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Transforming Christian Theology: Part Two

On to part two of my discussion of Philip Clayton’s Transforming Christian Theology (part one here).

In part two, Clayton deals with the question of how changing our approach to theology can transform the church. Fiddling with the mechanics of how we do church is not enough, according to Clayton; we need better understandings of theology not more dynamic, or relevant styles of delivering old ones. Bravo, I say! I’m all for theology informing and critiquing how we do church rather than whatever growth and marketing strategies happen to be popular. So what kind of theology is up to the task of transforming our churches?

Well, according to Clayton, it seems to be a theology that has been thoroughly chastened by the insights of postmodernity. It is an epistemologically humble theology. It is a contextual theology. It is a theology that takes seriously the narrative character of Scripture (as opposed to seeing the biblical documents as little more than a compilation of factual propositions about God). It is a theology that welcomes the insights of other stories, both from inside and outside of the Christian fold.

Perhaps most importantly, for Clayton, it is a theology that tells our story as human beings. It is not enough to just rehearse dogma that we may have picked up along the journey or to memorize a collection of statements about who God is and then squeeze our experience into this grid. If we can’t offer some compelling account of how what we believe about God makes a difference in our own lives, our theological language will be virtually useless.

It will be obvious that theology has a fundamentally narrative character for Clayton. One wonders, though, if he takes some of the helpful insights of postmodernity a bit too far at times. Puzzling statements like this pop up throughout the book:

Whenever you get confused about what the word theology might mean, just go back to this core idea of reciting the narrative of your life before God.

Perhaps, I’m a little thick but I can’t imagine how this exhortation would clear up anyone’s confusion about theology. I can’t just recite the narrative of my life before God and call it “theology.” It seems obvious to me that in order for me to learn to recite the narrative of my life before God in a way that is helpful, redemptive, transformative, and hopeful I must receive some objective categories from outside my experience through which to interpret my story in new ways. The good news of the gospel comes out of a (very specific) past, it addresses the present, and it speaks about a hopeful future.  But I cannot access the past or the future by just analyzing my own life. I need to know what God has done in the past and what God promises to do in the future in order to recite my narrative properly here, in the present.

Clayton is, of course, well aware of all this. This becomes obvious when he gives an example of where he chooses to begin his theology. After emphasizing that theology never begins from an abstract view from nowhere and is always done from some cultural and historical location, Clayton tells us that the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 is where his theology begins from:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Now on one level, this is a welcome theological starting point—especially from a Mennonite perspective! At our best, Mennonites have always been a people who try to read all of Scripture through the lens of Christ so it makes obvious sense to me that Christian theology ought to begin with the nature and character of Jesus Christ rather than some abstract views about generic theology or anthropology. Jesus is the point of the whole story, after all—in him, Christians claim, is the fulfillment of the human story and the story of the entire cosmos. If this is true, then our understanding of who God is, who we are, how we are to live, and what we can hope for really must begin with Jesus.

But on another level it is frustrating that Clayton presents this theological starting point as as just the one that he happens to have chosen:

I begin with the ancient Christian hymn, quoted by Paul in Philippians 2, as my starting point, but I expect and urge others to begin in different places. Begin from where you live.

The problem, as I see it, is that this really ought to be the starting point for all Christian theology. Not just for those who happen to prefer it. Not just for those it resonates with. Not just for those who struggle with feelings of superiority and arrogance and need to learn from Christ’s humility. Not just for those of us who happen to emerge in some way or another from the legacy of an imperialistic Christendom. Not just for those of us who happen to “live” here. For all of us.

Of course it is valuable to hear and learn from other perspectives which, to discover how the work of Jesus sounds from those in marginalized positions, to recognize that none of us sees the whole story, to acknowledge that God can and does speak to us through any and all points of the bigger story in which Jesus represents the culmination and fulfillment. I am not calling into question any of this. But the reality of who Jesus is, what he did, and how he did it is either flat-out wrong or it is the beginning and end of anything that would call itself Christian theology.

Our narratives are important, and it is important to tell our stories before God and others often. But it seems to me that as those who are always growing into and learning about what it means to be a Jesus-follower, we are not free to just tell our stories before God in whatever way happens to work for us in our context. We don’t get to pick the starting point. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons that the church is in such desperate need of transformation is because of our tendency to be more faithful to ourselves and our perceived needs than to the story of Jesus and its implications for who God is and how he works, and who we are and how we are to live.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I have not read any of Clayton’s work. I gather from the titles of his books at Amazon and from other information on the internet that he has an interest in the relationship between science and religion and that he may seek to approach both from the perspective of emergence theory. If that is true, then I would suspect that this book represents an attempt to offer an emergent theory approach to theology and it would be interesting to evaluate his work by that standard – by asking, “does his effort succeed at this goal?”

    And, if that is his goal, I want to ask, “In what way does it make sense for him to begin with the hymn in Philipians 2.” It probably does make sense. Further, his advice to begin where you live does seem to reflect a possible reading of emergent theory. I would want to evaluate whether that reading is a sufficient application of emergent theory to theology. I want to know whether emergent theory really works with theology in a plausible way. My impression is that the verdict of scholars, of philosophers and theologians, is mixed on this subject. Emergent theology may ultimately be a muddled theology. It is, nevertheless, interesting to explore the implications of emergent theory for theology.

    I wonder about other things too. Philipians 2:5 uses the word “attitude.” I think that is important in the Wesleyan tradition of which he is part. In addition, he has chosen what might be considered a sanctification passage for his starting point. Although I don’t think Wesley began his theology with sanctification, I think it certainly became an important part of his theology – perhaps, one might say, its center. That he has arrived at a place so congruent with his tradition makes we worry about the soundness of his critical analysis and that makes me want to read his work with suspicion. And as we know, nothing ultimately can resist a hermeneutic of suspicion.

    I would also be interested to understand more about the connection he makes between narratives and emergent theory. Perhaps it is that narrative is something that makes the whole greater than sum of the parts.

    I think the connection between emergent theory and emergent or emerging churches is weak. It is at least interesting to read the work of a scholar who seeks a strong connection between emergent theory and theology, whether he succeeds or not. It represents a kind of voyage of the Beagle, whether or not it leads to the origin of species.

    November 23, 2009
    • Ken #

      I should add this: I don’t disagree with the objections you expressed about this book. I think if Clayton’s theology has any chance of becoming accepted it must deal with the objections you express.

      Considering your own background in philosophy and theology, if you did study emergent theory, I am interested to know your thoughts related to the questions I am wondering about above.

      November 23, 2009
    • I studied emergent theory very peripherally so I don’t really feel overly qualified to speak about its relationship to what Clayton is talking about in this book. I think he would be comfortable locating himself in the “emergent conversation” but as far as I can tell, in conversations about theology and the church the term “emergent” seems so infinitely malleable as to be almost useless as far as defining the movement with any precision (not necessarily a negative thing, on some views).

      Re: your question of whether the book succeeds at offering an emergent theory approach to theology, I guess the easy answer is, “I don’t know yet.” I’m not convinced that this actually is among his goals, to be honest. His primary goal seems much more practical than that—he wants churches to start thinking theologically and for us to have a greater impact on our communities. He is convinced that good theology will lead to better expressions of faith and discipleship.

      I haven’t gotten the sense that Clayton has any explicit commitment to linking emergent theory with narrative theology or any theology. He just doesn’t use the term “emergent theory” much (if at all). I think his emphasis on narrative theology is a genuine attempt to be faithful to the character of Scripture.

      November 24, 2009
      • Ken #

        Considering the titles and interests of many of his other books, and what he writes at his blog, it seems likely that an interest in emergent theory (as philosophy, in academia) underlies much of what he has written in the book you are reading. He may be avoiding the use of that term in this book for laity to avoid unwanted connections with the way the words “emerging and emergent” are used in contemporary Christian movements and to avoid sounding too much like a philosopher or academic theologian.

        It may be that his interest in emergent theory is driven by a social ethic, rather than intellectual curiosity. I took classes at the seminary where he teaches in Claremont. They have one concern: social justice.

        Re: “His primary goal seems much more practical than that—he wants churches to start thinking theologically and for us to have a greater impact on our communities. He is convinced that good theology will lead to better expressions of faith and discipleship.”

        Yes, his concern is sanctification. He wants to be holy and to make the world holy.

        November 24, 2009
      • You could certainly be right about Clayton’s interest in emergent theory. The reading you’ve done on Amazon and his website already exceeds what I have done aside from the book I’m reading. Based on what I’ve read, I would certainly agree that it seems that a social ethic would be the more likely motivation for him (at least in this book) than a purely intellectual curiosity.

        Yes, his concern is sanctification. He wants to be holy and to make the world holy.

        What do you feel “sanctification” communicates that is not covered by “better expressions of faith and discipleship?” I get the sense that “sanctification” is not a word with positive connotations for you.

        November 24, 2009
      • Ken #

        Re: “What do you feel “sanctification” communicates that is not covered by “better expressions of faith and discipleship?”

        Nothing, except that maybe sanctification is a broader term that encompasses the latter. I was only placing the latter expression in what I think is its historical theological context.

        Re: “I get the sense that “sanctification” is not a word with positive connotations for you.”

        I have no essential objections to the idea of sanctification. I think of it as having good connotations, but also bad ones, very bad ones. It is a practice that I fear, especially in its most moralistic manifestations. I think that historical attempts by Christians and others to sanctify their own lives, the lives of others and the world according to their visions of what is sacred has caused great harm. I think that although sanctification is often tied to ethics and morality, it need not be and its not always found so tied in Christianity. As you probably know, I am concerned that ethics and morality ultimately involve exertions of power over other people and creatures rather than love, and that they cause more harm than good. Sanctification historically has almost always involved attempts to annihilate people who have different religions or beliefs about what is sacred, or who are otherwise outside of the sanctified group. But I was not attempting to raise that concern here.

        I think when a scholar becomes concerned that his or her work sanctifies, the scholar loses the attitude of “indifference” that is crucial in academic research. Bacon certainly saw in science hope for humanity, and yet he set the paradigm on “indifference” rather than on values. I see this paradigm operating in Charles Taylor’s work, for example, even while he yet opts for Christianity. I think Taylor maintains the indifference in his work as a scholar. I don’t know whether Clayton achieves this or not. Some of the passages you have quoted make me doubt it.

        As for sanctification in Christianity: I think when a Christian emphasizes sanctification the warning in the Lutheran fear of the separation of sanctification from justification is very important to remember.

        My interest in what I think Clayton is trying to do is that he is attempting constructive theology. I admire his effort. It is a difficult undertaking, one almost certain to fail, and yet one that is fascinating. I try myself to do this, to construct a natural theology or religious naturalism or some way to explain our religious sentiments that involve nature.

        November 24, 2009
      • As you probably know, I am concerned that ethics and morality ultimately involve exertions of power over other people and creatures rather than love, and that they cause more harm than good.

        I realize you did not intend to raise this issue here, but allow me to register one brief response. I agree that those advocating this or that view of morality have done so in abusive ways, but I don’t see how we can not be concerned with ethics and morality. It seems so central to what it means to be a human being. We can’t just decide to stop concerning ourselves with these things. Perhaps you and I mean different things by the terms “ethics” and “morality.” Indeed, this seems quite likely because I’m having a difficult time imagining what sanctification would look like with no necessary connection to morality.

        I agree that folks like Bacon and Taylor maintain a bit of critical distance from their subject matter, but Clayton is pretty clear that this is not his intention. If anything, he’s trying to do the opposite—to bridge what he feels is an unwarranted gap between academic theology and the lived expression of faith. I have reservations about certain aspects of his project, but I’m not quite as bleak as you are about the prospect of a genuinely constructive theology :).

        November 24, 2009
      • Ken #

        Sanctification without connection to morality looks like grace or love. I think, perhaps, we can describe it, but we cannot get there by following moral principles or making moral calculations or even by imitating Jesus. I think when such love or grace is manifest in our lives it is the fruit of God’s love for us rather than the fruit of our own striving to be moral or to imitate Christ. I think when it happens we have no sense that we are being moral and no feeling of righteousness, but only the inexplicable mercy that is love.

        I must be somewhat optimistic about the prospect of a genuinely constructive theology to be interested in Clayton’s work and to attempt it myself. It is like the optimism of a venture capitalist who expects most ventures to fail, but is yet optimistic that one or a few will succeed in a big way.

        November 24, 2009
      • For me, grace and love are inextricably linked to morality and are certainly a huge part of what it means to imitate Jesus.

        November 24, 2009
      • Ken #

        Then here it is true that we see morality, and I suppose love and grace too, quite differently.

        November 24, 2009
  2. Hi Ken,

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on emergent theory, from my understanding it is just vector mathematics applied to philosophy or theology, the current point is just the sum of the different forces or vectors. If this the case then the etiology would be extremely important and Ryan you raise some valid concerns. You can’t just simply pick a starting point for the sake of having one.

    I also wonder Ken, and please forgive me as I know little on emergent theory, but how can the sum possibly be greater than the parts in a theory like this? If that was the case it would seem there is forces unaccounted for.

    November 23, 2009
    • Ken #

      I have not read enough about it to elaborate. I only recently read about contemporary interest in emergence or emergent theory, among many other contemporary theories, in connection with understanding nature and God. I don’t know whether it leads anywhere or not. At this point I only understand that it has become part of the conversation.

      Re: whole greater than the sum of the parts. My impression is that emergent theory (in philosophy) aims at being nonreductive in its explanations of how things work or came to be and in that sense it seems to recognize a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

      November 24, 2009
    • James #

      Hi Tyler
      Your connection of emergent theology and vector math is the first I’ve heard- but through the magic of the internet 🙂 I Googled and found a linkage between emergent philosophy and vector math. Unless I’m missed it that has no connection to emergent theologians. In this case “emergent” is more connected to “the next big thing” that they feel they are part of in Christianity’s response to post modernity. Vector math [or matrix algebra, as it was called when I was taking it] has far to rigid structures for most emergent theologians. Vector math may be complex- but you can’t start wherever you want and you can’t make up the inputs. That’s a bitter pill for most post-post-moderns 🙂

      November 24, 2009
      • Thanks for the clarification.

        November 25, 2009
  3. Too bad he didn’t say this: “Whenever you get confused about what the word theology might mean, just go back to this core idea of reciting the narrative of your life along with the redemptive narrative of God as revealed in the whole of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ

    I think that would have fit much better with what he seems to be communicating elsewhere and perhaps addresses your concerns raised.

    November 24, 2009
    • Yes, that would have certainly been a much better way of saying it in my opinion. The thing is, I think your addition expresses what he actually means most of the time, but he doesn’t always make it clear that our stories are alone are not enough.

      November 24, 2009
  4. Paul Johnston #

    As always, thoughful commentary leading to a deeper examination of faith. Thank you, Ryan.

    I think what Mr.Clayton offers, as you describe it here, is a starting point for the person who isn’t yet emotionally or spiritually invested in a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. “Begin from where you live”, might be meant to encourage a sense of Jesus that prioritizes the personal/relational/love aspects of communion with God, before our understandings of what morality/legalism/and it’s implications for self and community, ought to look like. Feel loved, then be loving, so to speak.

    It doesn’t neccessarily preclude a destination that is wholly God and other centered, though somewhat paradoxically, it does seem to suggest beginning from a point that, it is wise to acknowledge, can be dangerously self centered.

    Ken, I share your concern regarding Christian morality. Apart from a right understanding of the fullness of love, it is mere legalism. Just another competing worldview and human authority, made more ironicly tragic by the fact that it preports to be so much more, offering than denying, the transcendant, the universal, the eternal. Christian understandings and applications of what is moral, have done great harm and we all must repent.

    Love, exemplified and made rational in the person of Christ through Word, sanctified in us and made relevant for our lives through the mystery of the Holy Spirit, is essential. Moral understandings, seen in this light, speak more to notions of self control, than they do to the control of others. A right expression of love, morally expressed influences the free will of another, to respond in kind. Law for love’s sake above all other interests.

    I’m also touched by the phrase, “the inexplicable mercy of love”. I’ve been thinking a lot lately that perhaps, if Christianity can be distilled into a single maxim, “justification through mercy” gets closer to the truth than “justification through faith”

    November 25, 2009
    • Ken #

      Justification through mercy: yes, I think you are right.

      November 25, 2009

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