New Parterships in Christian Activism -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 14

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

New Partnerships in Christian Activism
Chapter 14

We have examined our context and laid out the important questions, and now it is time to consider the ways in which we can put a theology that can be transformative into action. After all, the point of this exercise is not merely to get our theological ducks in a row or even to invite the nonspecialist into the conversation. The point has been to invite the community of faith into a conversation about theology that will stir heart and mind to service in the world. In many ways this calling to service is deeply rooted in the ethos out of which Philip Clayton speaks. His desire, however, is to connect a commitment to activism with a deeply thought out theology – much as the formulators of the Social Gospel did early in the twentieth century. In laying out this new vision, he wants the church to pick up a “big tent” mentality, to put aside petty squabbles and focus on the primary questions that might stir us to action.

Chapter 14 is quite brief and its intention is to help us connect the Seven Core Questions with the important actions/events of our lives. Clayton suggests that if we’re to do this effectively we should embrace the principle of “pragmatic idealism.” He sees this as the wave of the future – the method of the younger generations, who have chosen to abandon ideology. As an example of this new method, he points to the “Obama Effect.” Now, this illustration of the way in which Obama mobilized an electoral force, may seem somewhat jarring considering the way in which many on the left as well as the right have already turned on him – largely because of his pragmatic idealism. The “big tent” position of Obama has quickly been abandoned by a return to factionalism, fueled in some cases by disillusionment on the part of those who placed too many expectations on a presidential candidate – they bought into the messiahism proclaimed by some. What this demonstrates is that things can change quicker than anyone might expect.

This little excursus set aside, the point is that if change is to happen in society, it will require us to move beyond faction and to embrace a “big tent” approach. Clayton offers examples of such an approach, including the Great Awakening, the Social Gospel Movement, the impact of theologians Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the involvement of Christians in the Civil Rights movement. Thus, if we’re to speak out on such issues as global warming and climate change, we must stand together.

Clayton writes:

In the postmodern context, Christian activism doesn’t require a single account of faith shared by all participants. Everyone must have a reason to put his or her shoulder to the common work, of course. And it’s important for all of us to consciously think through our reasons so that we are able to state them convincingly and powerfully, but no one single account has to win at the expense of others, even among Christians (p. 117).

This has, of course, been the ecumenical ideal, an ideal that has always asked us to focus on the common theological foundations, without requiring us to agree on everything, so we can be present in a transformative way in the world. It requires of us both pragmatism and idealism, a willingness to find partners who don't always agree on every issue, whether it be theology or social issues. To do this, as we discovered in the previous chapter, we must approach this quest with a good bit of humility (self-emptying).


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