13 August 2010

Transforming Christian Theology

Another book review:

Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

The blurb on the back of the book describes it as ‘a radical call to return religious reflection to ordinary believers’. Clayton begins by reciting the by now familiar story that Western society is in the midst of a fundamental transition – from the so-called modern worldview to what, for want of a better word, has come to be known as postmodernity. This transition presents a major challenge to our theologies, since in one way or another they have been adapted to the modern worldview that has been our cultural context for the past couple of centuries. As the transition gathers pace, our theologies appear increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with those around us.

Clayton suggests that what we need is not merely a restatement of theology in postmodern terms. That would merely perpetuate the academic elitism that has characterized (and marred) theology in the modern era. Rather, we need a different way of doing theology. His proposal is that theology should become storytelling: the telling and retelling of our stories in light of core Christian questions (Clayton lists seven such, though others might want to modify his list). He hopes that in doing so our theologies might become more inclusive, less inclined to divide the Christian community into so many warring camps. If such an approach were successful, it would indeed lead to ‘theologies that can transform the Church’.

Clayton then goes on to ‘theologies that can transform society’. He proposes that we go beyond the liberal/evangelical divide. What he wants is a progressive synthesis of the best of liberalism and evangelicalism – a synthesis he likens to the pragmatic idealism of Barack Obama. Such a synthesis, he believes, would empower our churches to become missional communities, drawing postmodern men and women to Christ and capable of transforming the societies in which we live.

A brief concluding section offers a collection of ‘conversations worth having’: discussion starters intended to foster the kinds of theological dialogue described earlier in the book.

Clayton offers us a bold vision for the future of Christian theologies, clearly written in (deceptively) straightforward language. There is much here that I found myself agreeing with. However, I remain uneasy about a number of points.

Much as I warm to his vision of an eirenic, inclusive way of doing theology, we should not forget that there are times when theology must be exclusive. There are times when it must denounce falsehood in order to protect the integrity of the Church and promote the well-being of those on the margins of society.

I am uncomfortable with his portrayal of the Church of the future because of its implicit endorsement of emergent churches at the expense of older Christian traditions. Such churches stand out because they have shown themselves adept at accommodating themselves to the (emergent) postmodern worldview. While that is no bad thing, this luxuriant new growth will only flourish if the roots are nourished. And that requires an explicit appreciation of Christian traditions of worship and spirituality.

I am also suspicious of some of Clayton’s language. Is the way forward really a (quasi-Hegelian?) progressive synthesis of liberal and conservative/evangelical. Liberal, conservative, progressive: this is the language of politics not theology. To use the language of secular politics to describe ourselves is to allow those outside the Christian community to define us. And as long as we allow ourselves to be defined by anyone other than Christ, we will struggle to be truly transformative.

And, of course, there is his suggestion that change can and should be managed. I’m sorry but Christian leaders should not be in the business of change management. That smacks too much of putting self in control. Ironical that there should be such a chapter in a book that also contains a chapter on ‘a theology of self-emptying for the Church’!

Philip Clayton has succeeded in producing a thought-provoking little book on what it means to do theology in a postmodern era. Read it: you won’t agree with everything he says, but the book will make you think.

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