off to the races again, asking questions about the nature of revelation and its dependability, about the possibility of a non-Platonic truth where there is nothing ‘out there’ and only the tension of all the ‘in here’s’.It is the exact feeling of ire, of disbelief, of noticing contradiction, that saves. It saves by making you aware of the passage of time.

That sounds strange at first: the knowledge of time saves you? What could that possibly mean? What I mean by it is this: reading centuries’ worth of sacred texts requires you to admit that truth is very different at different times. It also requires you to admit that some things that were formerly ‘true’ to whole cultures are repugnant and grotesque to whole cultures now. Once you have noticed this, you will have to ask yourself a hard question: “What was ‘true’ about the scriptural ideas you now find repugnant and what was cultural? What parts of these grotesque idea actually came from God and what parts are merely the infinitized preferences of people still in the grip of societal- or self-deception? Did God, for example, really want the Israelites to kill men, women, babies and animals to purify the land from wickedness, or was that a great and odious self-deception that the Israelites attributed to their God to give it sanction?”

You will be forced to ask these questions, but then, as every good book requires, you will be forced to turn the question on yourself, ask, “What ideas in my own time are merely zeitgeist playing God and what ideas are true in spite of the culture?” Or, in other words, “If I took my most intense spiritual feelings and froze them into words that persisted in a book for dozens of centuries, and if a person thousands of years from now opened that book and read my frozen thoughts, what would they find to be true and what would they find to be backward and repugnant?”…

and from my other post on the topic:

…You will come to perform the most spiritual act, which is to doubt yourself in earnest, to doubt the self-evidence of any of your thoughts and to suspect preferences in the ideas you claim as truths. And this just might save you: It might save you from the rotten self-evidences of your culture; it will certainly save you from flatness of mind.

So, with that in mind, let’s turn back to what Lynnette was saying…in particular, a couple of lines:

…what justifies the practice of privileging the stuff you like? Some contemporary feminists will set as their norm the full humanity and equality of women and men, and judge scripture through that light. That certainly sounds good, and yet I am fundamentally uneasy with it, because I do not think theology should be based on current political trends, no matter how appealing; if theology is simply our ideas about what it means to be human, it isn’t theology anymore. But it’s a knotty question, because I’m not about to swallow the sexist stuff, either.

(emphasis added)

The question for me is this: what is theology?

Because for a while here, I was thinking that theology was precisely our ideas about what it means to be humans. Now, now, I know that that may be too naturalistic of a definition for most of you — I’m sure that many people might say that it’s God’s ideas about what it means to be humans (or maybe not about “what it means to be humans,” but definitely “God’s ideas.”) However, here I still feel that the major problem is that we don’t really know — even though many people think they have good ways — how to discern God’s thoughts, or how to separate God’s thoughts from our own.

But there is a second question from the part I emphasized. Lynnette says she does not think that theology should be based on current political trends. And I think that this is a popular position for people to take. She asks earlier: what justifies the practice of privileging the stuff you like?

The second question I have is this: why should theology be based on the past’s political trends? If we can’t fully divide human ideas from divine ones, why not at least make the human ideas in employ be the ones that are progressive and forward-looking from our position?

Ashley Sanders had a part that paid homage to this very idea:

…But because I am reading down, deeper and deeper, I must look at everything, and I discover, too, that for Joseph Smith’s time period it is actually quite progressive: a book about the American continent belonging rightly to the Indians, a book about white people needing brown people to save them. And then I must think the next logical thought — namely, how much was this book influenced by Joseph’s personal history and the larger histories unfolding around him…

If we accept a certain cultural situatedness to theology and to religious texts, then maybe we can recognize that religious texts can be progressive — for their time. But then let’s ask: what religious texts are progressive for our time?

Ok, so maybe we don’t need new progressive religious texts, but what about revelation?

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23 Responses to The cultural situatedness of theology

  1. Lynnette on April 25, 2012 at 7:09 PM

    Hi, and thanks for a thoughtful response to my post. (I do want to quickly clarify that the paragraph you cite was something I wrote about ten years ago, and my thinking has somewhat changed since then. Throughout the series, I was trying to give examples of the questions which were most on my mind at certain times of my life.)

    Where I am now, roughly, is that I actually do think it’s legitimate to use the full humanity of women and men as a normative ideal–but I’d want to base that not in secular thought (which I think was my earlier concern), but in our own religious texts, such as the “all are alike unto God” in 2 Nephi 26, or the baptismal formula in Galatians (no male or female, for you are all one in Christ). Of course, I’m still privileging certain texts, but that’s inevitable–I suspect the best we can do is be upfront about our methodologies. So I like what you’re proposing here (if I’m understanding it), with consciously drawing on the texts that are progressive for our time.

    And at this point in my thinking I’d also agree with you that theology is about what it means to be human, from a religious perspective. (The question of whether you should start with the human or the divine in theological work is an oft-debated one, at least in my experience, but I tend toward the former.) I think of theology as putting the tradition in dialogue with the contemporary situation–which means that I think it’s actually important to put our tradition in conversation with our experience of being human, because while I wouldn’t want to collapse theology into the latter, I think if there’s no resonance between the two, that’s a problem. At the same time, I do think the fact that there is sometimes tension is (ideally) a way of keeping us humble, reminding us that our conclusions are always somewhat tentative.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts. Some good stuff here.

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  2. Lynnette on April 25, 2012 at 7:19 PM

    “And at this point in my thinking I’d also agree with you that theology is about what it means to be human, from a religious perspective.”

    Clarification: I should have said, _although_ from a religious perspective–I’m probably less naturalistic than you on that point. Of course, I wouldn’t entirely conflate a religious perspective with God’s perspective–I’m sympathetic to your concerns about discerning the latter–but my hope is that religion can at least give us some glimpses of what a divine perspective might entail.

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  3. Howard on April 25, 2012 at 7:30 PM

    Humankind is being divinely evolved toward enlightenment. It had to begin somewhere so it starts by using primitive, flawed and biased prophets and it builds on their limited knowledge and understanding as it continues so don’t take any of it too literally. I believe we’re being taught in a series of metaphorical stair stepped paradigms. Personal inspiration and revelation can help us sort these problems out.

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  4. Andrew S on April 25, 2012 at 7:33 PM

    Lynnette,

    Thanks for coming by and commenting!

    Where I am now, roughly, is that I actually do think it’s legitimate to use the full humanity of women and men as a normative ideal–but I’d want to base that not in secular thought (which I think was my earlier concern), but in our own religious texts, such as the “all are alike unto God” in 2 Nephi 26, or the baptismal formula in Galatians (no male or female, for you are all one in Christ). Of course, I’m still privileging certain texts, but that’s inevitable–I suspect the best we can do is be upfront about our methodologies. So I like what you’re proposing here (if I’m understanding it), with consciously drawing on the texts that are progressive for our time.

    Your answer reminds me of something I have heard/read before — I don’t remember where, but it was in some kind of liberal/unorthodox/uncorrelated Mormon venue. I was basically asking them how they felt it was legitimate to go against what the institutional church teaches, emphasizes, etc., and their response was something to the extent that Mormonism is bigger (scripturally, doctrinally, theologically, etc.,) than what the institutional church emphasizes currently. So Mormonism (or any robust religious tradition) is big enough to provide scriptural foundation for a wide range of positions.

    In this sense, one thing that I have heard Jared Anderson push a lot in some of the recent Mormon Matters podcast is that what might be called “middle way” or “fringe” Mormonism should actually be considered to have as much legitimacy within Mormonism as what is currently institutionally promoted.

    However, I’m still not completely sold. I don’t think that you could construct a fully progressive set of ideals from the scriptures. You get some part of the way there, I would imagine there would just be holes.

    I think of theology as putting the tradition in dialogue with the contemporary situation–which means that I think it’s actually important to put our tradition in conversation with our experience of being human, because while I wouldn’t want to collapse theology into the latter, I think if there’s no resonance between the two, that’s a problem. At the same time, I do think the fact that there is sometimes tension is (ideally) a way of keeping us humble, reminding us that our conclusions are always somewhat tentative.

    And additionally, some of the tension would be necessary for growth.

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  5. hawkgrrrl on April 25, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    “What ideas in my own time are merely zeitgeist playing God and what ideas are true in spite of the culture?” The thought has occurred to me that the real value of the scriptures is to get people to this question so that we examine our own cultural values and question our assumptions.

    I’ve been reading Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, and a lot of what we consider morality is social conditioning as revealed through his psychological tests. Our social conditioning creates an emotional reaction to something, and then we seek to justify it (usually by creating imaginary harm – e.g. religions might say people will lose their souls) or add authority to it (God says so). It’s an interesting thought. Basically that would mean scriptures are in the business of putting themselves out of business.

    But I do think it’s impossible to take them at face value since they are so evidently products of their time (except when they are progressive). These are great excerpts.

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  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 25, 2012 at 9:18 PM

    The point that we often are remaking God in our own image is a good one.

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  7. FireTag on April 25, 2012 at 11:02 PM

    I would think that a human studying theology would be studying what it means to be MORE THAN human. (Other definitions may apply to dolphins. :D ) That implies some notion of “progress” toward “perfection”, but, I think, also implies that cultures can evolve along their own paths toward what “God” intends in their creation.

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  8. FireTag on April 25, 2012 at 11:03 PM

    Hawkgrrrl:

    Looking forward to your comments on Haidt. Reviews of his book have given me some things to think about, too.

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  9. Bob on April 26, 2012 at 3:36 AM

    #7:FireTag,
    Maybe I am misreading you. But you seem to be saying God is working on a ““progress” toward “perfection” of Cultures, not Men. That Men before now were just some kind of chemical process to prepare the way toward a super Culture/Race? Or, Men less God like than today?

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  10. Bonnie on April 26, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    I read a progressive idea for our time this very morning. D&C 105 discusses the failures of the United Order and in verse 5 he says “And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.”

    In verse 8 he says, “But I speak concerning my churches abroad – there are many who will say: Where is their God? Behold, he will deliver them in time of trouble, otherwise we will not go up unto Zion, and will keep our moneys.”

    It’s pretty progressive even for our own time to care for our poor voluntarily and fully, but the Lord has said the kingdom waits for exactly this to happen.

    I think theology serves on an individual level to force questions on us, this constant differentiation between the human and the Godly, and that is precisely how we come to know God. I think theology is much less effective on a large scale trying to create patterns of consistent thought among people (correlation) because the knowing can’t be learned. It must be experienced.

    If we want to know God, we obey, we question, we search, and we discover. He lays out ideals, like being one, and to the degree that we strive toward them, eliminating contention, showing respect for one another and God, we find him together by finding him separately.

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  11. Cowboy on April 26, 2012 at 11:43 AM

    I may be too simple for this conversation, but a couple thoughts I am having:

    What is Theology:

    I suppose an implication of self-identity exists in topic of theology, but more to the point, I simply define it as the belief system revolving around the concept of “God”. Naturally that includes his purposes and expectations of humanity, but the question of our humanity is answered (at least in part) by how we define God and his/her purposes.

    How do we not throw the baby out with the bathwater:

    I use the analogy of babies and bathwater to because it bespeaks (at least to me) the resulting chaos of erradic behavior responding to conflict. We talk about Mormonism and the scriptures this way. Well, The Book of Mormon may contain imperfections, but don’t throw away the good parts too. If I had a tub full of water that I was about toss into the yard, it would not take a great deal of attention to realize that there’s a baby in there. In which case I could simply remove the baby and throw out the water. This doesn’t compare well with what we are talking about. Rather, our religious conflict is just about water, and how do we filter that water. Even worse, we can’t even decide on what particles naturally belong to the composition of the water, vs those foreign elements that must be extracted.

    In this case, to me at least, it raises the question of what value theology has if it cannot define consistent parameters for measuring and defining purity. This is problematic for Mormonism in the context of this post, given that we are so often encouraged to use the scriptures as the common standard of measure. I guess the question then becomes, how do we measure the reliability of scriptural parameters on theology. If we are using a progressive social ethic and development of scientific knowledge to refine scriptural authority, then it would seem that those devices are our default standards – whether we are willing admit it like that or not. We then have to ask, what is driving our current progression in contemporary ethics/values and science? The conclusion I see this all tendind towards is the realization then that what we call theology, truly is just an introspective rationalization on how we percieve our humanity.

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  12. FireTag on April 26, 2012 at 4:11 PM

    Bob:

    I think God is simultaneously perfecting both cultures and individuals. His nature, IMO, is the elaboration of complexity in order to experience ALL of the possibilities of His own intelligence.

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  13. Bob on April 26, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    #12: FireTag,
    We have had simple cultures that lived in balance with Nature for 10,000 years. Complex cultures fall apart much sooner than that. IMO, God hates complex cultures.

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  14. FireTag on April 26, 2012 at 7:14 PM

    Bob:

    All a matter of scale. The universe has been growing more complex for the last 14 BILLION years; 10,000 years is a burp. I have faith we’ll successfully move to the next level of complexity sooner rather than later.

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  15. Bob on April 26, 2012 at 7:45 PM

    #14: FireTag,
    In Biology, complexity to your Species, usually means the death of your Species.
    It’s simple forms that continue on for millions of years. Complex forms die out.

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  16. prometheus on April 26, 2012 at 10:01 PM

    Jacob 5 might shed some light on the cultural/human development that our Parents are interested in.

    The lord of the vineyard is very interested in collecting the fruit to lay it up, which fruit I take to mean individuals. In order to do that, he digs and prunes the tree – which clearly is a collective and historical entity as opposed to individuals, or in other words culture.

    Just something that occurred to me, reading the comments.

    And, I really like Howard’s comment in #3.
    “Humankind is being divinely evolved toward enlightenment.”

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  17. [...] latest post at Wheat & Tares, The Cultural Situatedness of Theology, has been up since Wednesday. (Have y’all checked out that my regular posting day for Wheat [...]

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  18. Andrew S on April 27, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    re 3,

    Howard,

    How would you respond to those who think that civilization is decaying/becoming more immoral over time — especially when many of these people assert these claims for theological reasons?

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  19. Andrew S on April 27, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    re 10,

    Bonnie,

    Great thoughts! Especially…

    I think theology serves on an individual level to force questions on us, this constant differentiation between the human and the Godly, and that is precisely how we come to know God. I think theology is much less effective on a large scale trying to create patterns of consistent thought among people (correlation) because the knowing can’t be learned. It must be experienced.

    If we want to know God, we obey, we question, we search, and we discover. He lays out ideals, like being one, and to the degree that we strive toward them, eliminating contention, showing respect for one another and God, we find him together by finding him separately.

    re 11,

    Cowboy,

    If we are using a progressive social ethic and development of scientific knowledge to refine scriptural authority, then it would seem that those devices are our default standards – whether we are willing admit it like that or not. We then have to ask, what is driving our current progression in contemporary ethics/values and science? The conclusion I see this all tendind towards is the realization then that what we call theology, truly is just an introspective rationalization on how we percieve our humanity.

    This is certainly not “too simple for this conversation.”

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  20. FireTag on April 27, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    Bob:

    Complex forms GET REPLACED by still more complex forms that make use, in some way or another, of the simpler forms that exist. Very stable foundations have to exist to build tall buildings.

    By the way, this does NOT conflict with Andrew’s question to Howard in #18 because there can certainly be bumpy cycles imposed on the longer term trend.

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  21. Bob on April 27, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    #20:FireTag,
    “Very stable foundations have to exist to build tall buildings”.
    True__that’s why tall ones fall over and short ones don’t. :)
    Can you show me where a Complex form was replaced by a more complex form? Or, what replaced the T-Rex among the dinosaurs?
    Think Colossus of Rhodes.

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  22. Howard on April 27, 2012 at 1:30 PM

    Andrew,
    The world no longer faces the possibility of nuclear winter, threats of world war have become threats of regional war, terrorism is down, while many remain thirsty, hungry and diseased their % of the world population is declining, the concept of equal treatment for all is becoming more prevelant, increasing numbers of spiritual but not religious people are following a spiritual path.

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  23. Howard on April 28, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    If you prefer the longer view, the New Testament world was a better place than the eye for an eye Old Testament world offering the enlightenment of Christ’s teachings and while Joseph was killed it wasn’t by public crucifixion in a BoM world which offers much more freedom and tolerance of religion.

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