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Is Theology of any Practical, Positive Use? (Book Review)

March 7, 2014

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The question whether theology is of any practical use is not quite what is posed in the important book, Transforming Christian Theology: for Church and Society, by Philip Clayton (“in collaboration with Tripp Fuller”).  But it’s close.

This is a remarkable book.  By a highly accomplished theologian (seminary professor and prolific author and speaker), backed by a research team. To mainly the Christian churches and Christians in America.  Other folks are likely to find it fascinating as well.  Academically sound without sounding academic.  Ideas for applying basic, transformative theology to and in churches and other settings.  Not church “as usual”.

It has a 2010 copyright, so no longer new; but definitely still up-to-date!  I’d have reviewed it back then had I known about it.  (One of the problems for the best thinking by philosophers, theologians and other scholars is that it is hard to get it out to a broad readership, even when it is very readable.)

When I say “Transforming Christian Theology” is for churches, meaning church leaders as well as members, I don’t mean it will bore others.  If you have any interest in what is happening with Christianity or religion in general in the last few decades, you should read this book!  It is the distillation of a whole lot of knowledge and experience by one of our leading thinkers (not just theologically), though not many know the name Philip Clayton outside certain church or academic circles.  And Tripp Fuller, collaborating, contributes from a youthful and very church-involved perspective.

The rationale for writing a to-be-applied book around “theology” may be best expressed in the opening of chapter 3: “Why the Answers Must be Theological (and What that Means)”: “Every Christian has a theology. For that matter, so does every Jew or Muslim or Hindu.  A theology, in the broadest sense, just means what you believe about God (theos)” (p. 19).  Decrying the “professionalization of theology”, Clayton emphasizes that “doing” theology belongs with “…every believing person, and every person who would like to believe” (p. 20).  Amen to that!

On the other hand, no one creates their theology all on their own.  So the influence of people going before us who have thought long and hard, exercised faith, etc., is vital.  The book is really about this complement: how a community of faith supports the individual, and the individual needs a certain freedom to doubt, explore, grow, express, and so on.  Thus, the person contributes to the community as well.

And where do all of us find ourselves… in a society, a culture that is broader than any church or “The Church”? All societies, especially in our “global village” world, are on the move.  Western ones have been moving from a stage described as “modern” to a “postmodern” one. Actually, Clayton and numerous other leaders are beyond “postmodern” as well, but he doesn’t venture out that far, in terms of labels and their descriptions. What he does do is demonstrate a yet “higher” stance. (It’s a misconception that progressives never make value judgments.)  That stance is a call to seekers, believers and everyone to engage one another across the typical dividing lines between “conservative” and “liberal” or “modern” and “postmodern”.  It’s not just about “tolerance” but about engagement, understanding and cooperation.

Tensions are inevitable, especially between adjacent groups (e.g., modern and postmodern)… there’s a pull-and-push or push-and-pushback as people struggle between the perspectives and ways of organizing reality.  Where, ideally, can this struggle for growth safely take place… with support and guidance? In a local and/or virtual community of faith.  Clayton reminds leaders, and us all, that anymore, it may not have to only be a local congregation, meeting physically together.  He calls on leaders of institutions (denominations, seminaries, etc.) to think creatively and support young emerging leaders in creative expressions of “transforming theology”.  Theology is itself being transformed rapidly these days.  And we are being transformed by its new expressions and the new forms or structures in which it is being lived out.

In the book, Clayton gets much more specific than this, dealing, sometimes by name, with key change leaders and the movements surrounding them.  I will go further into some of that in an additional post on that, probably next week.  But don’t wait!  If you have any inclination to, go and purchase (or borrow) the book and dive in yourself.

If you have read the book or have comments on what I’ve shared about it above, let us hear from you!  

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2014 8:52 am

    I think Christian A. Schwarz would say that theology can and should be incorporated into the Church or else what good is it? You can hear more about his “Natural Church Development” movement on the site I’m putting together:

    God bless.

  2. March 15, 2014 10:40 am

    Thanks, Stephen. I’ll look into that site and movement. I’d agree that the Church has always been primarily (or at foundation) about theology. Particularly the most basic aspect, belief in God and what kind of God we perceive and/or worship. Of course, a lot of related beliefs grow out of that and sometimes feed into that, influencing how we conceive of God. As a very general statement, I believe the more that churches (or individuals) stick with what seems most clear from the natural world plus the basic insights of philosophical and religious traditions, the better. The big challenge then becomes growing in communion with this God (or Spirit, Mind, Ground of Being, etc.) and living out “grace”: compassion and harmony with ourselves and everyone around us, as well as the earth and natural world.


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