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Theology and the Human Situation and Experience
Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, STD
One of the complaints raised against classical and western theology is that it tends to be abstract and divorced from the human situation and experience. It is not surprising that most of the theological works are intelligible to a select few.

When talking about God, theologians would often focus on the sacred texts and how the Church and the past theologians have interpreted these. Thus, the locus theologicus was often the sacred scriptures and the official teachings of the Church that had been handed on through the centuries. In order to make the discourse about God more intelligible, theologians resorted to the philosophical currents of their time to help interpret the Christian tradition. It was unthinkable for theologians to consider their own situation and experience or those of their audience.

One of the important developments in theology in recent years is the emphasis on the human situation and experience as Locus Theologicus. The Gaudium et Spes, was the first conciliar document that made as the starting point the situation and experience of the people to whom it was addressed. The theologies that emerged from the Third World put a lot of emphasis on the situation and experience of poverty and oppression and the praxis of liberation as starting point and locus of theological reflection. There have been calls for theology to become more contextual and inculturated. Even theologians from the West like Schillebeeckx and Hans Kung began speaking about the contemporary situation and experience as one of the two poles or sources of theology (the other one being the Christian tradition of Revelation-Faith experience). Bernard Lonergan's method of theology starts with experience. Feminist theologians reflected on their experiences and stories of marginalization and oppression. Narrative theologians also began talking about the life-stories and biographies as sources of theologizing. Holland and Henriot also advocated the use of social analysis in theology.

Why is there a need to take into account the human situation and experience? Why is it necessary to analyze the social, historical, economic, political and cultural context?

Many theologians would answer: to make theology more meaningful and relevant. This presupposes the hermeneutical function of theology. In order to interpret and explicate the truths of our faith, then we must take into account the context and experience of the theologians and their audience.

Contemporary theologians such as David Tracy, Edward Schillebeecx, and Jose de Mesa assert that theology involves a mutually critical correlation of the interpretation of the contemporary situation/experience and the interpretation of the Christian tradition. Theology interprets the Christian tradition for the contemporary situation. Thus, for theology to be meaningful and relevant, it mus be rooted in the lived-experience and situation of the people:

The basic condition, then, for every interpretation of faith which is faithful to the gospel is the meaningfulness of the interpretation. This meaningfulness is present when an interpretation reflects real experience… Human experience in a given situation -- the issues, questions and concerns of people in a specific socio-cultural context -- is the only place where a faith-understanding has a chance of becoming meaningful. (Jose de Mesa)

The contemporary situation/experience will influence our interpretation and understanding of the Christian tradition/ revelation-faith experience. The context will influence our interpretation of the text.

How we understand and live our faith will be determined by our concrete situation and experience. The situation and experience - the questions, issues and concerns arising from this context - will set the theological agenda.

Our theology is the response to the questions that emerge in a particular socio-cultural, political-economic context. The emphasis, focus and priority of theology will depend on the context.

The kind of theology that develops in a society that is highly industrialized, affluent, modernized and secularized may be different from the theology that emerges from a society that is characterized by poverty, underdevelopment, oppression, etc.

In a third world setting like ours, the question that has to be addressed by theology is: how can we make the Christian message or the Christian revelation-faith experience more meaningful and relevant in a situation characterized by poverty, inequality, underdevelopment, violence and the destruction of the environment. How can we speak about God, Christ, the Church, salvation, etc. to a people who are poor and who have deep sense of the sacred (a sacral-religious-magical world view).

In a first world setting like Europe and North America, the question that has to be addressed, is how can we communicate the Christian message -- or how can we talk about God, Christ, Church, salvation, etc. -- to a people who are affluent, secularized, modernized, and who have a rational-scientific world view.

There is another reason why the human situation and experience cannot be ignored in theology. It is based on the presupposition that God is present and active in our life and in our situation. The encounter with God takes place in history, and not only in the sacred texts. The Sacred Scriptures record God's action in history. The question about God can be answered not only through the bible or the church's teachings but also by reflecting on our stories. This, I believe, is the most important reason why the human situation and experience may be considered as locus theologicus -- they are the place of encounter with God whose self-revelation and self-communication continue even now.

If God is indeed immanent, a God who is with us, then we have to be aware of God's liberating presence in history and in the story of our life. If Jesus is indeed the risen Lord, then we have to reflect on his continuing presence in history, in the community that is his body and in various cultures. If the Holy Spirit is indeed transforming the face of the earth, then we have to discern his presence and action in the concrete situation and experiences of people.