Well, at long last I’ve found the time to finish Philip Clayton’s book. He ends not with a concluding chapter that summarizes the arguments he has laid out in what precedes it, but with a series of “conversations worth having.” This is entirely in keeping with one of the main themes of the book, namely, that theology is the work of the people, not just the experts who happen to be into “that kind of thing.” According to Clayton, the church has to “get over its outsourcing problem” and “no longer let academia do its theology, the progress of culture its ethics, and a political party its activism.” Theology is meant to transform, and honest conversations between ordinary Christians are the place to start.
Clayton devotes a mini-chapter each to three “conversations worth having” in order to get the ball rolling:
- Choice, Convictions, and Connections
- Barriers to Belonging
- Toward a Progressive Missiology
In my view, conversations two and three are interesting, but not terribly controversial. Of course in a world where the church no longer enjoys the privileged status it once did churches need to work harder to create safe places for people to belong. Of course the horizon of God’s mission needs to be expanded to go beyond merely saving souls and including all of the world God loves. I absolutely agree with Clayton that in both areas the church needs to recover a posture of humility and take seriously the “inversion of power” preached and embodied by Christ.
It is conversation one (Choice, Convictions, and Connections) that I find most to be the most interesting and challenging, but also to be potentially the most rewarding. How do we talk about our core convictions in a pluralistic cultural context that seems to have an almost inherently destabilizing effect on particular religious beliefs? How can we have conversations with others with whom we disagree profoundly without demonizing them or caricaturing their position (this is a particularly salient question for those of us who inhabit and converse in the blogosphere!)? How can we state our beliefs in positive terms as opposed to by what/who we are against or what/who we are not?
On a deeper level, how are we to think theologically about the fact of pluralism and the church’s role within it? What are God’s intentions in allowing the social and political realities we face to come about? Where is God and how does he work in other religious traditions? How can the churches we lead and participate in learn from those who are different from us? How can we be distinctively Christian and also spiritually open? How can we maintain our core convictions about the most important questions we face as human beings without drifting into the fuzzy, confused relativism that seems to be one of the default positions in the postmodern West?
These are all hugely important questions, from my perspective. They are questions that we need to be thinking about, as individuals and as churches. We need to learn how to communicate an understanding of the good news that is big enough (and good enough) for the world we live in, and in a manner that is in harmony with the message we proclaim.
Whatever issues I may have with the specifics of Clayton’s book (some of which I addressed in previous posts), I think he has concluded the book in a very appropriate manner. I fundamentally share his conviction that Christians need to become better listeners and that learning to listen well is one of the basic starting points in loving our neighbours as ourselves (see here, for an interesting example of what listening as an expression of Christian commitment might look like). Like Clayton, I believe that the church needs to become a place where it is safe to have these kinds of conversations.
Related to this topic, the December issue of the MB Herald has published my review of a book called Mutual Treasure in which various writers, activists, politicians, and academics talk about ways in which Christians can have conversations with members of the broader culture in precisely the manner Clayton discusses. The basic premise of the book is that listening is an obligation of Christian discipleship, and that everyone’s position, no matter how much it might differ from our own, has something of value that we can learn from if we are committed to doing so. For those interested, the review can be accessed here.