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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.

34 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It is interesting to compare, as you have done, Clayton with Willimon (and Hauerwas.) They are themselves, at least to some extent, postmodern in their own approach which emphasizes the continuing importance of narrative even in a time of suspicion towards metanarratives.

    I cannot remember whether you have read Resident Aliens (Hauerwas and Willimon.) The title expression is a metaphor for the way in postmodernity that they believe Christians should follow and it does seem quite close to what you recommend. It is reflected in part in the Willimon quote you provided here. My impression is that it is a way that is compatible with Mennonite tradition.

    It sounds like Clayton is continuing the effort of liberal theology, perhaps even process theology. I sympathize with that effort, even while I don’t agree with his critique of academic theology or his particular concerns within liberal theology.

    November 11, 2009
    • I’ve only read parts of Resident Aliens. The title certainly does reflect some important Anabaptist themes—there are many fans of Hauerwas (and probably Willimon) among Mennonites.

      November 11, 2009
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Perhaps, part of the problem, is an (over?) emphasis on other. Perspectives like “Transforming Christian Theology” or “Everything must Change” might do better as “Transforming the Christian Self” or “Everything I must change”.

    I liked the emphasis on orientation given by Mr. Brimlow. Bang on, for me. I also like your qualifying context, that I read as, making the neccessary change relevant.

    Feed, heal and re-orient. Hmm sound good, and vaguely familiar. 🙂

    November 11, 2009
  3. Thanks for your review, so far, of Clayton’s book and the thoughts you raise about what he says. I respond not as a professional theologian but a practitioner nevertheless. I think we all “do theology for [ourselves],” actually, constantly, trying to figure out life. And the stuff that comes at us, which very often, whether we like it or not, involves change. In our own life stages, or in circumstances within our families, or as repeatedly in history, through some shifts in the wider world (war, recession, catastrophe) that we have no control over. So I don’t think we in the pews need to be encouraged to do our own theologizing, we’re doing it without naming or realizing it. But, and this for me is the big “but,” we need to be helped to do it better. To keep hearing the essentials, the “old, old story” that will link into the new of our everyday. This may not be what Clayton is talking about; I’m just responding to your response! Anyways, blessings to all you pastors who keep at it for and with us!

    November 11, 2009
    • I think you’re right Dora. Our choice isn’t between doing theology or not doing it. In some ways, we can’t help but theologize! At times, as I was reading part one, I was wondering why/how Clayton thought that advocating people in the pews being “allowed” to do theology for themselves was “revolutionary” (his word). Especially when in another chapter he quite explicitly acknowledges that everyone has what he calls a “world-life-view” (WLV) whether they acknowledge it or not. He seemed, on the one hand, to be saying that theology has to make it into the churches, while on the other saying it was already there.

      Having said that, at one point he does name the professional theologian’s task well in my opinion—and in a way that largely reflects your final concern:

      If some people are paid for being theologians, then they should view themselves as coaches, not just as conveyors of true propositions. Just as a good soccer coach runs drills that help players develop skills and improve their game by building on their own strengths, so theologians should teach in such a way that helps believers get better at recognizing and formulating their own beliefs.

      November 11, 2009
  4. Gil #

    I don’t think that ‘relevance’ is the issue. Those who see the postmodern mood as a sign of hope are often quite convinced of the ‘modern’ captivity of the church. What seems to be easily forgotten is that North American evangelicalism has been a profoundly ‘relevant’ expression of the Christian faith. It has spoken in a language that makes sense to people shaped by rationalism, individualism and consumerism (along with a host of other modern values). It seems to me that irrelevance is one charge that cannot be made against this movement.

    So if Clayton wants to make an original contribution here, he should probably give us some criteria by which he proposes judge between what is an idolatrous appropriation of culture and what is a legitimate effort to ‘seek the peace of the city’ in which we happen to find ourselves. It seems to me that this distinction is not always made by people who are really excited about postmodernism.

    November 11, 2009
    • Yes, I think you’re exactly right Gil. I hope to see some suggestions as to how to identify idolatrous appropriations of culture as the book unfolds.

      November 11, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I don’t understand in any real academic way what it means to be post modern. I do understand when I read Maclaren that a lot of people, his target audience I suppose, suffer from a lack of meaningful spiritual inspiration and connection.

    November 11, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Gil, as I hear self professed post modern “emergent” evangelicals, I don’t think their struggle is within the realm of the intellectual. I think they are theorized and dogmatized to the tits. I think their “case” is against making any more cases.

    I think what they are looking for is an authentic experience of God. God felt, not reasoned. Bred in the bone, as well as the mind.

    November 11, 2009
  7. Gil #

    It’s probably pointless to start a conversation about what ’emergent’ people want or don’t want. The term is so slippery that it’s become, in my opinion, nearly useless.

    I will say that the ’emergent’ movement (whatever it is) seems to be full of people who are generally quite theologically inclined and eager for ‘conversation’ (you’re right, they don’t talk about making ‘cases anymore).

    November 11, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, I wonder given the broad spectrum of Christian ecclesiology, if the focus on what constitutes an “idolitrous appropriation of culture” (I’m gonna riff this phrase too!) is the way to go. I mean in a parochial sense it would have meaning to us as individual members of specific sects. You seeing where Mr.Clayton’s perspective contradicts or conforms to your Mennonite traditon, me the Catholic, Ken the radical/land ethic, others to their perspectives. But in a comprehensive way how do we discuss and discern what is idolitrous, when there might be significant disagreement over what in the first place that(idolatry) might be?

    November 11, 2009
    • I’m optimistic enough to think that there is enough common biblical and rational ground for us to go on that we could find some points of agreement. We may not always agree—indeed, it seems fairly obvious that we wouldn’t—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make progress through dialogue. I don’t think our perspectives (on idolatry or any other matter) are all simply defined and determined by whatever silo of Christianity we happen to inhabit. Besides, what’s the alternative to not having the conversation (aside from all becoming Catholics)?

      November 11, 2009
  9. Willimon’s quote is right on and the church would do well to take note: the task of the church is not to be relevant (as has been said, the Gospel is always relevant) but to preach the Gospel – the tried and true Gospel.

    I’m actually noticing the increasing number of people who are hungry to hear the Gospel preached as opposed to the 7 ways to your best life now type stuff. The younger crowd in particular is yearning for the type of Good News that demands their lives.

    I’m convinced that if we actually preach the gospel – not our political views, not cultural hipness – just the Gospel…people will latch onto it.

    November 11, 2009
    • Deborah #

      Yup… that rings true.

      November 11, 2009
    • I would only add the word “live” before “the gospel” as well. One thing postmoderns are rightly critical of is a church that is all mouth and no hands and feet.

      November 11, 2009
      • Ken #

        Is the placement of the word “lived” before the word gospel an Anabaptist or Mennonite emphasis? What is the source of it in your concerns?

        I think of myself as influenced by postmodernism, especially by the linguistic turn in philosophy, and skepticism towards metanarratives. And with Foucault and Nietzsche, I am skeptical of moral claims – claims about how we should live.

        I don’t believe it is plausible that Jesus, as presented in the gospels, was was as concerned about how we live as he was with the beginning of the messianic kingdom. I don’t think he saw the coming kingdom as something that involved human effort, moral or otherwise. I think he saw it as an end of time kind of thing. Or, rather, I think that the claim made in the Bible, the gospel or good news, is that Jesus was the Messiah and that the kingdom of God was at hand. And yet, clearly, from the beginning of the church, morality has been a big deal. It seems that what has been considered important morally has changed over time and has varied within eras, but without question, morality has been a big deal. Meanwhile, the end of time has not happened. I think the emphasis on morality has been one way people have dealt with that.

        Within Protestanism, although the initial thrust was an emphasis on grace and faith, it seems that the dominant thrust has mostly been a moral one, both in conservative and liberal Christianity. In liberal Christianity, for many it has been the only plausible thrust.

        November 12, 2009
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Gil, I too agree to not continue the discussion in the same “I will say this” context. 🙂

    I hope I am not “parenting” the conversation in an unproductive way but I’m assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that Clayton and Maclaren if not voices for the “Emergent” movement, speak convincingly to it’s audience.

    My own take on the relative incoherence of the “Emergent voice” is that it may well lack an experiential understanding of it’s own concerns. It’s criticisms may well be intuitive rather than discursive. As our friend, Ken said so eloquently, albeit in another context, their “prima facie” case may well be, “more of an idea or a hope, than an arguement.” Given the contradictory contexts of “prima facie” and intuitions, their perspectives appear muddled and self contradictory. This may be a criticism then of their cognative systemics, their methodology, but not neccessarily a refutation of their underlying concerns.

    My sense is that they might be able to make a more coherent presentation of their concerns to the broader evangelical community with which they share some loose form of fellowship with, if they were to more closely examine the Jewish and Catholic traditions of their heritage. Particularly with regard to the more thought out and developed mystical/transendental aspects of these faiths.

    In any case I often find myself nodding in agreement with “emergent” voices with regard to their general dissatisfaction with what the faith looks like “on the ground”. Forgive me for the vagueness of this next observation but their disaffection sounds very Catholic to me.

    Likewise, I am concerned that their more orthodox evangelical brothers, similarly less rooted in Jewish and Catholic mystical traditions don’t have much of an ear for their voice, especially a voice that is still struggling to first understand itself.

    I think the “Emergent” movement such as it is, needs to embrace a paradigm, that is outside it’s own culture and in this way, paradoxically perhaps, better understand it’s own.

    They don’t have to “cross the Tiber” if they don’t want to but I think they could learn a lot by studying it’s currents.

    November 11, 2009
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, I second your conversion plan for His people. Why didn’t I think of it sooner. 🙂

    Regarding alternatives, I offer you the this. A theory regarding intellectual understandings and musings apart from a spiritual indwelling.

    …”Everyone who drinks this water will become thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

    NAB John 4:…13-14

    November 12, 2009
    • I don’t understand what this is an alternative to.

      November 12, 2009
  12. Paul Johnston #

    The babel.

    I’m suggesting we seek only those conversations leading to understandings about God, selves, others and community that we honestly believe are being inspired and mediated by the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit of truth.

    A more convicted expression here, less suppositional, of devine truth.

    Is God calling you to prophesy?

    Speaking only for myself, I am being called into a fuller participation in the “upside down world”. I guess I’m trying to figure out, who, if any, my travelling companions are.

    November 12, 2009
    • I’m suggesting we seek only those conversations leading to understandings about God, selves, others and community that we honestly believe are being inspired and mediated by the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit of truth.

      What if our denominational distinctives lead to disagreement here as well?

      (What are you using “babel” to refer to?)

      November 12, 2009
  13. Right on, Ryan. Especially: “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.” If I may riff philosophical again, this fits with MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition as simply an argument sustained through history. Without any tradition – including the tradition of language itself – there is nothing for us to argue about.

    Of course, the practices of a tradition need to be sustained by institutions – whether they be Bob’s Grill where we meet every Friday morning or the Roman Catholic Church – and institutions inevitably corrupt the practices they are supposed to sustain. And so the re-formation of the institution is required and takes place yet again.

    But we needn’t delude ourselves into thinking that the process of reformation is somehow a rejection of tradition or the idea of institutions in general – it is precisely in keeping with it, as another step in the continuing argument. When we envision our task as the total rejection of tradition, we have stepped outside the Christian tradition and entered another, disguised tradition: that of the Enlightenment.

    That is why I’m sympathetic to suggestions that postmodernism is just yet another step in the Enlightenment argument – the Enlightenment’s suspicion towards tradition turned against itself. It’s inevitable, really – as soon as the Enlightenment was recognized as a tradition, a particular sectarian dogma of the North Atlantic, it had to be rejected also by all consistent Enlightenment thinkers. Unfortunately the Enlightenment’s initial rejection of what came before it still lingers, leaving us with very few options…

    November 12, 2009
    • I think yours is a very good analysis Michael. I absolutely think that postmodernism is the latest step in the Enlightenment project (I’ve heard “hyper-modernity” as a possibly more accurate description of it). As you say, there’s only so many traditions you can reject before you find yourself running out of options. This puts us in the historically unique position of having to choose our traditions from a wide array of options. It’s not surprising at all to hear that many find the postmodern condition to be paralyzing, on one level.

      I think MacIntyre’s description of tradition as an argument/conversation sustained throughout history is a helpful one—as long as we avoid the temptation of thinking that whatever part of the conversation we happen to be immersed in represents that culmination of all that preceded us.

      November 12, 2009
      • Thinking about this a bit more after reading David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing,” I really appreciate your use of “paralysis” and I know exactly what you mean. As per Nietzsche and MacIntyre, Christianity simply obliterated the ideals of heroic and pagan society. Then nominalism and the Enlightenment exploded the Christian synthesis. Now postmodernity has exhausted the Enlightenment also. All the options are available to be chosen, but each is counterpoised against its refutation, making every choice seem entirely arbitrary and ultimately irrelevant in a world where ideology (“metaphysics”) has no “cash value.”

        Obviously it’s impossible to actually reach the end of history, but it’s easy to understand why some think we have…

        November 13, 2009
    • Ken #

      With Michael and Ryan I also agree that postmodernism is an extension of the critical aspect of the enlightenment. I believe I remember that being the position of Habermas. I also believe there is a romantic aspect to postmodernism that fights with the enlightenment in the way romanticism always has.

      Re: Michael’s paragraph that begins: “But we needn’t delude ourselves…” I think that paragraph represents the classic conservative view of the place of tradition and reform along the lines explained by Edmund Burke himself. (And so does Ryan’s expression that Michael quoted.) But, I submit, as I think Taylor and many others have, “The Reformation” was not conservative; it was radical, just as radical as the enlightenment. Protestantism deserves postmodernism.

      November 12, 2009
  14. Paul Johnston #

    Holy Spirit discernments, if that is what we actually conclude with, will trump denominational distinctives.First to the point of personal reconcilliations, eventually, if all the churches are willing, the reconcilliations will be institutional.

    I believe in setting the bar low. 🙂

    Babel? Hope I’m not being vain or prejudiced but I can’t believe that as a people of God we lack for “voice”. I think it is the quality and character of our voice, that is the problem. We build a lot of “towers to heaven” out our own words and thoughts and like our ancient kin, God responds to them as devine love accords. We are left to wallow in our own self professed confusions, as it is our choice to do so.

    I would like to be a part of communities, virtual and otherwise, that profess to a different choice.

    I am asking you if you are interested in being in that kind of community with me? The extent to which you think we are already are? And if you did want it, how you think we should continue to go forward?

    I value your opinion very much.

    November 12, 2009
  15. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ken, clearly eschatology is an essential story line of the Biblical narrative. As well it is likely that most of the active paticipants understood that the parousia would happen during their lifetimes. ..I tell you this generation will not pass away”…was most certainly interpreted literally.

    Still, I think it is errant to suggest that morality isn’t central to the Gospels. Feeding, healing and moral orientation are the constant themes of the discourse.

    I suspect your concern is a more appropriate response to ecclessiology and it’s implimentation, especially bad versions of both. While ecclessiology and episcopal authority ought to always intersect, support and affirm morality, sadly that is not always the case.

    November 12, 2009
    • Ken #

      I think in the gospels the feedings and healings were signs that Jesus was the Messiah, rather than moral actions or teachings. They were the fulfillment of prophecies. They repeat paradigmatic events in the history of Israel and act out the prophecies.

      In the gospels, Jesus does advocate keeping the commandments, and even had a rather stern view of what that required in some circumstances, as in the Sermon on the Mount, for example. And yet, the gospels do not present Jesus as trying to increase compliance with the commandments, but rather present Jesus as the messiah, and “the gospel” is presented as the coming of the kingdom, rather than exhortation to morality.

      I am influenced by Albert Schweitzer and Paula Fredriksen. Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish preacher and messiah. Saint Paul was too.

      Our emphasis on morality in modernity is something new and different. And through that emphasis we preach a different gospel. We have recycled the old truths and made something new of them.

      I agree that within the church this is an errant position. It is not so in the university.

      In the Roman Catholic Church, as we all know, the Bible is not the sole authority for the tenets of our faith. The authority is instead vested in the apostolic tradition, in the teaching authority of the Church, the living and ongoing teaching authority of the Church. I think what I am writing here represents a greater challenge to Protestant traditions, especially those that preach a gospel of morality, than it does to the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Church dealt with this and settled it a long, long time ago.

      November 12, 2009
  16. Paul Johnston #

    What about the parables, Ken? The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Sower and the Seed, do you not view these writings as “Morality Plays”.

    What about the one and only prayer we are given by our Lord, Jesus. It reads to me that our access to the Father’s grace regarding the wholly moral notion of forgiveness, is itself predicated on a very direct moral imperative, “…as we forgive those…”.

    I do agree that the Palestinian Jewish community of the 1st century would have predominantly subscribed to your point of view and that as a consequence, the cultural predisposition of the Gospel’s authors would have encouraged them to find ways of emphasizing the messianinc nature of Jesus’ mission.

    Perhaps this tension between a broader understanding of Kingdom, including a set of moral precepts to be advanced through time, opposed to the more narrow Jewish understanding of Messiah, is at the root of the rupture between the two communities.

    I guess what I’m saying is that though I agree with your assessment in so far as Jewish culture at the time was concerned I don’t think it is right to suggest that the moral culturalization of the Christian community was a post Jesus insertion. I think his own words clearly point us in that direction in advance.

    November 12, 2009
    • Ken #

      Re: the parables. I believe they were signs or descriptions of the kingdom to come.

      Re: the post Jesus insertion. I don’t mean to dispute any teachings of the Roman Catholic Church or to accuse it of any error. I want only its prayers and blessings. And yet, like Simone Weil, I fear that my life is meant to be lived among those on the outside, to know and share their disbelief and sorrows.

      November 12, 2009
  17. Paul Johnston #

    I love the way you write, Ken. Your humility both inspires and shames me.

    You are worthy of being inside. I will make a virtual tent with you anytime.

    November 12, 2009
    • Ken #

      Thank you, Paul, for your blessing.

      November 12, 2009
  18. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for the book tips, Ryan. I will browse one or both next week. I’m on a bit of a sabbattical, hopefully lasting another week or two and Tuesday is Chapter’s Day.

    I’m telling you in advance though that if either of these books assaults my mind like Taylor’s “Secular Age” somebody in my life is getting a nuclear wedgie!

    November 12, 2009

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