Friday, March 27, 2009

Academic Theology for the Populace?

Tony Jones, former leader of Emergent Village and participant in the recent Transforming Theology event in Claremont, has written a post wrestling with the question: "Are Academic Theologians Useless?

He tells of a statement made at that conference, which had drawn together a number of progressive theologians.

Last week, Jonathan L. Walton blogged here on RD about a conference that he and I recently attended at Claremont School of Theology. He mentioned my charge, to the collection of two score “progressive” theologians, that they be more savvy about how they market themselves.

More specifically, I accused those theologians of falling asleep at the wheel, of giving up the populist agenda bequeathed to them by William Jennings Bryan, and of caring more about tenure and academic guilds than about changing the minds of the people in the checkout line at Walmart.

Now, I've read enough Tony's stuff and listened/watched others, to know that he can be exaggerate things just a bit, but I think he's on to something. Just before this quote he noted that years ago people would have turned to a Reinhold Niebuhr or maybe a young Harvey Cox to debate someone like a Bill Maher, and defend progressive Christianity. There simply aren't those kinds of known folks willing to mix it up in the public square. You've got plenty of right wing folks out there, but who besides Marcus Borg and a few others are out there speaking not just to the unconverted, but to the progressive Christians? I know I'm going to get some flack for this, but don't say John Spong. Spong is, in my mind, nothing more than a bomb thrower -- at Christians.

But there are good theologians out there who, as Tony suggests, write a lot of material for the academic community, but little for either clergy or more importantly the lay person. So, where does the educated Christian layperson go? Why to Bart Ehrman and John Spong, neither of whom provides the kind of material that will stir the soul of a progressive Christian soul. Indeed, much of what I read from progressive Christians seems intent on attacking the church.

But there is good theology out there that could be transformative. And a good example is the stuff that Philip Clayton is doing - except his written materials are highly specialized and very dense. I'm reading his Adventures in the Spirit, but I've only made it through four chapters and although trained in theology, I find it difficult sledding. But, in his videos -- many of which are posted here on this blog, I find an engaged, committed, personable, gracious, theologian. I'd love it if he would, take what he's doing in these more academic works and brings it down to the level of the lay person -- the kind of book that a Marcus Borg might write (and publish with HarperOne).

So, I think Tony is right. Progressives need to be creating spirit lifting, intellectually stimulating, but understandable books for the Christian populace!


justiceconqueringreligion said...

I get the impression (probably incorrectly) that you believe only theologians have any understanding of God.
That is exactly the kind of attitude that gets the church attacked.
I invite you to come out into the community and try working with those people the "Christians" have no use for. (illegal immigrants, drug addicts, uneducated people, sex workers, etc)You may find that God loves them all.
And it does not take a theologian to communicate understanding and kindness.(Isn't that what Jesus taught?)
Forgive me if I have misjudged you.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Who else other than Borg? Let's see, just off the top of my head, I'll list Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, Peter Gomes of Harvard Memorial Church, Shaine Claiborne, Diana Butler Bass, Anne Lamott, Delwin Brown, Karen Horst Cobb, Michelle Tooley, Peter Laarman, Mel White.

The list could easily be multiplied.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

2 responses -- first to Justice . . . I'm not saying that only academic theologians have anything to say, but they do have things to say!

To Michael, most of those mentioned aren't academic theologians. Diana is -- like me -- a historian. McLaren's training is in English literature, Taylor, Robinson, Gomes, White, aren't academic theologians either. Claibourne is an evangelical, I'm not familiar with Karen Horst Cobb, but again what is she writing that is available for the run of the mill person.

What Tony was suggesting, and I agree, is that those, like Clayton, come out of the tower and engage the common person (and clergy). John Cobb does that in his more recent pieces.

I would say that something like Diana's latest book -- Peoples History of Christianity -- is pitched just perfectly -- just from a theological perspective.

Tripp said...

Good Stuff. Philip is actually moving to a series of general audience books right now. This first should come out next year. Now I just have to keep him video blogging!

charles & jenny said...

"Come out of the tower".. I wonder on both sides. Conservatives seem to surrounded by a bunch of head nodders.. (remember, this is the crowd I hang in). To disagree can be blaspheme. Liberals seem to be more locked up in towers or write scathing articles about life and what we need to do. Sadly, both sides seem to do a lot more talking and very little action. Libs talk about how great the world could be, yet beyond a simple pet project, blasting the rich, or rants on a blog.. nothing seems to be done. Conservatives talk about how crazy liberal ideas are or whats wrong with society.. yet they use this as a crutch for not engaging those in most need. A thinly veiled position that almost says.. you have what you deserve.

Sorry.. I am venting


Anonymous said...

Given enough time, a hypothetical chimpanzee typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare's plays
(or any other text).

Sorry...I'm just venting.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the monkey reference. I wasn't trying to bring up evolution again.

Hey, you got me to notice Albert the Great. Patron saint of Roman Catholic Theologians. Interesting.

anyway, what I meant was...

Have we come a long way in understanding in the last 1-2000 years? Many seem to want to return to a simpler faith, and think earlier followers had advantages. Was ignorance bliss, or are we the ignorant ones? Wouldn't those who were closer in time to when Jesus was with us be the most accurate?

We are all theologians.
That's a lot of monkeys.

David Mc

John said...

I think justice was right on in arguing that theologians have no monopoly on spirituality and God or on Kingdom living. Jesus pointed his disciples to the generous widow and to the loving sacrifice of the sinful woman with the alabaster jar, and time and again to the faith of women and gentiles which led to their healing or the healing of others.

I also think that blogs like this in fact provide opportunities for non-academics to share with others about their relationships with God and their experience of Kingdom living.

And I think Jesus message was that kingdom living was truly a way of life, not theological construct. Theologians attempt to measure and quantify and ultimately to systematize kingdom living. Non-academics are more interest in the 'living' and less in the systemization. If theologians desire to become more popularly relevant they are going to have worry less about systemizing the Kingdom and more about living in the Kingdom.


John said...


You said: "Many seem to want to return to a simpler faith, and think earlier followers had advantages."

This is what I see too.

I suspect that Jesus said all that needed to be said. From Paul to Augustine to Luther and Calvin, it seems that our professional theologians have lost the simple truths of the original message. They seem intent on loading us down with needless burdens, systems, and complexities, all intended to dress up Jesus' simple message: Love God and love those whom God loves, that is, love all of God's children and love them enough to forgive them their worst offenses.

Love unconditionally and infuse our relationships with that unconditional love.


Anonymous said...

John, when you say:

"I also think that blogs like this in fact provide opportunities for non-academics to share with others about their relationships with God..."

For me, for sure.
Or even the IDEA of God.
Hey, and we're saving gas.

Nearly makes computers look like a good thing.

I guess Bob's original intent was vis-versa. He knows most of the public would not normally seek the modern academics' view.

The comment:

"love those whom God loves" is even more powereful and inclusive than Justice's flame.

Christopher Marlin-Warfield said...

"But there are good theologians out there who, as Tony suggests, write a lot of material for the academic community, but little for either clergy or more importantly the lay person."

There are two sides to this.

I would say that most academic theologians want to read other academic theologians. I would also guess that a lot of practicing clergy want to read academic clergy - though I'm not sure most have time to.

Here's the tricky part: how much theology does the average lay person want to read? Is there, in the end, enough interest for academic theologians to write for the audience?

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Here's a premise for a theology book for lay people:

250-350 page book on the theology of Jesus. Leave Paul, the Church (creeds and Catechisms) and later interpreters and discussions of provenenace, originality and redaction out of it (but of course the theologian will be informed thereby and may compile a second section - perhaps even longer - of annotations and footnotes).

The perspective should assume that the Gospels faithfully recorded their contents, including the internal contradictions.

Starting perhaps with trip to Jerusalem at 12, or his baptism, (I would leave out the Birth Narratives because they do not reflect the the intentional teachings of Jesus per se), and moving on to the Temptation, the Isaiah reading, the wedding at Cana, healings, casting out demons, Sermon on the Mount, the bread of life discourse, public debates, the parables, his prayer life in general, the apocalyptic pronouncements, private teaching to his apostles, the revival of Lazarus, the woman at the well, the last supper sermon, his arrest, trial, death and post resurrection teachings.

Now I realize there are theological perspectives on each of the areas which will focus the discussion, and so, it might be even more helpful to have several, thematically identical books, written by a range of scholars, i.e., by a progressive (Borg, Crossan, Fox), a conservative (Wright, Scott Hahn) and a fundamenalist (Norman Geisler), and by someone with a more pastoral perspective (Tony Campolo, Chuck Swindoll).

The scholars would not debate each other, but would simply present their understanding of Jesus message, divided by common chapter divisions and they would present Jesus teachings as viewed through their perspectives as clearly, and non-argumentatively, and undogmatically as they can.

Now that would be useful theology for the general public.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I appreciate all the comments here -- looks as if you're having a good conversation. I appreciate Tripp's announcement that Philip Clayton will be publishing some more accessible books.

I want to pick up on something Chris wrote. I do think there is an interest and perhaps a market in theological work -- for the lay person. I've decided to do a theology 101 class next fall, because I had a number of church members say -- we've never been taught theology. We want to know about things like the trinity, heaven, hell, etc. Now, remember I pastor a Disciples church and the Stone-Campbell movement isn't known for its emphasis on theology. We are, after all, non-creedal. But my people want to know what all the fuss is about.

What is interesting about Philip Clayton is that he is wrestling with the intersection of science and theology in interesting ways.

As for simplicity, Alexander Campbell was an adherent of John Locke's notion of a simple reasonable faith. He believed that while creeds had their place, when made tests of fellowship they became divisive. Just follow the NT, he suggested, but unfortunately we ran into the same problems as before -- each arguing about whose interpretation was correct!

Anonymous said...

"I've decided to do a theology 101 class next fall, ..."

You could use the Jefferson Bible to reflect the mind of the class as a common starting point. We all think Jesus is awesome.

And then add the parts he left out and the churches' theological ideas one by one for debate?

I look forward to class.

David Mc

charles & jenny said...

Good for you Bob.. I had a conversation in a Bible Study about the same issue. Its frankly amazing how we have so much access to information, yet we all feel we have so little "theology" teaching. I could answer a can of worms and say.. thats what happens when the Bible is pulled from school. There is a HUGE hunger for theology in churches.. moving from "popcorn theology" to steak.

I will confess and I know I am not alone.. we often sit and get fed by a sermon on Sunday.. but we don't spend enough time doing our own study.

I recommend Wayne Gruden's systematic theology as a great walk through on every topic you can think of..


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think you are using too restricted a notion of an academic theologian. You give Reinhold Niebuhr as an example from a different generation, but his colleagues at Union did NOT consider him a "real" theologian--just a trumped up pastor with no Ph.D. who had a popular following.
Even your example of Marcus Borg is not a trained theologian, but a Nuestestamentler specializing in historical Jesus research.

Sure, I want more people like Clayton to come out of the tower. And people like Moltmann and others. But the real face of "progressive theology for the populace" will always be that of those who popularize the academic heavyweights. That IS the tradition of Niebuhr and other "public theologians."

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Harvard's Harvey Cox (a fellow Baptist pacifist) is one progressive, academic theologian who has always also written for laypeople.

Anonymous said...

"We shall have to stop talking about 'God' for a while,"

This is old (Cox), but still a good read. I'll check him out.,9171,941039,00.html?iid=chix-sphere

David Mc