By Anthony Baker
In the summer of 2020, while city streets around the world were flooded with Black Lives Matter demonstrations, British theologian John Milbank offered a brief Twitter screed against “themed identity theology.” Not a term of art in the discipline, this was rather his pejorative phrase for articulations of the Christian faith from marginalized perspectives. Among the perspectives that won mention in his tweet: black, feminist, queer, trans, disability, and practice-based. Each of these terms is an adjective modifying the word theology on many seminary and divinity school curricula around the world. And all of it is tiresome and elitist, Milbank complained, adding a bit of coarse ribaldry.
Now, in the interest of disclosure, I must say that the author of that tweet was a mentor of mine, and remains a friend and scholar I very much admire. I should also say that I find Twitter a medium entirely unsuitable for a philosophical theologian famous for his inability to summarize an abstract in fewer than 10,000 words.
Beyond the ill-fitting medium, though, I consider his words ill-timed and tone deaf, as if he were daring the discipline (perhaps he was) to react in disbelief. I also happen to think he was wrong, but not simply wrong by being offensive. The moment of offense can also be the moment the rest of us see something clearly, even despite the offender. In this case, the fact that, say, Black Theology is not simply an elitist enterprise, allows us to ask“elitist bollocks” allows us to ask what work, exactly, “themed theologies” like this are doing in the current shape of the discipline. The tweet is, in this sense, generatively mistaken, in that it can help clarify an important paradigm shift taking place in the theology of the 21st century across denominations, continents, and schools of thought. A productive new distinction is emerging within the discipline between contextual and systematic theology.
All disciplines change, of course, and theology may have had its great Copernican moment already. For 50 years and more, since the publication of Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex (1968), James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1969), and Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation (1973), theology syllabi have increasingly been awake to this change. To put it most simply: if “systematic theology” — the orientation of Christian language into a persuasive system of thought — is about how the human being (“man,” we once would have said) speaks of God, what are we to make of all the human voices whom the author or speaker has never heard or never listened closely to? When Augustine or Martin Luther preached their sermons and wrote their treatises, were they imagining an audience like themselves — free males of more or less their skin tone and social setting, with the same access to markets and libraries? And even if they were not entirely ignoring difference, what might change if theological language were occasionally reimagined, rearticulated, and rewritten entirely from these margins that were previously deemed negligible?
To take a literary example that I recently noticed while reading to my daughter: when C.S. Lewis tells us, in a middle chapter of The Magician’s Nephew, that “everyone had lots of servants in those days,” the book invites us to imagine ourselves into the unique perspective of wealthy children. We don’t get to wonder what Narnia might look like to, for instance, the butcher boy who labors as an apprentice while his father works in someone else’s kitchen.
Since Professor Lewis’s day, though, this has been changing. The shift of perspective in theology has its roots in the stunning growth of industry and global markets in the 19th century, and especially in the urbanization that supported this boom. Cardinal Joseph Cardijn of Belgium began paying attention to the dire situation of children and young people working in the factories of Brussels in the early 20th century, and he developed a method of reinterpreting the gospel such that these young people and their needs were brought from theology’s forgotten margins to its lively center. Pope John XXIII raised up the importance of this work in the beginnings of Vatican II, suggesting that all interpretation of the good news of Jesus must give preference to the way this news is read and understood within the most vulnerable communities. Catholic theologians like Gutiérrez and Daly took the baton and ran. (Daly, in fact, ran quite far.)
The work of these “themed” theological communities of interpretation has been controversial from the beginning, and the current debates over critical race theory only heighten the controversy. But even if marginalized perspectives can be used at times and in certain hands to shut down a broad range of perspectives, the need for such contextualized readings seems obvious enough. As Melanie Harris puts it in a recent text of womanist theology, “sometimes women of African descent and their communities need to separate themselves from the larger majority-white culture in order to rewater their roots and rediscover what makes them unique.” We could say the same for all minoritized and overlooked communities: there is some watering needed, so that roots can grow, and Christian theology can be articulated and heard in voices that once were silent.
One important question now, though, is how we conceive of the relation between these communities of interpretation and a theology that attempts to be broader in its voicing: a “constructive” theology, in my preferred way of naming things, which attempts to build a language that crosses divisions and is hospitable to all. This broader discipline is sometimes called systematic, emphasizing the unified coherence, or doctrinal, emphasizing its role in deepening and illuminating the teachings passed along within Christianity.
This sort, I should note, is not without controversy either. By the time that my generation of students began studying theology in the United States around the turn of the millennium, the importance of contextualized theological speculation was generally apparent to most of us. But beyond its important and still relatively novel emergence within theology as a discipline, many felt confident in asserting that contextual theology had effectively superseded the entire field.
It was not then and is not now uncommon to hear slogans like “all theology is contextual,” which is to say, minimally and truthfully enough, that Barth and Augustine wrote from out of particular social and historical contexts, even if those contexts do not appear in any direct way in their pages. Maximally, though, the claim that all theology is contextual becomes a weapon lowered on these projects, challenging their legitimacy precisely in light of this failure to articulate context, as if that articulation alone validates one’s ideas. In this maximal sense, the grand projects of systematic or constructive theology, the modern inheritors of the medieval Summa tradition, become the museum exhibits of a bygone era. It can even seem as if to go on speaking in universal terms about the human experience of God is to do “white theology,” a move that freights the old systems of Augustine (a provincial North African, after all) and his ilk with a moral judgment they did not necessarily earn or deserve.
It once seemed, in short, as if the rise of “themed” theologies meant that the moment had come for theology without modifying themes, or with only anthropologically non-specific modifiers like “systematic” or “constructive,” to go away.
Oddly, though, it did not go away. Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox theologians have continued, through the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, to imagine trans-contextual ways of doing theology, seeking what emerita Cambridge professor Sarah Coakley calls “an integrated presentation of Christian truth.” Maybe it’s the catholic impulse at the heart of Christianity that keeps such projects alive: the impulse, that is, to match the expansive and potentially universal reach of the gospel with an expansive and non-exclusive language for theology.
Today’s grand theologies are different, though. Many have learned from their “themed” siblings, and attempt to attune themselves to these particularities without limiting their perspectives to the particular. In fact, what is happening now, it seems to me, is that parallel disciplines are developing, and this is all to the good. Projects like Harris’s womanist theology must continue as long as there are entire demographics of humans in the world whose skin pigmentations or regional histories or socioeconomic statuses have rendered them invisible and silent. As long as women of African descent find that their collective roots remain parched. Projects like Coakley’s must continue as well, though, so that we can learn to integrate these voices, and let the ideas that emerge from these various groves inform the whole forest.
This dialogue, I suspect, will form the next stages in this shifting landscape of theology: a more intentional opening of cross-fertilization between emergent parallel disciplines. Not that such dialogue does not already exist — Cone’s contextual work relies heavily on the great systems of his century, and Coakley the systematician has spent her career engaging with varieties of feminism. But perhaps now that the parallel disciplines are getting used to one another, and not so consistently calling for the annihilation of the other — “all theology is contextual,” “themed theology” is “tiresome and elitist — we can make some space for a generous and expansive conversation between the two.
Dr. Anthony D. Baker is the Clinton S. Quinn Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest, and the author of Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology (SCM 2011), Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God (Routledge, 2020), and Leaving Emmaus: A New Departure in Christian Theology (Baylor University Press, 2021).
 Michael de la Bedoyere, The Cardijn Story: A Study of the Life of Mgr. Joseph Cardijn and the Young Christian Workers’ Movement Which He Founded (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1959).
 Anne Applebaum, “Democracies Don’t Try to Make Everyone Agree,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/milley-critical-race-theory-marxism-racism-fox-news/619308/
 Harris, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2017), chapter four, Kindle Ed.
 Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 41.
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“Tiresome and elitist” pretty much describes the historic white male church. I imagine having marginalized groups have their own theological interpretations might threaten some. James Cone ought to be read by southern white folks like me, as we live with churches that did quite well during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. What kind of historic theology allowed that?