Transforming Theologies -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 9

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

Transforming Theologies
Chapter 9

If we, as the church, are to exist into the future, if we’re to make a mark on the world as it is, it’s going to take more than a couple of contemporary songs in worship or a PowerPoint projector and screen. It will take a message that isn’t stuck in age old language and idioms that have no resonance in our world. What is needed is a transformative theology, one that is a “powerful statement of what you believe, one that can guide and motivate transformative action in the world” (p. 62). All the strategies and tools in the world will be of little use, if “we cannot tell a convincing story of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world” (p. 62). What is needed is an embodied theology, one that is passionate, one that bursts out in worship and then into action. Unless we can articulate who we are as Christians, it’s unlikely that we will engage in anything that is sustainable as Christians.

Although we have to beware of over simplifying, the idea of warring camps, for argument’s sake it’s worth contrasting those who hang on for dear life to traditional language and ideas so as to have an identifiable Christian witness. Clayton suggests that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to translate traditional theological language into anything that is sufficiently compelling. On the other hand, there are those who have a strong sense of the need to be engaged in the world. They are concerned about issues of race and gender, justice and peace – but they can’t articulate a theology for why they’re so engaged. They’re unable to give a distinctly Christian understanding of why they’re there. What Clayton suggests is that we needn’t be caught up in an either/or case of theology or action.

Clayton offers us what he calls a “Big Tent” Christianity. Here evangelicals who are social justice folk can gather together with mainliners and Progressives with similar social values. There is no need, he says, for a megadenomination or a new creed we’re all having to sign. The key is finding our common understandings and beliefs. Now, I resonate with this idea – in fact it’s built into the ethos of the Disciple tradition (my tradition). But, as I ponder this concept, I’m reminded that Michael Kinnamon, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, together with Disciple pastor Jan Linn published a book (Disciples, Chalice Press, 2009) this year calling Disciples to reclaim their heritage as a way of reforming their practice. Here is the head of the largest Mainline ecumenical venture in the country telling fellow Disciples to reengage their tradition. Big Tent Christianity must be, by definition latitudinarian. It has to be simple and not get caught up in controversial or debatable. That said, I do understand the need to gather together on a set of foundational understandings that will empower action in the world.

Clayton wants this discussion to lead to more than talk. It needs to lead to action in the world, or else we’ll end up focusing merely on method. Whatever we do, he believes, must allow us to articulate a faith that is compelling – not just to the world, but to ourselves. From experience, he learned that the starting point for this is Christology. He recounts a conversation with Yale theologian Hans Frei, in which Frei told him that “You are not a theologian until you have written a Christology” (p. 67). The theological conversation begins in a question asked – according to Matthew – by Jesus of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Clayton doesn’t intend to give you the right answer, but he believes that we need to wrestle with it, in all of its complexity. And, he believes that “the more significant you think Jesus is, the harder you should be thinking about what your claims mean and imply” (p. 67). If Jesus was just a good guy, well then there is little to think about, but if he means more than that, the calling is different.

Theology that is transformative emerges from a place of wrestling with the deep issues relating to God – and to Christ. The church must be a place where these questions can be engaged – we may not have all the answers, but at least we can give space for questions. Our task in the end is to give the best answer we can to the question Jesus posed to the disciples. And so from here we delve into the question of finding our theological voice!


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