Friday, December 04, 2009

Learning to Find Your Theological Voice -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 10

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

Learning to Find Your Theological Voice
Chapter 10

Philip Clayton is intent on seeing Christians not only give a theological answer to theological questions, but also learn to explain the reasons for their actions with theology. Having declared that theology is an enterprise to be taken up by all Christians, and not just professionals, he pushes us to find our theological voice. Because everything we do or say has a theological basis or implication – whether we recognize it or not – its time to become aware and learn to articulate that belief. And, it’s important to remember that theology doesn’t just speak to the affairs of one hour on Sunday morning.

The principle here is that we act out of our beliefs, but too often we neither articulate our beliefs nor truly understand what they are. So, the goal here, according to Clayton “is to lift our implicit beliefs about God above the threshold of consciousness so that they become explicit and intentional” (p. 70). The reason being, it’s important to be able to say why we do what we do. It’s also important that we be able to recognize and deal with beliefs that are unhealthy.

To give an example, Clayton points out that many Christians live with the assumption that God is dissatisfied with them, and that if they can be good enough, then maybe God will be less dissatisfied with them. They see God as wrathful and vindictive. These assumptions may have derived from a number of sources, ranging from Sunday School to parents. But there’s hope:
It’s amazing to see what can happen when these same people (who are often church members) reflect on what it means that God views us through the lens of grace rather than only through the lens of our failures and perfections. It’s one thing to affirm the theory that God’s fundamental nature is love, quite another thing to internalize it (p. 71).

Our biggest issue is a reductionist and moralist view of God. And by lifting into the open our assumptions, we can deal with them. That doesn’t mean, however, that this is sufficient – being a disciple is more than “getting your beliefs straight” (p. 72). Still, it’s important to think through what we believe and why.

In lifting up this need, Clayton suggests that there are seven core theological questions: Nature of God (theology proper), Jesus (Christology), Holy Spirit (pneumatology), humanity (anthropology), sin and salvation (soteriology), the church (ecclesiology), and the future (eschatology). Theology in its broader definition encompasses all seven questions. As a list this is hard to beat. It’s concise and covers the most important issues. The only thing seemingly absent from this list is revelation – that is, the sources for doing theology. Clayton has already discussed this in some detail, but I wonder, as a reader, where scripture, tradition, reason, and experience fit into the equation. Is this not something that must be considered theologically?

Theology is something that each of us, individually, must engage in – giving an accounting for both beliefs and actions – but it’s also something that communities do. Thus, the programs that churches build and engage need to be accompanied by statements of core beliefs. Why is it that we do this? What is the theological rationale?

Here is where it gets tricky for mainliners, and especially for traditions like mine that are non-creedal. Clayton points to Rick Warren’s church and notes that even their Google listing includes a “What We Believe” link. Why don’t most mainline churches have such a link? We can understand why a conservative congregation might have such a thing, but what about us? And for those of who are non-creedal, where would we even start? How do we give a community definition of each of the core beliefs Clayton mentions? But, it is possible. He points to the example of Canadian Bruce Sanguin, who offers his own list of “non-negotiables,” that includes the centrality of Christ, an open table, and an activist vision of peace.

The chapter closes with a reflection Martin Luther’s example. Luther, he writes, understood that reform required a theological platform – a platform enunciated in the 95 Theses, and then developed further in other works that were deeply theological, including a couple of catechisms. Luther understood that designing new programs wasn’t enough – the church had to rethink its core identity if true reform was going to take place. And as for those grand activities, such as youth ministries and the like, unless we can give a “clear corporate statement of what we believe and live for,” these activities have little if any value (pp. 77-78).

I expect that many mainliners are going to have trouble with this premise – assuming, I suppose, that their actions should be able to stand on their own – but do they? That is the question. But what is more important, mainliners may, as Clayton acknowledges, assume that providing clearly defined faith statements is a sign of fundamentalism or suggests that this is a community that is exclusivist. The question is – how do we get from our core convictions to our activities, if we’ve not thought through our core convictions? With this I return to the major contrast I find between this book and its vision and that set out by Harvey Cox in the Future of Faith. While I enjoyed Cox's book, his renunciation of belief in favor of faith seems to leave us with a substanceless faith!


Tripp said...

your blogging is great. i think this is an essential question. if you think back to when mainline religion was powerful and even inspired hymns and new projects it was the social gospel. the social gospel was doing real theology.

Anonymous said...

This is important, because I thought that our public stance should reflect our core beliefs.

Supporting an administration maintaining 100,000 American troops to an under-defined conflict pales next to paying the 104,000 civilian mercenaries (contractors?) headed by a crazy CIA spy is over the top. These guys are operating and even shooting OUR drones into a country we have not declared war on.

Erik tried to join the CIA, claims he wasn't qualified. Turns out unqualified meant he couldn't pass a polygraph. Now it turns out Erik actually works directly for the CIA, even today? I guess that gets you protection from prosecution like being an ex- US or bank president?

This isn’t a football game where we can stick our neck out and even be forgiven for supporting the Lions. Yes, let us define core beliefs please. David Mc

Anonymous said...

There's so much we aren't to know.

Merry Xe-mas

The more things change- David Mc

Anonymous said...

Author on C-span now. Very enlightening.
No, not a good war. When will we ever learn.

Anonymous said...