Saturday, November 21, 2009

Times have changed -- Transforming Christian Theology ch. 1

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

Things have changed, or
“Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Any More”

Chapter 2

In the first of 19 relatively brief chapters divided into three parts, the first being entitled “Theology for an Age of Transition,” Philip Clayton makes it clear that the times they are a changing. In this he is on the same page with Harvey Cox – we are entering a new era of Christian faith. Things are being realigned in radical ways – as if a major earthquake has hit.

The world isn’t the same as it was fifty years ago, back when going to church was expected, and the options were few. You were, in Will Herberg’s terms either Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. And while there were variety’s of Protestantism, a majority could still be found within what is known as the Mainline churches. Since society had yet to become as mobile as it is today, it’s likely that you grew up in your parents’ church and continued on for several generations. Back in the 50s there was little room for the atheist, and the spiritual but not religious option wasn’t even on the table.

The 60s introduced massive change, though the churches didn’t really feel it until the 70s. I can attest to that. My Episcopal Church in Klamath Falls did pretty well back then, but things started to change in the 70s, about the time I left for a Pentecostal Church. By the 70s there were more options, though most remained within Christianity and they were institutional in nature – still no place for the “spiritual but not religious” folk. The fact of choice, however, made things much more confusing than they’d been in the 1950s.

Things today are much different. The choices are far broader, and can take you far beyond institutional Christianity (or Judaism). Whereas a generation ago Protestants numbered around 60 to 70% of the population, now they’re heading toward the sub 50% mark. While much of that can be explained by the decline of the mainline, even the evangelicals are in danger of losing market share. And, who is picking it up, why it’s the “spiritual but not religious,” eastern religions, non-institutional faiths, and even the agnostic and the atheist. Yes, even the atheist and the freethinker is making a comeback. Oh, and technology is making itself felt – things like this blog, Facebook, Twitter, and more. As Clayton puts it – in talking about sites like – “Pastors and religious authorities no longer interpret the religious options for most Americans today, whether or not they still attend a church or synagogue; websites do” (p. 15). This is one reason why I justify what I do as ministry. I expect that I touch many more people in a week through my blog than I do at church. That doesn’t diminish the work of the church, but it does say that the context for doing ministry is changing in a hurry.

What we need to remember, as well, is this – the context isn’t going to get any simpler any time soon. Technologies change radically and quickly. What I do here, could soon be almost dinosaur-like. Indeed, as Clayton points out, that it’s “no wonder people feel a little strange participating in a social arrangement called the “local congregation,” a structure designed for the world of the eighteenth century, before there were cars or even light bulbs!” (P. 15). So, what do we do? How do we express and experience belief and practice in this new age, one that we can’t even envision with any precision? Ah, but I think Philip would say – the ride will be a thrill! So, let’s continue the journey.


Benjamin said...

I still think the degree of this crisis is overstated. It is stated by Clayton as if all current theology is a useless pile of trash, the distant sounding of a bell, and that is the end of the story. Personally, my academic training has let me speak in incredibly meaningful ways to skeptics and non-religious people with a modern scientific bent to their epistemology. I am also a follower of Tillich, and think this crisis talk has more to do with more classical Trinitarian thinkers who are losing ground to modern evangelical mega-church nut-jobs.

John said...

The question has to be addressed: what has changed between now and 50 years ago in the US, and in the rest of the world, to trigger the tectonic change in the theological landscape?

I look at several factors: the rise of post-modernism (which I believe stems from four World War II cataclysms - the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the death of European Colonialism, and the Cold War) the near universal impact of media on daily life, the increase in time available for leisure activities in Western society, the decline in the institutional power of mainline protestantism to command at least token allegiance from its traditional constituency (i.e., the American middle class). This last item may be as much a result as a cause.

As we come to understand the causes clearly then we will be better equipped as Christian witnesses to respond more effectively.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


I don't think that Philip is saying that contemporary theology is a pile of trash. In fact, he believes very strongly that panentheism probably makes the most sense of our contemporary situation. What he is saying is that we need to get the conversation out into the open.

I'm doing a 10 week series I call Theology 101. Now that we're near the end of the series, I can say that the areas of conversation are broader and deeper than I ever imagined. We've had to leave aside important areas of conversation -- areas to pick up at a later date.

This is what I think Philip wants us to do -- he wants us to discuss our beliefs so that we can bring them into a position that guides our practice.

And, as Clayton suggests, and John picks up, context is key. I pastor a church that a couple of generations back was a powerful presence in Detroit. We were one of the megachurches in town, but things changed and it has difficult to keep up. But, we are in a new time, with a new calling. We're much smaller than we were a generation ago.

But, if we leave theology simply to professionals we miss out. I am by training a historical theologian. I study 18th century Anglicanism. It informs my teaching of theology in the church, even if I don't teach 18th century Anglicanism! I do, however, recognize the importance of history and tradition to our conversation!