Sunday, November 22, 2009

Do Christians Have to Hate Change? -- Transforming Christian Theology , ch. 2

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Do Christians Have to Hate Change?
Chapter 2

In the previous chapter, Philip Clayton (and sidekick Tripp Fuller) remind us that the world of today is much different from that of a generation or two earlier. In many ways the 1950s was an anomaly, a brief period of hyper religiosity, that may have been drive as much by fear of Communism than anything. It was the age of increased attendance, but also of religious additions to the Pledge of Allegiance and other public instruments. And it simply didn’t last – perhaps something akin to the brief surge in church attendance after 9-11.

The question that the church faces concerns the value of change. Mainline churches, which were dominant a generation ago have felt the effects of change more than other branches of the church. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church has maintained its numbers largely due to immigration – as there are huge numbers of ex-Catholics out there. In this very short chapter, Clayton asks: “Do Christians Have to Hate Change? This is a good question, one that we are all wrestling with on a regular basis. Clayton’s answer – change is good. And if you think that change is something that only young people can abide, he points out that there are plenty of young people who resist change while many older people are at the forefront of change – he points in particular to John Cobb and Phyllis Tickle.

While society is changing, and many in the church look to the church as an anchor of stability, Clayton suggests that God is present in this era of change, and that we are called to be with God, seeking “to bring about an order of love and justice that is clearly not the world we see around us” (p. 16). As Jesus-followers we are, most at home, when we’re not at home – or to quote Larry Norman, “we’re only visiting this planet.” Thus:
“When change is all around and the future feels unpredictable, the disciples of the Itinerant One should know that they are in their element” (P. 17).

What is required of us is humble recognition that our best efforts are not sufficient, but God’s grace is sufficient for us. As Paul notes, it is in our weakness that we find strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

So what does theology have to do with this? Well everything. Theology isn’t simply a boring prerequisite, for other more important things. Instead, it is the reflection on God’s work and presence in the world. It involves listening for the ways in which God is speaking. Because this is a new day – whether or not we fully embrace the interpretations of a Harvey Cox or a Phyllis Tickle that we stand at the edge of a fundamental transition point in history – it is time to commit ourselves to being more adaptable to the times.

Clayton writes:
Faith in Christ has not become irrelevant, and Jesus’ message is not to be relegated to museums or the dustbins of history. Still, as a church we’ve got to do a better job. In order to be effective, we have to be lighter on our feet and much more adaptable and open to change than we have been so far (p. 18).

The question that the church now faces relates to what this means for us. Does it mean that we abandon buildings and traditional structures? Some would answer yes. Others, would say, wait, maybe these structures have value, but need to be reenergized – the breath of God energizing those dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezk. 37ff).

Our theology, must include reflecting on the changes we’re experiencing. We draw on ancient texts and beliefs, and yet we also live in a new day, when the questions are very different. So, is change good or bad? Let us continue the conversation.

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