Transforming Christian Theology: Part Two
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.