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Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University in California, speaks during a briefing about the assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 17, 2023. Sheila Leocádia Pires, secretary of the synod's information commission, looks on. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The expression “music to my ears” sounds like a cliché. But that is how Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letter on the nature and mission of theology, “Ad Theologiam Provendam,” sounded to me. Serving as I do in a Jesuit Catholic school of theology that prides itself as an international center for the study of culturally contextual theology, it seems our strategic option to go contextual predates by several years the pope’s resounding summons to undertake “a paradigm shift” and a “courageous cultural revolution” toward “being a fundamentally contextual theology” (No. 4). But this is not the time to gloat.

Theology isn’t an exercise in conceptual weightlessness; it does not defy the law of gravity. It is grounded in lived reality.

In his motu proprio, Francis calls for a tripartite “turning” that is geographical, social and cultural. On the face of it, there is nothing new here. The public and Christian intellectual tradition has taken critical turns at key historical junctures, resulting in fresh thinking, new insights and transformational endeavors. If I am reading the pope’s letter correctly, a geographical turn points theologians in the direction of a tumultuous world roiled by all manner of dysfunctionality, a social turn addresses existential realities that besiege humanity and a cultural turn grapples with the shifting matrix of meaning for individuals and their societies in uncertain times. As Pope Francis sees it, all of these require a new hermeneutical and methodological framework that is not averse to confronting the complexities, fragilities and vulnerabilities of our times.

In my view, Francis does not intend to demoralize theologians or undermine centuries of theological production. He simply reminds us not to lose sight of the stuff of which an “outgoing theology” is made in an “outgoing church” (“Ad Theologiam Provendam,” No. 3). Given this, Pope Francis’ letter reads like a road map for “Doing Theology as if People Mattered,” to quote the title of an edited volume by Deborah Ross and Eduardo Fernández. It recalls the pope’s all-too-familiar olfactory imagery that if theologians do not “smell” of the joys and hopes and the pain and anguish of people of their times and contexts, they become “table-top” speculators in arcane complexities and purveyors of theological inanities.

An interesting feature of a culturally contextualized theology is its dialogical and relational character at multiple levels. How and where we do theology is not detached from the communities and contexts of this exercise. Years ago, I wrote in Theology Brewed in an African Pot that theology isn’t an exercise in conceptual weightlessness; it does not defy the law of gravity. It is grounded in lived reality. Francis shares this view, it seems. Our writing, scholarship and teaching must be possessed of a deep desire to bring some coherence to the chaos and crises prevalent in our world today, like migration, intolerance, inequality, poverty, violence, wars and climate change.

This isn’t new teaching. The methodology of liberation theology is living testimony to the task of theology as reflection and praxis that brings the propositions of the Gospel into dialogue with the present, engaging and critiquing cultures, contexts and traditions that fail to uphold the dignity of people and foster their flourishing as imago Dei.

If schools and faculties of theology imagined themselves as a “cultural laboratory,” what would their faculty teach like? What would be the profile of their students?

Seen in this light, theology isn’t an isolated, self-absorbed discipline. Theological engagement bridges disciplinary boundaries and collapses silos to create an unbounded sphere. In this space, theology takes its place, not as a medieval “queen of the sciences,” but as a partner in a web of disciplinary relationships, communities and networks, animated by a singular goal of transforming “the conditions in which men and women live daily, in different geographical, social and cultural environments” (“Ad Theologiam Provendam,” No. 4). Francis christens this approach as “transdisciplinarity” (No. 5), suggesting that the theological enterprise is akin to a team sport where the essential qualities of cooperation, collaboration and commitment are complemented by synodal dispositions of encounter, listening, dialogue and discernment.

As I see it, these characteristics are defining for a theology whose logos does not submerge its theos, but draws wisdom from the intersection of both. Another way of putting it is this: How I do theology is a function of my rootedness in the life in the Spirit as well as in the cultures, worldviews and religious traditions of the people and communities that my scholarship ought to serve. Doing theology in a like manner demands authenticity and audacity, creativity and charity.

Here, Francis’ letter reminds me of the apostolic constitution, “Veritatis Gaudium” (on ecclesiastical universities and faculties), that describes theological education as “a sort of providential cultural laboratory” (No. 3). I wonder: If schools and faculties of theology imagined themselves as a “cultural laboratory,” what would their faculty teach like? What would be the profile of their students? A laboratory is a space for experimentation and innovation. I imagine the outcome will be a theology that Francis believes touches “everyone’s hearts” (“Ad Theologiam Provendam,” No. 6).

I see a risk, though, of reducing Pope Francis’ vision to a mere preoccupation with the quotidian. Complementary to the emphasis on contextual theology is the need to develop and sustain a solid global vision and perspective and never to allow the contextual to degenerate into the parochial. For theologians, this implies a dual awareness of understanding global trends and innovating responses to meet local needs.

Francis has thrown the gauntlet to theologians and their institutions to discern the validity, relevance and usefulness of our mission in the profound “change of the era” that characterizes our times. In today’s rapidly globalizing and technologically sophisticated world, the issues that we must contend with in our theological discourse have neither been sufficiently provided for nor exhausted by familiar, tried and worn sources and methodologies. The Francis challenge offers new opportunities for theological re-imagination, creativity and innovation. Who dares to pick up the gauntlet?


For more from Father Orobator, listen to his guest appearance on the Preach podcast

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