On-Site Theology

13 Mar Andrew Byers
March 13, 2013

I temporarily suspended blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking for several weeks. Why? So I could finish writing a book on social media. The irony is delightful.

I deal with online theology vs. offline theology in the a small chapter in the book; and I gave a brief treatment here on the blog. In this post, I am thinking about about how context affects and gives shape to our theology. Theological discourse on the Internet is influenced by the available media formats (blogging, microblogging, short articles, etc.) and by certain values latent in the technology (fast-paced writing, interactivity, etc.).

The context of online theology is not just the Internet. There is a spatial, physical context as well: the café or coffee shop offering free wifi, our home, a library—wherever we are as we think and write about God online.

Rather than looking at online or offline theology, I want to focus here on “on-site theology”—how does our physical, social, spatial, cultural location contribute to our understanding and communication of who God is?

For instance, as a doctoral student, I study theology every day… and I do it here:

(Wikimedia Commons)

 

This is Durham City. Where I study is between the castle and the 900-year old cathedral up on the hill. Now, my study space is in a rather unglamorous hole-in-the-wall, but still—what a place for learning theology, right? The Venerable Bede and St. Cuthbert are buried within 300 meters of my desk, and God has been worshiped and theology studied on this site for ten centuries.

But what if my context for doing theology was here:

 

(Wikimedia Commons)

 

The sort of context depicted in the photo above is the only normal for millions of people throughout the world. Would I do theology differently if this were my setting rather than a cathedral city in England? How would my theological agenda differ? What issues would receive priority? And what sort of resources would be available?

As Christianity thrives in the global South where images like the one above are not so uncommon, how will theology change over the next several decades? Universities and churches in the West have set theology’s agenda for centuries. But so many of the ecclesiastical centers of the West, with the glorious architecture and gleaming spires, are becoming monuments of a faith once practiced and now forgotten. Flannery O’Connor spoke of the “Christ-haunted South,” in reference to the southern U.S. I find it to be even an more fitting description for England.

The issues of “contextual theology” are being raised elsewhere and by people who have put a lot more thought into it than me. I just bring them up here because I want to be personally honest about myself and my theological thinking and writing. I love where I study. I could hardly be more thrilled about my degree program and its location.

But I do not want to be too contextually confined when it comes to my theology, you know?

I am learning so much here in Durham about theology. But it is quite likely that there is only so much I can learn about God from a café or a well-stocked library with a cathedral view.

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1 reply
  1. Jeff Gissing says:

    Andy – great post. You raise some great questions, especially apropos to the election of Pope Francis and his desire to make the Roman Catholic Church “a church for the poor.” I often find myself thinking about how the physical context (the site) of our corporate worship forms our theology. I’ve worshipped in a bunch of places over the years: Duke Chapel, a small church in the favelas of Brasilia, York Minster, etc. Worshipping in a physical space will certainly form us.

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