Divine Word Missionary Fr. Stephen Bevans, a former missionary to the Philippines and current professor of mission and culture at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, writes with the intention of not only giving readers the basic content of Christian theology, but also of providing the tools to do theology. As an American writing in an American context, Bevans brings together his obviously deep knowledge of the classical Western theological tradition with his concern that the theologizing of people in other contexts not be seen as derivative from the "normative" theology of the West. One of Bevans's primary concerns is to insist that theology not lose sight of the people "in reality, there is no 'theology' as such - no 'universal theology' - there are only contextual theologies." (p 4)
In Part I, "Faith Seeking Understanding," Bevans does a fine job of situating the ground rules of doing theology, starting with the limitations of language about the unknowable, unobjectifiable God. Situating revelation firmly within the context of human experience, he avoids the pitfalls of propositional models of revelation in favor of existential encounter or relationship. However, it is worth noting that for all of his concern with avoiding making the Western tradition into a "universal" theology, his starting points are fairly standard European/American concepts like recourse to analogy in speaking about God to avoid the pitfalls of univocal and equivocal speech about God. While these are perfectly legitimate starting places, in others context there would likely be more apt places to start. (I have in mind, for example, James Cone's book God of the Oppressed, which points to liberation, rather than philosophical assertions about the nature of God or of God-language, as the benchmark of orthodoxy in doing black theology.) This is not a weakness, simply an example of Bevans' own cultural location in action, but it is indicative of the situatedness of his theological concerns.
In Part II, "Faith Seeking Together," Bevans locates the doing of theology in the context of community: as he did with revelation in the previous section, he rearticulates tradition as "the faith of the church in action," (p 94), the act of handing on the practices, customs, beliefs, and worldview more than the content of what is being handed on. While Bevans acknowledges the importance of having professional theologians involved with the life of local communities, he maintains a focus on the centrality of communal, non-professional theologizing for the sake of meeting the needs of the theologizing community. This gives his vision of theology a refreshingly pastoral focus that rejects as irrelevant theologies that do not ground practical action on behalf of liberation. While the closing chapter on the magisterium is interesting and informative, there is surprisingly little said about magisterial responses to the results of theologizing done in Asian or African contexts, and more would have been welcome.
Part III on theological method begins with Bevans giving an overview of the process of doing theology, beginning with a traditional model of studying the tradition and speculating, then offering an alternative model based on the "critical reflection on praxis" associated with the various liberation theologies. Bevans then flexes his contextual muscles, showcasing the six models of contextual theology that he has developed elsewhere (cf. Models of Contextual Theology, 1992) before concluding with a brief overview of the basic elements of the Catholic worldview, particularly the sacramental view of the world exemplified in the analogia entis, and a critique of fundamentalism as opposed to the Catholic imagination.
In Part IV, Bevans gives a survey of the history of Christianity, highlighting the contextual nature of high points in traditional histories while also discussing historically significant people and moments outside of standard Eurocentric histories. The development of the homoousios at the Council of Nicaea, for example, exemplifies the Church's willingness to move beyond Biblical categories for the sake of communicating in the idiom of a Greek-influenced culture. While he gives solid overviews of the work of many theologians one would expect to see discussed in a survey of Christian history, he also introduces the work of a truly impressive number of men and women theologians from contexts that are less well-known in the European and American contexts, including Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Bevans writes in a lively, accessible style, clarifying terms and avoiding unnecessary jargon. Given his sense of the primacy of non-specialists doing theology, this is no surprise, but it is welcome nonetheless. In addition to surveying the usual academic approach to theology, Bevans repeatedly acknowledges other ways of doing theology through the arts, highlighting works such as Dante's Divine Comedy and Bach's cantatas as valid and important means of theological expression. Throughout his discussion of the "both-and" spirit of Catholic theology he deftly navigates between extremes, holding together faith and reason, individual and community, obedience to magisterial authority and critique of tradition to create a vision of theology being done at its most truly catholic. This book would be a good option for introductory courses on contextual theology for ministry students, but given its breadth and accessibility, it would also be a good choice to form beginning undergraduates into the contextual nature of theology.