Robert SCHREITER. Constructing Local Theologies. 30th Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015. pp 204. $30 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-146-1. Reviewed by Jeffrey KIRCH, Saint Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, IN 47978
Constructing Local Theologies was first published in 1985 and grew out of a series of seminars held in the mid 1970s. Robert Schreiter points out that the only change in this 30th edition is the addition of an Introduction in which he offers the reader a brief synopsis of how the book has been received throughout the world, briefly reviews the major questions of the text, and begins to point to future directions in the field of contextual theology.
Schreiter writes in a clear, concise manner. The clarity with which he presents his argument is evident from the beginning of the book where he tells the reader the central question of the book from the very beginning: “How is a community to go about bringing to expression its own experience of Christ in its concrete situation? And how is this to be related to a tradition that is often expressed in language and concepts vastly different from anything in the current situation?” (xvii)
He divides the book into seven chapters dealing specific elements of his argument. The chapters are: 1. What is Local Theology, 2. Mapping a Local Theology, 3. The Study of Culture, 4. Theology and its Context: Church Tradition as Local Theologies, 5. Tradition and Christian Identity, 6. Popular Religion and Official Religion, and 7. Syncretism and Dual Religious Systems.
It is important to note that Schreiter does not seek to close the discussion on contextual theology or the relationship between culture and religion with this book. He is explicit that he sees the book as the beginning of a long theological conversation that will need further development.
The overarching theme of the book grew out of the post-colonial world, primarily in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Added to this post-colonial fragmentation, the growth of a “theology of liberation,” Schreiter argues, pointed to “an attempt to find a Christian voice in quite different circumstances from those more commonly known in Europe and North America” (2). He spends the first two chapters outlining his understanding of inculturation, contextualization, and local theology. He points out that each of these terms point to related understandings, yet each with their own lacunae. He opts for the term local theology throughout the text.
In chapter three he begins to examine the topic of culture. Through a series of questions, Schreiter guides the reader through his treatment of culture: 1. Listening to a culture; 2. Understanding a culture; 3. Reflecting on one’s own culture; and 4. How a community becomes fertile ground for a local theology. He briefly notes the various ways in which culture has been studied (functionalist, structuralist, and materialist) and then he opts for a semiotic study of culture. A semiotic study of culture, the study of cultural signs, is especially suited for constructing local theologies because of its interdisciplinary approach which allow a theologian to study a variety of cultural elements including art, music, and religion. Both high and popular elements can be studied.
In chapter four he begins to bring together his cultural analysis with his understanding of local theology. A key to Schreiter’s understanding here is a sociology of knowledge (90). Schreiter takes a sociology of knowledge and applies it to theology proper. He writes, “A sociology of theology, then, tries to see how particular forms of thought might be related to particular cultural conditions” (92). He identifies four approaches: theology as variations on sacred texts, theology as wisdom, theology as sure knowledge, and theology as praxis. In this chapter, as Edward Schillebeeckx points out in the original preface, Schreiter comes to the conclusion that what we refer to as the “Christian Tradition” can rightly be understood as a series of local theologies (108).
The last chapters deal with popular religiosity and syncretism. In both chapters he cautions that both concepts are not as simple to understand as many think. In fact, the complexity of them urge the wider Christian tradition to be attentive to them. He outlines different understandings of popular religion and different approaches in response to popular religion. He offers a similar examination of syncretism and dual religious systems.
Though the original book had its origins in the late 1970s, this 30th Anniversary edition still resonates with the Christian church today. Schreiter’s thoughts on local theology will be of continued importance due to the need to continually engage the Gospel and culture. If one suggestion can be made for future improvement, I’d suggest the inclusion of a brief conclusion. The book covers some important and difficult material. It would be helpful to bring it together in the end. Yet, as he said at the outset of the text, this is only a beginning.Schreiter is the Vatican Council II Professor of Theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and has written on topics such as missiology, inculturation, and reconciliation. He is also the past president of the American Academy of Missiology and the Catholic Theological Society of America.