Adventures in Theology

A little bit ago I signed on with a relatively new project called Transforming Theology.

Since that is certainly an interest of mine, I thought it might be worthwhile to see how others view this and how they are going about it.

On their blog, one of the key participants, Philip Clayton, gives a little bit of explanation and description of what they are about.

Well worth watching, I think.

The timing of this has been, for me, quite good. Especially given that I’m now taking a theological methods class, with Nancey Murphy and not long ago read her most interesting book Anglo-American Postmodernity. Especially interesting now because it gives a rather helpful framework for my understanding this new venture. Indeed, I’d recommend, again, my overview of her chapters on religious thought as quite helpful reading.

To give a real quick summary, it has been standard in theological and ecclesial conversations to label a particular theologian or theology as either Liberal or Conservative. This was not just a simple task of convenient categorization. It was, for the most part, an accurate description of assumptions and methods. There were distinctions within each of these camps, but for the most part there were different rules, presuppositions, approaches and dialogue in each that really maintained two distinct strands of theology for the last centuries, and especially the last 100 years.

For those of us engaged in theological thought it was also an easy way to figure out friend vs. foe. Though not always successfully. I remembering as a young student at Wheaton trying to figure out whether I should like or dislike Barth. He said so many good things… but he was a “Liberal” according to my understanding of classification at the time.

Over the last 50 years or so this pattern has been crumbling. Such labels might still be used but they are not really useful or altogether accurate, especially as they relate to distinct strands. Instead of there being hardened positions and assumptions there are convergences. Instead of there being an apparent choice between two opposite stances on key foundations, there are fluid positions along a spectrum of belief. This leads to a new approach of theology that can listen and learn and respect what other sides are saying without having to establish a friend or foe mentality.

This isn’t to say there are no, or should be no, disagreements. There should be and there absolutely will continue to be.

For me at least such a dialogue is not fruitful if it means merely watering down theology so as to make an agreeable stance that means nothing in heart or substance. It means engaging in dialogue with mutual respect so as to understand other positions, learn from them, and see how they can shape continuing thought, study and practice. This means, for me at least, not watering down, but indeed better understanding my own tradition and thoughts, communicating these as well as possible, sharpening them and thus being an able contributor.

This contribution to theology has two main goals, as I’ve seen it. While each are important to an overall theological perspective they really have two distinct directions of focus and might be, in some ways, exclusive pursuits. The first direction is that of coherence. In this theology is asked to make sense both to itself and to the broader intellectual world. The pieces of its claims should fit together and theological conversation should be able to, it seems, have a connection with other forms of knowledge–especially as we maintain that God is the God of Truth.

The second approach is that of integrity. Theology should mean something not only to academics and as a cogent philosophical system but also, and arguably more importantly, it should mean something to those living life as they experience it, with the hardships, struggles, concerns, and frustrations that life contains. A holistic theology should be able to speak both to those engaged in complicated intellectual pursuits and to the poor person who hasn’t eaten for two days.

To give a picture to this, I see the pursuit of coherence as being the rear guard, protecting theology from being undermined by developed instabilities that are created either by its own lack of contemplation or by new forms of knowledge about this world from other places (i.e. the earth revolves around the sun). It is not primarily concerned with what theological issues might mean to the desperate person, but that does not mean it has no vital function. If theology collapses because of incoherence, there is no ability to speak to those who are the most desperate. They will have rejected it before tasting of its ability to offer deep solutions.

That is, in a way, the state of Christianity in Europe and North America.

Theology in the pursuit of integrity is on the front lines, in the trenches, embracing praxis and problems. Taking stock of people’s questions and situations, not always an academic approach in expression or discovery. It can often take the approach of what Dyrness has called a Vernacular theology–a theology that is expressed by the people as they live, rather than what the official doctrines might say. It might also take the approach of a academic style theology that begins with questions of friction and difficulties and is framed to response to these without particular note of inconsistencies or systematic development.

Two theologians, I think, mark these two approaches particularly well, as they essentially began in much the same setting. Wolfhart Pannenberg exemplifies the pursuit of coherence, and J├╝rgen Moltmann exemplifies the pursuit of integrity. Like with the various foundational theological positions, this too is reflected on a spectrum rather than as two distinct choices.

My own theological position would be best described as beginning from the conservative side of the spectrum, strongly developed in conservative churches and conservative institutions of learning, as they may still be accurately described. My own academic pursuits are now emphasizing Moltmann, emerging/missional church theology, and are concerned with how theology deals with questions of poverty, hardship, hurt, and frustration. In short, according to my framework, I start as a conservative with an interest in theological integrity.

That’s my place in this attempt for theological conversation. And my task, as it begins, is an interesting one. Tripp Fuller, one of the key organizers of this Transforming Theology forum sent me a book by Philip Clayton to review called Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Philip Clayton, as much as it would fit into my framework, would seemingly be coming from more the Liberal side of the spectrum with a strong interest in theological coherence, hence repeated references to Pannenberg at the beginning.

My approach is to hopefully write on this book chapter by chapter. A single post review of the whole text might be easier and quicker, but it would not, I think be as helpful overall to the broader dialogue. Instead of trying to give a judgment, my hope is to make notes along the way that would illustrate how this book contributes to people no matter where on the spectrum they are. I also hope to make his contributions more readily approachable by those without theological training or interest in the more abstruse aspects of theological and philosophical coherence.

I hope to write on what this work means to me and how the core ideas might be helpful to the people I know. That I do this without a proper background in either philosophy or science brings humility to this task and likely will shape the sophistication, or lack thereof, of my comments.

That’s my introduction to this new task of mine. Look for the posts to pop up periodically for the next few weeks.

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