Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Theologies in Action -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 12

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

Theologies in Action Chapter 12

When we define theology as the “study of God,” it sounds very academic and foreboding. It’s not something that most people believe themselves capable, but if we define theology as “thinking about God,” well surely we can all think about God. Having already laid out seven core questions and four sources or resources upon which one can seek answers to these questions, Philip Clayton asks us why we don’t engage in such activity. After all, we’re eager to talk about all manner of other things, why not God and our faith? Clayton writes:
But if we are passionate about our Christian faith, would we expect at least as much refection and reading and talk about who it is we believe in, how that helps us interpret the contemporary world, and how to communicate these ideas effectively to other persons? (p. 87)

Why is it that one can quite often visit or participate in a church and find that no one is talking about faith? And this is in church!

Clayton proposes an experiment – an experiment of listing. Listen to the conversations in the coffee hour. Assuming that people talk about what is important to them, do you hear anything about the way one’s faith influences one’s life? Even more telling, he suggests we listen in on committee meetings – what are the topics of conversation and where does theology fit? Where does the Bible fit into the decision-making process? These are good questions, and they require of us a new definition of theology.

This new and broader definition, which will bring theology into our daily lives, can be defined as follows:
Theology means moving from Scripture and tradition, by means of reason and experience, to application in the contemporary world (p. 89)

Our theology reflects on and through four sources or resources, with a vision toward application in the modern world. What we hear in this definition is relevance. Theology isn’t merely the study of dead white guys, but it is an engagement with the modern world, making use of ideas that may have emerged from earlier thinkers and practitioners of this faith we hold dear.

As we begin our work of theological reflection, it’s important to keep focused on the central issues, rather than peripheral ones. We all know that it’s easy to get caught up in side issues that more often than not divide. It takes discernment to know what is central and what is not. Part of this process requires us to do a bit of comparison of our thoughts with that of others. It’s important, Clayton suggests, that we see these various theologies as complementary rather than seeing things in exclusive terms. We are called to build bridges, rather than protecting territory. The question is – how to do this?

As the author closes the chapter, he notes the various ways we approach theological questions. Some focus on close readings of the Bible. They move from exegetical work to biblical theologies – and evangelicals are very adept at this. Others, focus attention on creeds and classic theologians. They look back to the Fathers of the Church such as Augustine or the Cappadocians. Still others, have developed skills in interpreting modern culture and discerning important social issues that are emerging in our midst. Still others have become skilled at understanding modern science and modern world-views, including other religious traditions. We could choose among the four, but Clayton believes that we will be best served if we try to make use of all four, seeing them not as rivals but as complements. This is, according to Philip Clayton a move from “roots to relevance.” That is:
[D]iscovering the powerful insights the Christian tradition has to offer when it is interpreted and applied to the contemporary world. Uncovering these connections is the heart and soul of Christian theology (p. 93).

When Clayton speaks of taking theology to the people, he’s not rejecting academic study of theology, but he is saying that theologians must come out of their hallowed halls and engage the people of God. It might be worth remembering that in days of yore, the great theologians and thinkers were often clergy and bishops, people not inhabiting the university halls, but the parish halls.

No comments: