Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Transforming Theology: "Reclaiming the Church with John Cobb"

The folks over at Transforming Theology are hosting a conversation about...well...transforming theology. Wow! What a shock! Actually this conversation seems very interesting. The idea is to get theology books into a variety of people's hands - and then host a dialogue via blogs and conferences. So I decided to take part. The first book being discussed is John Cobb's book "Reclaiming the Church." Here is my overview of Cobb's book.


Mainline Becomes Sidelined

The Mainline Church is on a rapid decline in membership and influence. That's no secret. For years people have been calling it the "Sideline" or "Oldline" Church. And that decline is what John Cobb addresses in his book "Reclaiming the Church." In it, Cobb diagnoses some of the problems in the Mainline Church and then makes suggestions for ways to bring about much needed transformation. As a theologian who lives with one foot in academia and one foot in the church, Cobb is in a unique place to offer his insights.

The Problems

Cobb says Mainline churches, as a whole, are "lukewarm," "inspire no passion," don't "call for a high priority of commitment," and "cannot define the needs of the world from a Christian perspective" (4). The reasons for these problems are many. Cobb explores a few of those reasons.

First, Mainline Christians don't have a shared Christian conviction or vision. There is much ambiguity and diversity of thought, in part because of all the internal ills Mainliners have faced. Mainline Christianity has ambiguously incorporated the individualism and reason of the Enlightenment; has ambiguously repented of the antisemitism in Scripture, liturgy and theology; has ambiguously adapted feminist insights and fought patriarchy; has ambiguously addressed the ecological crises; has ambiguously dealt with institutional racism; has ambiguously begun to address the imperialism of Eurocentrism. It's difficult to get fired up about a faith that has been critiqued for so long and from so many different angles. It's difficult to hold a shared vision when so many of the previous visions have been challenged and changed. It's difficult to have shared convictions when there is so much ambiguity and diversity of thought.

Second, there is a huge chasm between seminaries and churches. Starting in the 1900s, Mainline seminaries began adopting the German model of theological education which turned theology into an academic discipline. Suddenly professors were more interested in theoretical scholarship than practical implications. Professors specialized in their various fields and produced a wide variety of nuanced, impractical theology. Their diverse theologies added to the lack of shared vision and conviction in the Mainline Church. The depth and impracticality of their theology was often too academic for most clergy and laity to understand. This professionalization of theology convinced church folks that theology was a professional activity and of no use for churches. Average people in Mainline churches gave up their vocation as theologians and stopped reflecting theologically and Biblically upon their daily lives.

Renewal and Transformation

Cobb mentions two tools for reforming the church: renewal (i.e. roots) and transformation (i.e. wings). First, the task of renewal is to adapt ourselves so we are faithful to Jesus Christ (41). The Mainline Church needs a humble yet passionate rootedness in the central figure and symbols of our faith. It needs to be humble enough to learn from our past mistakes but passionate enough to stand on the foundation of the Gospel. Renewal is most needed when cultural patterns dominate our thinking. Second, the task of transformation “is to respond as effectively and appropriately today to the particularities of our situation as the early church responded in its time” (43). This means the Mainline Church needs to discern faithful and contextual ways of being the Church in our various times and places. The Church will look different in rural Iowa, urban Chicago, and ancient Galilee. And it should. We need to adapt ourselves to our contexts as the early church adapted themselves to their contexts. The Church is always an emerging church. Transformation is most needed when historic teachings hinder necessary changes.

Applying the twin goals of renewal and transformation will change the way we address the issues we face. Instead of the ambiguous way the Mainline Church has limped through changes in the past, we need a shared vision that can help us stand up and walk together as we face the future. In place of ambiguity we need conviction. In place of cultural wandering we need theological reflection. In place of Enlightenment individualism we need to appreciate the interconnected web of life. In place of antisemitism we need to learn from our ancestor faith of Judaism. In place of the oppressiveness of patriarchy we need the vision of the Kin-dom of God. In place of the economism (neo-liberal capitalism) of Empire we need the earthism (eco-justice) of Creation-care. In place of tepid responses to the problem of racism we need to concretely repent from the sin of racism. In place of the modern Tower of Babel called Eurocentrism we need the modern Body of Christ which incorporates the plurality of cultures. These are just a few examples of unifying convictions the Mainline Church could claim. They are convictions that are bold enough to inspire passion, yet humble enough to realize that change will be inevitable. In all of these examples, theological reflection is a vitally important aspect. To make this point clear, Cobb says: “There can be neither renewal nor transformation without widespread theological reflection” (56).

Creative Transformation

Cobb privileges transformation above renewal in the goal of reclaiming the Mainline Church. This is where his allegiance to process theology shines through clearly – and helpfully. In process theology, God is understood as continuously active in the world, beckoning it toward creative transformation. Jesus' message of the Kin-dom of God creatively brought change to the people living in the Roman Empire. The early church thought and acted in new ways as it emerged from Judaism to form Christianity. The entire Bible testifies to evolutionary and revolutionary change that God brings to the world through people. The list could go on and on. The point is simple: “authentic transformation is what happens when God is effectively present in an event” (60). God is still active in our world, just as God has always been active. And God is still in the transforming business. God still seeks to bring transformation to and through God's people. But in order to be creatively transformed by God – and not just bounced around by pop culture – Mainliners need a renewal of theological reflection.

Reflection, Conviction, Action

Theological reflection is imperative for Mainliners. Cobb says the Mainline Church “needs to think its way to an understanding of its message that will communicate conviction and evoke devotion to Christ” (67). For Cobb the most important aspect of this thinking is to discern a faithful, appropriate, and passionate understanding of salvation. He then provides a description of salvation that is both personal and global. Salvation means sins are forgiven, diseases are healed, the hungry are fed, the prisoners are freed, and the lonely are visited (68). Salvation also means the soil is regenerated; the air and water are purified; global warming is stopped; the planet is reforested; the wilderness is maintained; and biodiversity is preserved (68). In short, salvation means “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as is prayed weekly in the Mainline Church. This is a vision of salvation that gets brought to us and through us by God. It's graciously given to us by God in Christ. But it's also brought through us as the Church of Jesus Christ in the world. We get to participate in God's salvation as co-workers with God. Our vocation is to be God's Church, disciples of Jesus, and the Body of Christ in the world. In Cobb's words, “We participate everlastingly in the divine life.” This vision gives us ultimate meaning and purpose. It gives us a powerful shared conviction. And it gives us a revived Mainline Church. We just need to dare to believe it's true and act on it.

Vision of a Reclaimed Church

Cobb concludes his book with a vision for the reclaimed Mainline Church: “...our thinking would lead to strong shared convictions about the meaning of our faith and the light it sheds on the issues of our day...we would be able to address the public with insight and wisdom...we would work together for the common good with passion...we would find our inner lives renewed...we would learn anew the importance of our churches and enthusiastically invite others to join with us.”

My Response in the Form of a Top Ten List

(1) We need to find unity in our diversity

(2) We need to navigate the space between idolatrous certainty and nihilistic relativism

(3) We need a renewal of theological reflection

(4) We need a renewal of spirituality and spiritual practices

(5) We need to explore alternative styles of worship

(6) We need to do new church starts

(7) We need seminaries considering the practical implications of their theology

(8) We need to develop a theology of joy

(9) We need to take our faith more seriously in daily life

(10) We need to be proud of our liberal tradition

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