Monday, November 23, 2009

Why the Answers Must Be Theological -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 3

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

Why the Answers Must Be Theological
(and What that Means)
Chapter 3

We live, as Philip Clayton has pointed out, in a fast changing world, and that this dynamic of change is something that should be welcomed not resisted. The key is adapting to the changing times. The question is, how do we make these adaptations? What should guide our efforts? Clayton’s answer is – theology.

One must start this conversation by recognizing and affirming an assumption: All people of faith have a theology of some sort. By making this affirmation, we also recognize that theology is not something that is simply done by professionals. It’s not that the work of the professional is bad, it’s just that professional theology is not the sum total – it is simply a resource for doing theology.

So, what is theology? Clayton suggests that we see it as a “world-and-life view” or WLV. We all have WLVs, whether we recognize it or not. These WLVs focus on what we consider ultimate or valuable. For some God is what is ultimate, but others not so much. Indeed, for some scientism or materialism would be the ultimate value. Clayton writes:
In the end, every person who carries out conscious actions in the world possesses a WLV, whether or not he or she is aware of it (p. 21).

For the person of faith, our theology is our WLV, it is the principle that shapes our view of the world. Since everyone has one, theology is, in Clayton’s mind, an amateur sport. Now, before the professionals get to concerned here, there is a place for such folks. They are not there to tell people what they’re supposed to believe, but rather are to serve as coaches, helping the players learn their skills so they can better understand and live out their WLVs.

One of the problems that I had with Harvey Cox’s book was that by making such a strong distinction between faith and belief, he left little room for content. We hear a lot about faith as practice – and it is – but out of what do we practice? This is what I appreciate about Clayton, he wants us to recognize the need for content. Thus, we need the Scriptures, we need tradition, etc. The issue is not whether there is content, but rather how it is discerned and applied.

So, what are the sources for doing theology? With what should we be wrestling? For we can’t just follow Jesus – we have to know who Jesus is/was and what that would mean for us, and as the author points out – that takes thought.

So, upon what should we be thinking? Clayton, like many current teachers of theology, turns to what has come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. If, as a Christian, you say you wish to follow Jesus, well there aren’t many places to go other than Scripture. Yes, there are other gospels, but they do not have same authority in history as canonical scripture. It is, however, not the end point, but the starting point. And the issue, as Clayton notes, is not whether you get your doctrine of scripture correct, but whether you are able to “deeply, intelligently, and constantly,” use it to look at the big issues in one’s life.

Scripture is not enough – despite the proclamations of sola scriptura – for the canyon separating our day and that day is too deep and wide. Tradition helps us by bringing to mind the teachings and experiences of those who have lived the faith across time. This wisdom helps counteract our own presuppositions and opinions. The function of tradition isn’t to provide infallible facts, but is rather “the resource of many generations and many centuries of readers who have struggled with what God could be saying in and through the scriptural reports on the Hebrew tradition, on Jesus’ life, and on the early church” (p. 25). This is an important corrective to the hubris of my own tradition, which thought it could jump back over the centuries and restore New Testament Christianity. What emerged was a very modern, 19th century, American version of the Christian faith.

Then comes everyone’s favorite resource – experience. We like to turn to it because its personal and relevant. It has its good side – it’s not likely that you will believe something for very long that conflicts with your experience. However, living as we do in a very privatistic and individualistic world, is this enough? The answer is – probably not. It’s a good starting point and good check point, but we need more.

Finally, comes reason, which interestingly enough – considering that we are the products of an age of reason, seems to be under utilized. In matters of faith, we pay little heed to science (for instance). We find it difficult to wrestle deeply with our experience and our inherited traditions. Reason allows us to bring experience, tradition, and scripture together in a way that allows us to understand and live faithfully in the world. While there maybe other sources, these four are the most recognized, and thus foundational to our Christian WLV – better known as our theology.

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