All theologies come from a perspective

All theologies come from a perspective

Contextual theologies seek to change society and the use of power in society.

Jonalu Johnstone
Stock photo of brown hands turning pages of an old book that looks like the bible.

© PeopleImages/iStock

© PeopleImages/iStock


Enlightenment scholars searched for the truth, certain that such a reality existed. What if truth, particularly of a religious nature, is not completely objective, but dependent on the angle from which it is seen? This is an idea that is central to Unitarian Universalism. We have even dared to claim doubt itself as holy, an essential part of the free and responsible quest for meaning.

In the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers and theologians came to see how elusive objectivity really is. Every reader has a point of view, whether or not it is acknowledged. We can be more thoughtful and understand more deeply if we know the perspective of the teller of the story, and the perspective of the intended reader and the interpreter. We might even find ourselves closer to truth if we listen to a variety of readers and interpretations.

Authoritative sources, including but not limited to scriptural texts, often focused on the stories and truths of those people in a society who have power. Consciously and unconsciously, scripture has been used to perpetuate particular viewpoints, endorsing the status quo of power arrangements or shoring up support for someone seeking power. What’s more, so has the interpretation of that scripture. Those without power—that is, the majority of people—have been left out of the story and even out of the interpretation of the story.

Particular criticism of scholastic objectivity has come from people with less power: people of color, women, people who have been colonized, people with disabilities, queer people. In religious studies, these less powerful people have created liberation and contextual theologies. These theologies share an approach that comes from the experience of oppressed people. Most particularly, they draw on the personal experiences of people whose stories and knowledge often have been ignored, disbelieved, or even condemned. Contextual theologies encourage people living with oppression to read texts searching for images of themselves and to criticize how the texts have been used against them.

Though criticized at times as “ideological theologies,” liberationists and other contextual theologians would argue that all readings, all theologies, come from a perspective, an ideology. The goal of any of these readings is more than new insights about old stories; it’s also about changing society and the use of power in society. Old stories, then, are recast by looking at them from a different point of view, where they can inspire action to bring about change.

Liberation theology

In the 1950s and 1960s, Latin American thinkers began to articulate how their economic development had been diminished by political and economic colonization by European and North American states. Their religious response was to form base ecclesial communities—groups of poor Catholic people reading scripture together and looking for how it played out in their own lives. Doing theology themselves, they found empowerment through a God who loved them and called them to resist the oppressive systems in which they found themselves. Theology, then, came about as a way of describing what was going on in people’s lives, so that it rose from the grassroots rather than the academy. Eventually, many scholars discovered this grassroots “liberation theology” when Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian Dominican priest of mixed Spanish and Quechua heritage, summarized key points in A Theology of Liberation in 1973. Gutierrez embraced the Marxist idea that thought comes out of practice. Normal people, even peasants, could gather, read the Bible, and share stories of their lives. In that way, they did theology, finding their own lives as sites of God’s action, and looking for biblical inspiration to bring change.

Gutiérrez, often credited as the founder of liberation theology, though he might be better seen as the articulator of it, speaks of three kinds of liberation: freedom from all forms of social, political, and economic oppression; recognition that suffering comes not from God but from human and historical injustice; and, finally, redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Liberation theologians like Gutiérrez encourage people to ask of scripture: “What does this say about us?” and “Where is God (or Jesus) in this moment and place?”

In working with these questions, liberation theologians insist on God’s universal love—in which everyone, regardless of color, heritage, education, class, or economic status, is included. However, God’s preference—a preference Christians should emulate—is for the poor, those who most need God’s love. Church should be not “for” or even “with” the poor, but “of” the poor. Those who suffer should make up the church and do its work of liberation.

Black liberation theology

‘If [God’s] love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?” asks James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, in 1963. Three years later, a group of black pastors bought a New York Times ad arguing for black power that found its inspiration in the Bible.

James Cone, often named as the founder of black liberation theology, established both scripture and black experience as key to his explorations. “I knew that before I could say anything worthwhile about God and the black situation of oppression in America I had to discover a theological identity that was accountable to the life, history, and culture of African American people,” he claims. But scripture was foundational, too. He looked particularly to the story of Exodus, long claimed by African Americans through music and liturgy, as resonant with the experience of freedom from slavery and transition to a new land. Like the Latin American liberationists, though, Cone found Jesus’s life and death to be an affirmation of God’s preference for oppressed people over the powerful. He went so far as to say that a God who sided with the oppressed could not be identified with the oppressors. God, then, must be black:

The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism. . . .

The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering.

Black liberation theologians find God’s preferential option, again, with those who live under oppression and seek freedom through their study of God’s story in scripture.

In a similar vein, Vine Deloria Jr. (Lakota) titled his 1974 definitive work on Native American religious views God Is Red.

Feminist theology

The role of women has been culturally constrained throughout history in most of the world. That means that scripture has often ignored or diminished women’s status—or their very being. Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has recommended what Paul Ricoeur calls a “hermeneutic of suspicion” when reading texts, particularly the gospel stories. By that, she means a technical theological way of reading between the lines, looking with suspicion on what has been written, and considering who did the writing, why, how they were using their power to define truth, and what they are likely to have left out or misrepresented. For example, there would be no need to declare that women could not speak before an assembly unless they were already doing so. This approach invites the reader to consider what might have been happening to cause people in power (men), who had the ability to write books, to make such declarations.

Men, in a society that was often sex-segregated in both roles and socialization, would have omitted automatically stories about women. They might not have known those stories and, if they knew them, would have been acculturated to dismiss such narratives. Many women are included in gospel stories without names or personal identities: the woman at the well, the hemorrhaging woman, the woman caught in adultery. Several women, though, achieve some prominence in gospel texts: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; Mary and Martha, Lazarus’s sisters; Mary Magdalene; Salome, the mother of James and John. Not as numerous or as high-profile as the men, these and other women must have had an unusual level of notoriety in order to be mentioned at all in the gospels because of men’s natural tendency to disregard them. Women play especially crucial roles in the crucifixion and resurrection stories. Chances are, if the men composing these books felt it necessary to include the women, they were even more significant than the stories indicate. (Much the same could be said of the appearances in scripture of any marginalized people.)

The Bible is not the only religious book to slight women. Given the male-dominated cultures from which these books arose, this is no surprise. Hindu texts celebrate the divine as feminine as well as masculine, but this theological equality of the genders does not translate to equality socially or in the family within the religious codes. Both Buddha and Muhammad are credited with having a more open and positive approach to women than most men of their times. Still, Buddha instructed women to obey their husbands, while men should respect their wives; clearly, the husband is the head of the family. Muhammad detailed rights of inheritance and divorce for women, extending and protecting their roles, but did not go as far as we might like in today’s world.

Scriptures of more recent faiths, such as Baha’i and Christian Science, have more modern approaches to inclusion and respect for women. However, as a general rule, applying Schüssler Fiorenza’s suspicion can help. All traditions have women who exerted influence, whether we know their names or not; women sages in the Rigveda, Gargi Vachaknavi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Muhammad’s wives Khadija and Aisha in the Qur’an, and the judge Deborah in Hebrew Scriptures are examples. Investigating the works of contemporary women and feminist scholars within particular faith traditions can help broaden our understanding of scriptural books and challenge our imagination to help understand women’s roles.

Queer theology

Queer theology developed by building on the critique of gender roles formulated by feminist theologians and the emergence of queer theory in sociology. The theology embraces a view of sexual identities as socially constructed, and it examines the effects of scriptural texts on societal norms and expectations.

From the earliest days of gay pride, activists realized that religious opposition was among the greatest obstacles to LGBTQ acceptance. People who took both religion and equality seriously began to look for the scriptural challenges and disarm them. “The clobber passages,” a handful of Biblical verses primarily from the Hebrew Bible, had long been used to condemn homosexual relations. LGBTQ readers, as well as straight and cisgender supporters, found new ways of reading and interpreting these passages, or put them into a context where their meaning changed because of better understanding of the culture from which they came. At the same time, they began a quest to find in Hebrew and Christian scriptures depictions of people who might be considered queer: King David’s love for his friend Jonathan, the Ethiopian eunuch converted to Christianity in Acts, Jesus’s “beloved disciple” John.

These early efforts in the 1970s and 1980s were often labeled as gay or lesbian theology. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that queer theology fully emerged with a more forthright critique. Queer theologians did not limit their consideration to texts that address gender and sexuality. After all, we do not think about gender and sexuality the same way that people did 2,000, or even 200, years ago. Instead, they took it a step further by applying a queer reading to all scripture, embracing nontraditional gender identities and rejecting binary thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality. While based in reaction against oppression, queer theology goes further to claim the sacredness of queer identity and invite a critical look at all forms of traditional interpretation.

As slam poet J. Mase III says, “You’ve been lying about my people for too long.” Queer theology, like other contextual and liberation theologies, exposes the lies and claims an affirmative identity. Reading scripture can be a radical act to embrace the idea that each person is sacred and loved by God, exactly as they are, even if the culture gives an entirely different message.

Adapted with permission from Scripture Unbound: A Unitarian Universalist Approach by Jonalu Johnstone (Skinner House, 2019).