Saturday, November 21, 2009

Transforming Christian Theology -- Introduction and Reflections

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

Getting Clear on What You (Really) Believe

The Transforming Theology project, led by Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology, with able assistance from Tripp Fuller (collaborator on this book) was born out of concern that Christians have lost their ability to articulate in any meaningful way their faith. The language is there, just not deep reflection on it. And that, Clayton believes, is a major problem for the church, and a reason why the church is in its current state of decline.

“I’m writing this book because it seems that many Christians no longer know how to talk about their faith – at least not in an open, attractive, reflective, humble, inquiring, and truth-seeking way. It’s not just that we don’t know how to ‘witness”; we don’t even know what we ourselves believe. (P. 1).
His solution, or at least a start toward a solution, is to engage – from the vantage point of being a thoroughly trained philosophical theologian with high academic credentials – the church in conversation. He notes in the introduction a wake up call, one that involved my blog reviews of his most recent book, Adventures in the Spirit. I read that book as part of this Transforming Theology project, but what Clayton points out is that my interaction with the book (and that of other bloggers) raised important questions about relevancy to the church. That is, does it preach? These conversations triggered an ongoing project that would encourage theologians to engage the church, including both clergy and laity, in conversations that will lead to transformed lives.

I believe Philip is on to something. Mainline Protestants find it difficult to speak clearly about their faith. Many are dissatisfied with the inherited vocabulary, but don’t know how to move to a new point. Some try to integrate views/beliefs that aren’t congruent with the Christian faith. It’s a mixing of metaphors that doesn’t work. Why is this happening, Clayton believes, at least in part this is due to the way theology is taught in seminary, and the way it is written by theologians. Therefore, clergy aren’t sure how to share what they learned in seminary, and theologians seem content to write for each other, with little concern for the church. Clayton confesses that he is guilty on both counts, and in repentance has chosen a new direction.

Clayton’s response to this new discovery is to do three things – first, he’s changing the way he’s teaching – asking his students to think about their lives and their ministries theologically, not leaving that task to other departments. Second, he’s changing the way he’s communicating his understandings, moving away from strictly academic books like Adventures in the Spirit to books like this, which are intended to engage lay audiences. And third, he’s decided to become active in helping other theologians make this change. In that regard, he set up the Transforming Theology Project, which has hosted conversations with theologians, denominational leaders, and engaged bloggers like me in conversation about important books and topics. The next step in this project is a conference in March entitled Theology after Google, a conference that I will be a participant, helping younger theologians pick up the challenge of sharing their theology with the world through blogs and other social networking programs.

Why is this important? Clayton notes that while “many people are doing great stuff in congregations and in social ministries,” there is little theological grounding to their activities. He writes: “We have trouble talking about what is uniquely Christian about our lifestyles and ministries, and our inability is crippling those ministries.” (p.7).

Here is the rub, if we don’t reflect seriously on our beliefs, it is difficult for us to share them. Martha Grace Reese, in her series of books on evangelism uncovers a deep-seated fear of sharing faith among mainliners. That series is an important voice, but I’ve come to believe that it needs to be coupled with conversations like this. Mainliners are not only afraid to share their faith – in part because of what they’ve seen from those who do share their faith – they’re simply not confident in their own understandings, so they stay silent. Philip Clayton wants to help them get past this issue.

With this in mind, I will, over the course of the next days and weeks, go chapter by chapter through this relatively brief book, sharing insights and offering my own thoughts. As a concluding statement to this introductory conversation, I want to contrast what I see this book accomplishing with the other book I read for this project, Harvey Cox’s Future of Faith, (Harper One, 2009). Cox, in his rebuff of clericalism and creedalism, seems to make too strong a distinction between faith and belief. In Cox’s mind, faith is good, belief not so good. Faith is something personal, and belief is something imposed.

I do believe, though I could be wrong, that Philip Clayton (and his collaborator Tripp Fuller) would not make such a strong distinction. They do believe that if we’re going to speak passionately and act passionately from our faith, then we must reflect deeply on what we believe – but we must also do so in a way that is humble and inclusive. Thus, the book is intended to show a way to do theology (which is simply talking and thinking about God – and not simply an academic discipline) “that is not dogmatic, divisive, or relativistic” (p. 7).

Clayton writes with great passion for this subject. He writes as a progressive theologian – fully engaged with panentheism – but there is an evangelical tint to this. But then, like me, Philip Clayton’s roots are in evangelicalism. Indeed, he is the product of an evangelical college (Westmont) and seminary (Fuller Theological Seminary – as is true for me). His theological orientation may have changed, but he is still passionate about the faith and how it can changes lives. I for one, am excited to see what will happen, as we engage in this conversation.


Tripp said...

awesome. you nailed the cox \clayton distinction.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Thanks for the confirmation. While I appreciate what Cox is trying to do, I'm not sure it has the same transformative value! We're left with a substanceless faith -- that doesn't seem to be where Philip is going!