Friday, January 1, 2010

Transforming Christian Theology: A Review

Philip Clayton is an academic's academic theologian. Just check out his resume. He specializes in theology, philosophy, and science. There's no question that Clayton is a top-level theologian. But this academic theologian has had a conversion experience. After looking at the crisis in the Mainline Church, he has decided he needs to address the crisis instead of deny its existence. With the Mainline Church losing scores of members, closing thousands of churches, downsizing many of their seminaries, etc., it's obvious that something must be done if progressive Christianity is going to have a future. So Clayton has decided to help it have a future. His mission is no longer to write abstract theology in the clouds of the ivory tower, but to roll up his sleeves and do theology on the ground of real life. In his book, Transforming Christian Theology, he says:
“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 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. But as I've argued, the urgency of the situation calls for some pretty radical responses. We can't afford business as usual” (6).
Clayton's main argument in this book is that we need to make theology a work and passion of the people - all people. Theology isn't some abstract pondering that happens between people with advanced degrees. Instead, theology is thinking deeply about following God in the Way of Jesus. Doing theology this way involves: exploring the intersections between our personal stories and God's larger story; making our assumptions explicit; recognizing our contexts; listening to other perspectives; revising our perspectives; being open to God's guidance and presence; using culturally relevant yet explicitly Christian language (without being exclusive to other religions); connecting faith to real life; embodying our theology; developing effective ministries for our changing world; exploring ways to transform society for the better; etc.

One concrete way that Clayton encourages people to do theology is to explore how each person and congregation would respond to the Core Questions of Christianity: Who is God? Who is Jesus? Who is the Holy Spirit? What is humanity and its role? What is sin, and what does salvation mean? What is the mission and function of the Church? What is the future we hope for? Each person and congregation will answer these questions differently. We don't all have to agree. But we do have to think through these questions and explore how they help us find direction for our personal lives and a mission for our congregations.

Clayton's book is a vitally important book for people who care about the Church - especially the Church in a progressive form. His book is filled with questions, ideas, insights, etc., on how to find our way out of the crisis that has hit the Mainline Church. This book is a resource of resources. So, if you want the Mainline Church to be more than a museum of a failed experiment, then this book is one important road map out of the current crisis. Transforming Christian Theology can help us explore ways to do faithful, effective, and relevant ministry in our rapidly changing world.

If you're interested in joining conversations about reviving the Mainline Church through theology, check out Clayton's organization and network called Transforming Theology.

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