A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being asked to present at the “Theology after Google” national conference taking place at the Claremont School of Theology March 10-12. I will share more in the future about what I’ll be presenting, but it is going to be a really wonderful event. The event is part of the Transforming Theology project that Philip Clayton directs. I picked up Philip’s new book, “Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society” a few weeks ago, and think it’s an incredibly important and timely book for those of us who find ourselves hoping and working for a progressive Christianity. Philip wrote the book in collaboration with Homebrewed Christianity‘s Tripp Fuller – but since I don’t know who wrote which parts, I’ll just be referring to Clayton as the author – though I’m sure Tripp spent a lot of time on the book as well.
I should preface this by saying I heard Philip Clayton read a paper at the Center of Theological Inquiry a few years back, and while there were parts that I really liked – for the most part, I found it to be way beyond me. Sarah and I both spoke with Philip afterward and really enjoyed our conversation; I walked away both very impressed by Philip as a person and a little intimidated by him as a scholar.
So, I found it incredibly interesting that Clayton says this book marks a departure for him of writing theology that is only for the “specialists.” Because of his new understanding of what theology is, more specifically who should be doing theology, he can no longer publish the types of book he had previously been publishing:
“The second step in my transformation is to walk the talk, which means that I must also change how I communicate my reflections on Christian belief and identity. I can no longer publish theology books that are written primarily for specialists. From now on I must write for a broader audience, one that includes ordinary people who are eager to speak clearly and passionately about their faith–and those who are struggling to find out exactly what in the Christian story they really do care passionately about. In this regard, my last book [Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action, 2008] represents the end of one era for me, and this book heralds the beginning of the next. Perhaps this will irritate academic theologians and there may be backlash.”
In the book, Clayton walks through three different parts: Theology for an Age of Transition, Theologies That Can Transform the Church, and Theologies That Can Transform Society. One thing I noticed throughout this book is a strong pragmatic bent to it – and Clayton mentions that quite often about the postmodern turn to belief. Theologies today need to work. I think there is an inherent skepticism in emerging generations today if we have air-tight systematic theologies that just…don’t…work. So, this progressive Christianity theology – whatever it ends up looking like – needs to be a theology that works, a theology that makes sense for the world we live in today and one that can be transforming in our lives and in our society.
There is also a call throughout this book to be about the act of rekindling theological imagination. Sarah would like that, as she is always talking about how so many problems we have today in the world and especially in the church stems from our severe failure of imagination. Clayton poses a challenge to many theologians and seminary professors as so much of our theological education today is merely teaching the theology that has been done in the past – and requiring students (those whom we would hope to be creative theologians/pastors in their own right some day…) to simply regurgitate someone else’s theology. How does that help to develop a rich theological imagination?
I know some readers of this blog are skeptical of anything that has the word “progressive” in front of it, let along progressive Christian theology. Many think it’s some namby-pamby/loosey-goosey type of theology. However, one thing that struck me over and over again was Clayton’s call for being passionate and knowledgeable about our beliefs – for holding deep convictions. The oft-quoted 1 Peter 3:15 (“be ready to make a defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you”) is not so much about having the right argument or being 100% certain and confident about our apologetics, rather Clayton writes:
“Instead, its primary call is to give a self-accounting – that is, to be able to explain our strongest motivations and reasons. To do this, we have to make sense of our own actions and convictions to ourselves first. Only then will we have any chance of making sense to other people…” (63)
Clayton talks about how so many mainline and progressive folks seem to care deeply about social justice concerns – but have a hard time saying “why.” What are our theological reasonings for caring so passionately about social justice? Can we point to a specific aspect of our Christian worldviews? Is there a specific scripture that speaks to us? Just because we are “progressives” – it doesn’t get us off for the folk for also being Christian and being able to individually know why we feel called to certain things.
For Clayton, anyone who identifies her-/himself as Christian should probably at some point work through what he calls the Seven Core Christian Questions. In many ways, this is what I have been doing through my Credo series. The seven questions Clayton believe are important to reflect on have to do with:
- Theology: questions about God
- Christology: questions about the person of Jesus the Christ
- Pneumatology: questions about who the Spirit is
- Anthropology: questions about what it means to be human
- Soteriology: questions about what salvation is
- Ecclesiology: questions about the church
- Eschatology: questions about the “last things”
So Clayton’s definition of theology is: theology consists of all attempts to answer these core Christian questions for ourselves in light of the contemporary world.
Finally, I really appreciated Clayton’s reflections on what it means to define oneself as a “progressive.” For clearly, just as any of our fabricated labels, it has many definitions. He argues that it clearly should not be used as just an updated term for “bleeding heart liberal” because there are folk who are evangelical but refer to themselves as progressive evangelicals. He believes “progressive” is a term that splits the difference between conservative and liberal. Clayton writes:
“…if you are a progressive, you will tend to emphasize change and newness in what the church is becoming. You don’t have to hold to the modern doctrine called meliorism, the belief that the world is just getting better and better. But you do think there are some positive things that we can learn from the contemporary world – from science, philosophy, technology, social movements, other religions, and so on. This doesn’t mean that you disvalue the Christian tradition and seek to replace it with something different. But it does imply that you look for and value partnerships between contemporary culture and Christian faith…being progressive does not mean that you wish to reject the past. But it does suggest a greater emphasis on innovation, on openness to change…I will use the term progressive to describe constructive theologies that attempt to transform society.” (122)
And what is progressive Christianity’s mission as the church? Clayton looks to theologian John Cobb and quotes him saying that it is “working with God for the salvation of the world.” Of course – the “salvation of the world” is not some type of colonial desire to “save” everyone and to “civilize the natives” – but rather a more holistic understanding of salvation as both individual and corporate.
This was the first book of Clayton’s that I’ve read, and it’s definitely a very accessible book. I really enjoyed it and think it would have been helpful for me to read as I was starting seminary. If you’re interested in what Clayton’s vision for a progressive Christian theology is – for what a transforming theology might look like and how it interacts with our contemporary world, I’d highly recommend this book.