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Transforming Christian Theology: Conclusion

The fourth and final entry in my discussion of Philip Clayton’s Transforming Christian Theology (parts one, two, and three).

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:

  1. Choice, Convictions, and Connections
  2. Barriers to Belonging
  3. 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.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    To me this is the most interesting question of all: 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?”

    I don’t think we can, at least not those of us who have made the linguistic turn, like me. And I don’t think we really want to. Freedom is at stake.

    I am not sure core convictions are the good that we once thought they were. A line in Yeats poem Second Coming has always made me pause, “The best lack all conviction.” It was a reluctant admission, I think.

    I don’t think relativism is necessarily a default position. I think it can be a powerful position, and like all power it comes with stress. The relativistic view beyond the linguistic turn is not fuzzy or confused. So many things become quite clear, including the great and frightening dimensions of freedom and life. But that view comes at a high price, and the price is nihilism.

    December 8, 2009
    • jc #

      “The best lack all conviction.” How does one know what the best is if they lack all conviction. Yeats must have been drunk when he wrote that.

      December 8, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        …Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
        Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
        The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
        The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
        The best lack all conviction, while the worst
        Are full of passionate intensity…seen in this broader context, Yeats may well be lamenting rather than affirming.

        December 9, 2009
      • Ken #

        I have always read the words as Paul does – as lament.

        No one is really sure what Yeats was thinking.

        December 9, 2009
    • Ken, I really do think that a confused relativism is one of the default positions in our culture. I see it in people I talk to. I see it all over the media. At least here in Canada, it’s kind of the ideological window dressing of a political reality. I call it a “fuzzy and confused” relativism because nobody is prepared to live with the position if you push it to its logical conclusions. Everyone reaches a point where some variation of, “Well surely we can say that that view is immoral/improper/unjust!” comes out. Some may take longer to get to this point than others, but all do eventually.

      I’m curious: what makes the price of accepting the “powerful” position of relativism worth the price it exacts (nihilism), in your opinion? How is freedom at stake in its acceptance? It seems to me that the relativism you are describing is not one that lacks conviction. It seems to be a highly principled relativism.

      Like jc, I’m not sure what to make of the line in Yeats. It seems to be a conviction to avoid convictions to me, reluctantly expressed or not… 🙂

      December 9, 2009
      • “I don’t think we can, at least not those of us who have made the linguistic turn, like me. And I don’t think we really want to. Freedom is at stake.”

        Why wouldn’t we want to? It seems freedom is more at stake when we slip into soft-despotism similar to what we have now. As Ryan highlighted, if you push this position to the logical limits, relativism and subjectivity breaks down in two ways: 1) We are forced to admit there is some objectivity, or 2) we can’t accept living in nihilism. Very few people I would say are brave enough to follow any view point into the realms of nihilism…

        If we take freedom as having no external constraints placed on the self, then can we not draw subjective constraints based on objective truths found within the self? The constraints come from within. Subjectivity and objectivity can live together as long as subjective beliefs are formed in accordance with objective truths.

        So having conviction in nothing, arguably would not allow you to define or find truth in anything, including a self. So how is this position, default or not, worth celebrating?

        December 9, 2009
      • Ken #

        Re: “I really do think that a confused relativism is one of the default positions in our culture. ”

        Yes, agree. It is like you say, a political window-dressing. At the same time, I am suggesting that a kind of relativism, the one associated with the linguistic turn, is not a default position.

        Re: “what makes the price of accepting the “powerful” position of relativism worth the price it exacts (nihilism)”

        I am not sure it is worth it. The price is high. I have paid it, and am still paying it. And yet, I seek no refund.

        Re: Freedom at stake.

        It is a liberating power. It is such a great interpretive tool.

        It does not feel like conviction, does not feel like principles.

        Re JC’s: “Very few people I would say are brave enough to follow any view point into the realms of nihilism…”

        That is true. It hurts there. It is why the people drove the madman from the church in Nietzsche’s parable.

        Re: JC’s expressions about the self.

        The self breaks down, as Charles Taylor describes in Sources of the Self. As in Yeats – the centre cannot hold.

        I don’t want to evangelize the linguistic turn, or nihilism. I only mean to report what it is like here in the land of nihilism.

        December 9, 2009
    • Paul Johnston #

      How prophetic and chilling this couplet from “Second Coming”,…

      “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
      Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

      December 9, 2009
      • Ken #

        Yes. Prophetic and chilling.

        December 9, 2009
  2. patrick #

    ” But that view comes at a high price, and the price is nihilism”.

    From my position I would view the Christian goal ‘eternal’.
    Compromise with those who seek to undermine the ‘eternal’ nature of Christian views is to abandon the very nature of your view of reality. Please don’t do it !

    Don’t make as your foundation the way the world appears to work, this world will eventually come to an end, anyone who invests in it is investing in something which can so easily lead to nihilism.

    Science is already at the edge of declaring none of it is actually real.
    Needless to say they can’t and won’t ever find the soul, you can imagine the headlines in the press. ‘Scientist declare the soul can’t be found’!
    You should always be offering something beyond the world of opinions and theories, an eternal truth.

    December 9, 2009
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, in your opinion, is the “progressive mission” as defined by Clayton dependant on a Christ centered foundation to make it workable, or can it be seperated from the Gospel and advanced as a wholly humanistic “because it’s the right thing to do” kind of endevour?

    December 9, 2009
    • I think for Clayton, the whole project is absolutely dependent on a “Christ-centred foundation.” Many of his aims could be (and undoubtedly are) pursued from a humanistic perspective, but in and of itself that is no reason to impugn his project. We have good reasons to expect some overlap between generically human conceptions of the good and uniquely Christian ones, in my opinion.

      December 9, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        Well said.

        My question is born from concern and not meant to impugn. I think there is a danger of disordered priority if our love for each other isn’t fully informed by our preceding love of God, and then self.

        December 9, 2009
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ken,

    I remember a Boomtowm Rats song from the 80’s that concluded with the line…”The final truth is that there is no truth”; the negation of all things. Leaving the obvious contradiction aside, is this what nihilism is for you?

    From reading all your responses these many months, I wouldn’t have thought so. I read you to value love, nature, art, beauty, compassion…I read about a man who cares. I can’t associate caring with nihilism, as I understand the term. Perhaps you can explain in more detail what the term, “linguistic turn” means.

    I’m confused.

    December 10, 2009
    • Ken #

      Nihilism is the condition I find myself in, not a condition I seek or advocate.

      The linguistic turn refers to seeing reality being wrapped up in language. We can think of the ancient world as believing either that reality is something out there beyond this world or in this world, and that reality is something that is knowable, and something permanent and objective. With variations, this ancient view survived until the nineteenth century and it survives today in various forms. But it no longer has the degree of acceptance it once had. The linguistic turn represents skepticism towards this view. I don’t remember now who first used that term. It was not Nietzsche, but I see it in his writing. It is a view that is quite compatible with a Darwinian view of the origin of species (evolution by natural selection) and analogous views of the origins of life and the universe.

      December 10, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Sometimes the search for panoramic, existential understandings, due more harm than good. I wonder if it’s wise to seek such understandings apart from the company of the Holy Spirit. I think solely human interpetations of this nature, make us feel weak, small and insignificant;make us think others are weak, small and insignificant.

    I dunno, I sense that kind of spirit when I hear the atheists speak and I run. Life is tough enough without the dehumanizing ethos of natural selection.

    Not knowing isn’t the same as not true, it’s just not knowing.

    Generally speaking, I am a better guy who enjoys better outcomes when I put faith and trust before knowledge.

    December 10, 2009
    • Ken #

      Yes, you are right.

      It is beauty that draws some of us to knowledge. It is also power. I think Shelley’s poem, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, captures the feelings, the “intellectual beauty,” by which knowledge allures. They are mine as well.

      Sometimes I wish Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of life instead of the tree of knowledge. But I understand why they went for knowledge – it is such a beautiful tree.

      It is not just our Hebraic scriptures that warn us about knowledge. The warning is found in our Greek heritage as well – Pandora, certainly, but the image that stays with me more than any other is Prometheus bound to that rock, and the eagle gnawing on him – I know the feeling. It keeps me awake sometimes – like last night even.

      Some nature writers, the dark green religion kind, express the same concern, describing our human consciousness as something like a “fall.”

      And yet, I am in love. As Shelley wrote, “With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
      I call the phantoms of a thousand hours …”

      It is, no doubt, better to eat from the tree of life. Not so many tears.

      December 11, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thank you, Ken. There is always such intelligence and compassion in your writing. You always help me connect with the “better parts” of my intentions. If you ever write a book, I know one guy who will buy it. 🙂

        In a completely unrelated matter, I was blessed with the experience of the “extraordinary” form of the Latin Rite last evening; (Missa Cantata)

        At first, I couldn’t stop crying. Somehow I actually felt myself as being 7 years old again. Before any memories of being hurt by anyone. Before any memories of hurting anyone. The scripture passage, “though your sins be red as scarlett, I make them white as snow”, came alive for me.

        For the first time in a long time I was in a very holy place, present with our God, in community with His children. My life changed last night.

        My brother, I was wondering if you could recommend a book on the study of latin. I was thinking it might be time for me to massacre my words and thoughts in another language. 🙂

        December 14, 2009
      • Ken #

        O Paul, what you have described is such an extraordinary event. I think last night’s mass carried you back to the cross, and from there to the moment of creation and then on to the new heaven and earth. What happened is so beautiful.

        I don’t know a good book to recommend for Latin, or Greek or Hebrew for that matter. I think some of the translational and grammatical aids available now on the internet help us to make good use of almost any grammar book and lexicon available.

        December 14, 2009

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