Mark Powell writes about the work of theology and asks some good questions. Who will do the theological work we need now – experts, or all of us? And is new theological work needed? Or do we have all the theology we need? What is the Spirit saying to the church “today” and is that a valid question? He quotes Tony Jones, who opines,
“Christians are climbing out of their denominational silos and listening to Christians of other flavors. Some are even (gasp!) listening to the wisdom of other religions. I really do think that we’ll enter a new age of theological discussion and even consensus, and it will be made possible by new media.”
It seems like yesterday that Tim Bednar penned, “We know more than our pastors.” The wisdom of crowds is overtaking us all.
And our first inclination might be, “Oh, no.. we can’t have EVERYONE doing theology!”
But what then of the promise of Moses heart felt hope: “Would that all the Lord”s people were prophets.” And what of the promise and fulfillment of Pentecost:
And it shall be in the last days, God says,
That I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh;
And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men will dream dreams.. Acts 2:17ff (quoting Joel 2)
I can’t imagine a better outcome: all God’s people speaking the word. And all God’s people coming together to reflect on life in light of God.
Tillich’s image of theological reflection (TR) as correlation has given way to the more dynamic view of TR as conversation. In Method in Ministry, Whitehead and Whitehead consider the authority of experience. They recall that Scripture itself is the record of a people’s experience of God’s presence. Then they make this statement:’
Revelation, God’s self disclosure which surprises us, overturns our certitudes and transcends our best imaginings, is registered in experience. The religious authority of experience is rooted in a recognition of God’s continuing, disturbing presence among us. When our experience of sin and forgiveness; of dying and rising; of Christ recognized in the stranger confirms the testimony of Scripture and the wisdom of our religious heritage, it authorizes the Christian tradition again. By saying “yes!” to this sacred story, affirmed again in our own experience, the faith community regenerates the Christian heritage in its own time. This incarnational optimism allows Christians to listen confidently to the three different sources of this model: it is the same God who acts in all three context.
There are multiple hooks for me in this paragraph. First, the three partners in the conversation each appear here: scripture, the community, and our context in history and culture. Second, the attitude and motivation for TR are implied: we respond to God’s self disclosure in all three sources, and we respond from our personal and corporate experience while rooted in the real .. and fallen.. world. Third, we cannot effectively do TR apart from the foundational awareness of our contingency and particularity. I’ll return to the first point a bit further along.
We need to do theology and we need to do it today. God is alive and is teaching and leading us as we seek him today. When Jesus promised another Counsellor, a Teacher who would lead us into all truth, I think the promise was for more than the first disciples. Jacques Ellul wrote, “Our God is a God of beginnings. There is in him no redundancy or circularity. Thus, if his church wants to be faithful to his revelation, it will be completely mobile, fluid, renascent, bubbling, creative, inventive, adventurous, and imaginative.” Hmm.. sounds much like “always reforming…”
There is something particular about these times we live in that demands theological work. Much of the work done in the last century was done in reaction to secularism, and much of it was done on foundations that no longer exist. Moreover, it was done as a privileged elite within the edifice of Christendom. Theology from a place of privilege and power was theology that often made compromises for the sake of maintaining a place of privilege. Now that the edifice is falling down, we have an opportunity to do theological work that is not self-protective, concerned for privilege, pensions or power.
Walter Brueggemann in Cadences of Home observed that it was as the people of God went into exile that their imaginations were renewed. They were forced to rethink much that they thought was clear; they went back to the text and listened anew to the Spirit. They did not see the extend of their own compromises until they were removed from a secure place; it seems we never learn much before we are thrust into liminality.
The answers to yesterdays questions were no help in Babylon. Brueggemann writes that, “human transformation does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude, but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality.”
Participative technology and the wisdom of crowds may hold more promise than we once thought. The need for theological reflection in a broader and open conversation and the possibilities offered was the driving force behind the Wikiklesia project, now almost two years distant. Reformation always demands theological work: the church must always be reforming. John Franke penned his paper, Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics, and wrote,
“Reformed theology is always reforming according to the Word of God in order to bear witness to the eternal truth of the gospel in the context of an everchanging world characterized by a variety of cultural settings. In the words of Jurgen Moltmann, reformation is not “a one time act to which a confessionalist could appeal and upon whose events a traditionalist could rest.”
More recently LeRon Shults penned, “Reforming Ecclesiology in Emerging Churches,” (inTheology Today). Both these theologians affirm the need to do theological work here and now.
And reaching further back, Karl Barth affirmed the need for the ongoing work of theology. First, because theology is always human and limited. He writes that, “Theology is neither prophecy nor apostolate. Its relationship to God’s Word cannot be compared to the biblical witnesses, because it can know the Word of God only at secondhand, only in the mirror and echo of the biblical witness.” (Evangelical Theology, 31) If all theology is thus limited, it behooves us as a community of God’s people to continue doing theological work. It may be that more light can be found today; that in light of a new situation we will see some issues with greater clarity.
In his primer in theology Barth tells a story about a series of lectures given in the postwar ruins of the Kurfursten castle in Bonn, Germany. In the summer of 1946 Barth began his lectures. Every morning at seven they met to “sing a psalm or a hymn to sheer us up.” By eight o’clock “the rebuilding of the quadrangle began to advertise itself in the rattle of an engine,” as the engineers went to work to restore the ruins. (Dogmatics in Outline, 1959, 7) This is where vigorous theological work is always done, in the ruins of an old world with hope for a new.
Elsewhere Barth comments on our proclivity for experts. In essence, he argues for the “minority report.” He had the wisdom to see that theological work is too important to be left for ivory towers. He writes,
How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the task. Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury; As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency! Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole Church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology. (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 1979. 81)
The theological foundations we work with were mostly built in modernity, filtered through Enlightenment lenses and limited by that context. The Enlightenment was the ultimate ivory tower. It presumed that we could stand objectively apart from the world and see through the pristine lens of Reason. As a result, theological work was often overconfident and lacked a hermeneutic of finitude.
And we created an expert class of people to do the work for us. We forgot that experts are subject to their own distortions, isolating themselves into narrow conversations divorced from life as lived, and with the need to justify their own existence and privilege.
But perhaps this was only another kind of power-play, another kind of colonialism. We have long assumed that theology done by western, European minds would be more true than theology done in other locations. This is why theologians like Kenzo Mabiala write,
..for many years, evangelicals have championed the cause of a self-theologizing Church, which they argued is the fourth woefully needed addition to the classical three-selves of the indigenous Church (self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating). In postcolonial theologies, their dream has finally come true. The (subaltern) latecomer has finally spoken in her own native idiom. Evangelical faith, which has hitherto been articulated and formulated in the stable idiom of Western rationalism that guaranteed its sameness, suddenly finds itself confronted with other idioms that disturb both the stability of classical formulations and the appeal of sameness. Will evangelical faith break or stretch? Therein lies the question. (A New Kind of Conversation)
Finally, I return to the Whitehead’s reflection on theology as conversation. It’s critical to recognize the dialogical.. or trialogical.. nature of the conversation between Scripture, the community, and culture and experience. Because theology is always tethered. The freedom to do theological work is not freedom from tradition, but freedom within it, and not freedom from Scripture or the community, but the freedom to live within it. If this seems too limiting, or we doubt the collective wisdom of the Spirit in the Body, then we have to remember Paul:
But God chose what is foolish in the world,
even things that are not,
to bring to nothing things that are.. 1 Cor. 1: 27-28
Rubem Alves relates a beautiful story that illustrates the freedom, and the groundedness, of theological work. He tells us a story about a spider:
“The spider doubly fascinates me. First, because of what I see. There she is, safe and happy, over the empty space. There is no hesitation in her steps. Her legs move on the thin threads of her cobweb with tranquil precision, as if they were fingers of a violinist, dancing on the strings. Her cobweb: such a fragile structure, built with almost transparent gossamer. And yet it is perfect, symmetrical, beautiful, fit to its purpose.
“Second, because of what I do not see. I did not see her first move, the move which as the beginning of the web, the leap into the void:I imagine that tiny, almost invisible creature, hanging alone on the wall. She sees the other walls, far away, and measures the distance between them: an empty space. And there is one thing only she can count on for the incredible work she is about to start: a thread, still hidden inside her body. And then, suddenly, a leap into the void, and the spider’s universe has begun.
“The spider is a metaphor of myself; I also want to weave a web over the void. But my world is not woven with anything material. It is made out of a substance more ethereal than gossamer thread, so ethereal that some have compared it to the wind: words.
“Good teachers, like the spider, know that words cannot be woven into the void; they need foundations. Threads, no matter how light, must be tied to solid thing” (The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet, 4)
There is plenty of work to do. The sooner we get at it, the better.
Related: blogging as a communal hermeneutic from Voices of the Virtual World
Related: This Homebrewed Christianity podcast interview with LeRon Shults on his new book.