Chapter 1 - The Notion of Social Theology


Theological Foundations for Doing Social Theology
Theology is done and developed in the community of the faithful. That is how Christian theology functions among Christian communities who wish to internalize and become the witness of Jesus Christ’s Gospel in a concrete social situation. This is also the perspective of our social theology.

The method of our social theology has, in fact, appeared in Gaudium et Spes (1965), the Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World of Vatican Council II. It is believed that God meets and calls us in the world and its history in the reality of our present life. The world, with its history, is the place where God is really present and speaks. Therefore, the world, with its history, is the locus theologicus. However, Gaudium et Spes realizes that the reality of the world and its history is ambivalent in nature. It is not only the place where God is present and speaks but also a place polluted by sins. Therefore, the Church is obliged to examine the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel (GS 4), namely the experience of Jesus.

Accordingly, Gaudium et Spes starts the reflection with the following statement:

“the joys and hopes, the griefs and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (GS1).

In other words, the world and the community, where human beings live, are the concerns of the church.

The reflection of Gaudium et Spes starts with “the human condition in the present-day world” (GS 4 -10). In this reality, the Church expresses its faithful concern as revealed in article 11. Further, the concerns of the faithful, which can be called, 'theological problems,’ are reflected on in the light of the Gospel.

The whole theology of Gaudium et Spes is based on the understanding of the Church as the sacrament of salvation (LG 1) and God’s people on pilgrimage (LG 9), as the community of Christ’s disciples who care for the society and their neighbors. The Church understands its life and mission tasks as “the salvation sacrament for all” (GS 45). The Church through its words and actions should involve itself in the human suffering, struggles, and liberation efforts in order to become a real sacrament, namely a visible sign and effective instrument for the hope of complete and integral salvation for all, particularly the underprivileged and the poor.

However, in order to be real and capable of conveying its content, a sign needs to be understood and trusted by those who utilize it. Therefore, the sign must not be looked upon only in and of itself. It must be understood from the horizon of understanding and experiences of the addressees, especially when this horizon is not in line with the view of the sign’s bearer. This complicated task, both from the viewpoint of method and content, is in fact an inculturation or contextualization effort, which is the dominant challenge of today’s Church.

Such theological approach can be called “social-oriented theology” or “bottom-up theology”. This theology is based on human experience and problems in a social context. It must include all aspects of life such as politics, economy, and socio-culture, which are directed to the deeper internalization of the Gospel in such reality. It is expected that the Church will live not for itself but for the Reign of God, for its neighbors of other religious traditions and for the whole world. All are the concerns of God. In that way, the Church will allow God to be the foundation of the life of the world and determine its history. The Gospel, the glad tidings of salvation, will more deeply penetrate into the life of the world and its culture.

Such inculturation or contextualization attempts of theology are apparently appropriate to be understood as efforts to build local churches in their life and mission tasks and to internalize and to be witnesses of Jesus Christ’s Gospel. Consequently, an appropriate theological language is needed for each socio-cultural environment, without which all efforts of faith communication will be in vain. For this purpose, we implement social theology in cooperation with the social sciences.

Social Theology in the Narrow and Broad Sense
To provide a better understanding of what will be presented here, we differentiate between two concepts of social theology. Both are interrelated and inseparable, but still require a distinction.

First, the broad meaning of social theology is contextual theology or a sort of fundamental theology. In this sense, social theology is an orientation of all theologies and is not a part or branch of a certain theology. Since theology always deals with a given society, all theological efforts must show social or contextual features so that they can be understood and function for the Church. Therefore, fundamental theology is not to be understood as a basic foundation for other forms but as an aspect of basic direction for all theologies. Every theology is implemented and developed within the horizon of social contexts with deep realization of the functions and limitation of that orientation, both locally and temporally. In the broader sense, social theology is understood as the dimension, current, basic direction, orientation or horizon of all attempts of theological reflection.

Secondly, in the narrow sense, social theology is a special theology on the involvement of the faithful in social problems, such as facing the problems of poverty and injustice. The main concern of this book is social theology in this narrow sense or as a special theology but without neglecting the broader dimension of social theology as fundamental theology. Therefore, it is expected that this book will provide some beneficial impact and suggestions for other branches of theology, in other words, for all theologizing attempts.

In line with our social trust, we often use the term social reflection to indicate that such reflection is based on both social disciplines and social ethics. The term social analysis can have a similar meaning (see Notion and Function of Social Analysis in Chapter 5), but is often limited to the attempts and products of social disciplines.

Dynamics and Main Elements of Social Theology
In line with the above concepts, social theology starts with the social reality experienced together and moves towards particular actions to alter

the situation. This dynamic takes place by means of social analysis and reflection of social theology.

The main dynamics of all processes in social theology are divided into four interrelated stages or methodical steps (see Chapters 3 and 5) and can be viewed as a kind of “pastoral circle.” The methodical approach is not really new. Many Christian groups have for a long time followed similar patterns, namely the pattern of “seeing - considering - acting”. Similarly, many Church documents (e.g. MM 236) mention or use similar approaches, such as Gaudium et Spes and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. The new added aspect here is the systematic description and the concrete application of the method with the belief that the method is really appropriate for theological research and education as well as for pastoral praxis. In addition, the approach contains an understanding that the laity and the faithful also possess theological competence.

The first stage aims at concretely recognizing as well as directly experiencing the social situation or problems through participative observation. The experience which brings one to reality (exposure) is needed for the agents of social theological reflection in order to be touched by the joys and hopes as well as the sorrows and worries of the society.

The second stage is conducting social analysis aiming at placing the experience in a broader social context, both in Indonesia as well as in the rest of world. In this social analysis, the causal relationship as well as the interrelationship of the experienced problems are analyzed critically. For this purpose, a historical and structural analysis of political, economic and socio-cultural reality is needed. It is obvious that social theology needs social sciences to undergo this stage. Therefore, social theology really employs an inter-disciplinary approach, and in particular it needs close cooperation with social sciences (sociology, economics, and cultural anthropology).

The third stage is conducting social-theology reflection on the result of the social analysis. Social reflection is ethical-social reflection on the results of social analysis. Theological reflection is an effort to relate all of these with the witnesses of Jesus Christ’s Gospel. In this stage, the product of social analysis is confronted with the messages of the Scripture and other Christian traditions, including the Church’s social doctrines. In other words, the social reality is understood in the light of the Gospel.

Like any basic belief (culture and religion), faith has two important aspects. It is a worldview, which interprets the world reality (the theoretical aspect) and at the same time contains imperatives that guide actions (the practical aspect). Accordingly, from social-theology reflections it is expected that a deeper understanding of the meaning of actual situations from the viewpoint of salvation history and the concrete direction and impetus for further actions of the faithful will emerge (hermeneutical and ethical dimensions). It might happen in the reflection that what is hidden in Christian witnessing will be revealed or that what is forgotten will be rediscovered. Through dialogue with social sciences, the understanding of Jesus Christ’s Gospel will be fertilized. Again, the mutual or dialectic relation between faith and social reality requires an inter-disciplinary approach.

The fourth stage is actions as the realization of faith in facing social problems analyzed and reflected previously. The real synthesis of the dynamics of social theology in decision-making and actions should prove that the salvation that one believes in has real impact on everyday life. Faith should be “translated” through meditation into the life reality so that the Gospel inspiration can be realized in today’s situation. This stage requires pastoral wisdom and sensitivity to what can be achieved so that the performed actions will be really appropriate and accountable without violating the world’s autonomy (GS 36) and the plurality of acceptable ways (GS 43; 76).

The four methodical stages experienced by social theology of this special (narrow) meaning can also be achieved through theological reflection on the actions of the communities, which are explicitly Christian, such as proclamation and liturgy. Meanwhile, socio-theological reflections are particularly related to community services to the neighbor through involvement in the society.

The main dynamics, which follow the four stages, contain mutual relations among four elements, namely (1) action, (2) Jesus Christ’s Gospel, (3) reflection, and (4) analysis on existing social realities.


↓  worship  ↓
↓   service   ↓
Inspires↓                          ↓change
THE REING OF GOD↓                   ↓-experience
↓                                                     ↓-analysis



The four elements of the life of faith in the community (koinonia), proclamation (kerygma), worship (leitourgia) and service in the world (diakonia) are mutually interrelated and they influence one another. As a whole, they are significant in changing the social situation. The performers of the actions are one and the same communities, namely those who believe in Jesus Christ and thereby are expected that in their actions they will receive inspiration from the Gospel. The internalization of Christian faith as a personal as well as communal involvement in the objective situation is determined by loyalty to Jesus Christ, who is concerned with the Reign of God.

To be able to act in accordance with the above goal, the actions should be based on socio-theological reflections, both in the scientific sense as well as in the sense of everyday reflection. The reflection requires social analysis, either systematically or less consciously. The reflection should take social reality seriously and continuously exert critical dialogue between the witnesses of Jesus Christ’s Gospel (the Bible and Christian traditions) with social analysis. Through an interdisciplinary approach, particularly in cooperation with the social sciences, it is expected that social theology will really be able to function as an attempt to interpret and direct the social involvement of the life of faith to more human and just social changes. The process of critical dialogue between theological and social reflection is aimed at actions, which change the society into new social situations dreamed of by the life of faith.

Inter-religion and Inter-faith Cooperation
We should not forget that the social reality in Indonesia (and in Asia generally) is a multireligious one. In this multi-religious and multi-faith situation, we remember the exhortation of Vatican Council II in the declaration on the attitude of the Church to sisters and brothers of other faiths which aims at “jointly protecting and advancing social justice, moral values, peace and freedom for all” (NA 2).

In the history of religions we realize that certain religious and theological concepts have differentiated or even divided the society, but the same human and social care should be the bridge to relate each social group in a joint effort.

Inter-religious cooperation also relies on the same social analysis and reflection. These can unite different groups. It might happen that people of the same religion who have different approaches to social analysis and reflection may involve themselves and act differently. On the other hand, people of different faiths and religions might be united in social movements because they have the same social analysis and reflection.

Based on the concrete cooperation among people of different faiths, inter-theological dialogue can develop. Therefore, there might appear a joint social theology. In this case, the source of each faith will strengthen and critically inspire what is socially shared in the social analysis and reflection.

Furthermore, it is expected that inter-faith dialogue will develop more soundly. At this level, people of different faiths or religions might mutually enrich their life of faith not only through mutual involvement and joint movements and struggles but also through mutual sharing of their experiences in meeting God or the Ultimate.

From the viewpoint of Christian faith, such actions and attitudes are based on the confession of faith, namely that the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit of God works wherever S/He wishes, and are not limited by Church walls. Therefore, Christians, individually and communally, are called to recognize the signs and discover the presence of God’s Spirit.


Selected Readings

Amin, M. Masyhur (ed.)
1989 Teologi Pembangunan: Paradigma Baru Pemikiran Islam. Yogyakarta: Lajnah Kajian dan Pengembangan Sumberdaya Manusia Nahdhatul Ulama DIY.

Banawiratma, J.B.
1988 “Proses Teologi Sosial” in Aspek-aspek Teologi Sosial. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 11-15.

1988 “Teologi Fungsional - Teologi Kontekstual” in Konteks Berteologi di Indonesia, ed. Eka Darmaputera. Jakarta: Gunung Mulia, 47-64.

Banawiratma, J.B. and Tom Jacobs
1989 “Doing Theology with Local Resources: An Indonesian Experiment.” East Asian Pastoral Review, 26:51-72.

Holland, J. and P. Henriot
1984 Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice. New York: Orbis Books; Washington: The Center of Concern (Revised and Enlarged Edition).

Myrdal, G.
1973 The Challenge of World Poverty: A World Anti-Poverty Programme in Outline. Harmondsworth: Penguin Press.

Schreiter, Robert
1985 Constructing Local Theologies. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.