Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.
Toward a Progressive Theology for Christian Activism
We have reached the end – the final chapter of Philip Clayton’s exploration of a grassroots progressive Christian theology. It has been his contention that Christians need to understand and articulate their faith. The end of this work should lead to Christian activism – engagement in social justice actions in the world.
Recognizing that the world liberal no longer has much appeal, he has proposed that we use the word progressive – a common proposal among mainliners. This word, according to our author carries two senses – one speaks of change and improvement. This, understanding shouldn’t be controversial – especially for Protestants who embrace the principle of semper reformanda, the Reformation principle that the church should always be reforming itself. The word, however, has a second sense, a social-political one. That is, it speaks of a commitment to social justice. There is resistance to this side of things, in part because to many people the term speaks mainly of matters relating to homosexuality. Because many Mainline denominations are facing division within their ranks over this issue, it’s difficult for them to embrace the principle of progressive Christianity without getting dragged into that debate. But, if this is what progressive means, then, Clayton says, “conservative” must mean simply “opposed to homosexuality.”
It is unfortunate if we limit the kingdom message to one thing – sexual ethics (conservative or liberal). It is, Clayton says, “divisive to the church, distracts from her message, and is destructive to how the church is perceived in our broader society outside the church” (p. 147). Now, I expect that Philip and I agree on the importance of including gay and lesbian folk into our churches, but the kingdom message isn’t a one-issue message. Such “single issue theologies,” he writes, “will not transform society” (p. 147). I would agree wholeheartedly on that assessment. Folks like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis aren’t at the same place as I am on this issue, but we share many other progressive goals. Who knows, in time, they may embrace inclusion of gays as well. There are, Clayton suggests, borrowing from Brian McLaren, at least four key issues that there can be agreement upon – poverty, ecology, peace, and purpose/meaning.
Seeking to root his understandings in the biblical story, he points to three texts: Luke 4 and its description of Jesus’ ministry as an anointing of the Spirit to bring good news to the poor, captives, blind, and oppressed; Luke 6's accounting of the Beatitudes with its encouragement to ministry to the poor; and finally Matthew 25 and its description of judgment based on service to the least of these, the brothers and sisters of Christ. These texts, if reflected upon theologically, can be the foundation, he believes of “a powerful, biblically based, world transforming, progressive theology” (p. 151). Being biblically based is important for Clayton, who seems to understand that the tendency of liberals to look outside scripture for help, is shortsighted. Scripture requires careful interpretation, but its message needs to be attended to if we are to move forward. I’m in agreement with such an assessment.
It used to be said that churches chose between evangelism and social justice. That dichotomy has proven to be a false and misleading one. The choice is false. One needn’t refrain from sharing one’s faith to engage in social justice, and engaging in social justice doesn’t preclude sharing one’s faith. What separates progressive and conservative versions of Christianity, isn’t the call to share faith, but a vision that is so exclusive that Christians see their own faith in either/or terms. You’re either a Christian or you’re without hope. Without being exclusive, it’s appropriate for us to see God as the world’s hope of salvation. It is appropriate to see a uniqueness in the Christian message as well. Clayton points to the words of his predecessor at Claremont School of Theology – John Cobb. Although Cobb’s theology seeks to be consistent with science and doesn’t exclude other religions and philosophies, it does seek to offer a “theology robust enough to speak unapologetically of working for the salvation of the world.” Indeed, according to Cobb, among “the world’s religions, Christianity has the tradition that points most strongly to efforts to save the world” (p. 152).
We are declining in numbers and influence, Clayton believes, pulling from Cobb, because we simply don’t believe that what we have to say is all that important. They might be onto something there – in our desire to be inclusive and not step on the toes of others – we may have inadvertently proclaimed to the world that what we have to say is of little value. So, what might happen if we truly believed that our faith had something important to say about the reconciliation of the world.
What stands in our way? Well, cynicism for one thing – something we see so prominently in our political discourse these days. We have a tendency – as seen in the recent election of President Barack Obama, something Clayton points too – to expect superhuman efforts from an individual. And when they fail to meet our expectations we grow increasingly cynical. The other enemy is complacency. These are revolutionary times, and a complacent church will get left behind. The Spirit of God, on the other hand, won’t be kept in the fold!
What is needed is a visionary Christianity, one that can dream the dream of God’s kingdom. This vision should be broad, comprehensive, and transformational. That conversation is just beginning.
With this chapter the main section of the book comes to a conclusion. This has been, at least for me, a most helpful conversation. It is a reminder that theology has an important role to play in our work of ministry in the world. It’s a call to be missional in our existence – expressing in our daily lives the fulness of God’s kingdom.
As with any good concert, there has to be an encore, and so there is in this book. The author and his co-writer offer us one last section which is composed of a series of three conversations. I shall, therefore, explore this section with one last posting – so stay tuned.