Transforming Christian Theology: Part One
For the last few weeks, Philip Clayton’s Transforming Christian Theology has been sitting annoyingly on my desktop, mocking my lack of time and ambition to get to it (as promised here). Well, despite the fact that the AAR Meeting has come and gone (the event these reviews were supposed to lead up to), I’ve finally started reading the book and over the course of the next few weeks will be doing a four-post series of reviews. Better late than never, I say!
First, who are we dealing with here? Well, Philip Clayton is a philosopher/theologian who currently holds the Ingraham Chair of Theology at Claremont School of Theology (see his website here). This book comes out of a “Damascus Road experience” Clayton had while reading Brian McLaren (Everything Must Change and A Generous Orthodoxy) and John Cobb (Reclaiming the Church) where he discovered that the professionalization of theology was one of the primary culprits in the increasing irrelevance of theology to church life. Among Clayton’s aims is to move theology from the abstract realms of academia into the lived reality of the church.
Part one of the book is called “Theology for an Age of Transition.” Clayton’s analysis of our postmodern culture is familiar enough: the reality of religious pluralism, the rapid pace of societal change, the general suspicion towards totalizing metanarratives, the increasing priority of action over belief, etc. Into the context of this turbulent stew, we postmoderns are supposedly beginning to realize that theology has to be relevant. It can no longer be entrusted to the the “experts.” We have to be prepared to embrace doubt, to allow belonging before believing, and to encourage those in our churches to do theology for themselves.
On the one hand, this is a welcome, if unoriginal message. Of course theology ought to be relevant. As a good Mennonite, part of me is happy to affirm any articulation of the importance of practical theology. My tribe has never been very fond of arcane metaphysics and precise compendiums of doctrine in and of themselves (hmm, it occurs to me that some might wonder just how good a Mennonite I am based on my propensity toward the preceding :)). On this level, I can certainly affirm the idea that theology has to touch down in real life.
But at times, part one read like a somewhat breathless paean to the “practical idealism” of postmodernity. It seems, at times, that Clayton thinks the chief goal of theology in a postmodern context is to accommodate itself to, well, postmodernity. We have to be relevant and practical, after all. And if postmoderns find certain elements of theology or denominational distinctives or traditional church practice to be irrelevant, well then we’d better busy ourselves trying to make things more accessible for them, right?
Well, maybe not. Yesterday I came across this quote from Robert Brimlow in a book by William Willimon that sums up some of my frustration with the opening section of Clayton’s book:
Our problem is not that of finding a way to translate the gospel so that pagans [or postmoderns?] can understand it in their idiom…. Rather, our problem as the church is to find a way to let the world know that there is another language and another way of viewing and understanding reality that they should want to learn.
Could this be true of postmoderns as well? Or is the “language of postmodernity” the new “given” to which the gospel must adapt?
The last chapter of part one is called “Managers of Change.” According to Clayton, this is what Christian leaders will have to realize—that we are not “preservers of institutional givens, but managers of change.” But surely this is a false dichotomy. The other alternative is, of course, that we are both preservers of institutional givens and managers of change. We not begin to follow Jesus or “do church” in a vacuum. Institutions are not negative simply by virtue of being given to us.
I do not find the idea of being a “manager of change” in order to stay relevant to postmoderns terribly inspiring or appealing. But doing what I can to manage the change that inevitably comes as God’s story unfolds within and through a framework of institutional givens? Well that certainly sounds more appealing…
We are entrusted with the crucial task of presenting the (always relevant) gospel in terms that make understanding and embracing it possible; but we must also remember that we have to become relevant to the reality the gospel addresses and that accommodating and reorienting ourselves to the patterns and structures of life that we have been given is one of the ways that we become who we are intended to be.
A discussion of part two to come shortly.