Theology Feed

McLaren in Charlottesville

Theologian Brian McLaren was present in Charlottesville on Saturday and he has written his observation, reflections, and thoughts going forward, including the urgent practical work we must do.

Here is an excerpt:

We Christians, in particular, need to face the degree to which white Christianity has failed – grievously, tragically, unarguably failed – to teach its white adherents to love their non-white neighbors as themselves. Congregations of all denominations need to make this an urgent priority – to acknowledge the degree to which white American Christianity has been a chaplaincy to white supremacy for centuries, and in that way, has betrayed the gospel.


Robert Jeffress's Bad Theology

So how can we bring a halt to this march toward war? The answer lies in theology and ethics as much as it does in politics and strategy. Secular and religious people alike must be aware that moral arguments — whether or not they involve religious tropes — are not just political sideshows but rather can determine the outcomes of the most important policy decisions of this or any time.

There is such a thing as incorrect theological and moral thinking, and the best way to neutralize it is with an intellectually and morally superior argument on the same terrain. Only good theology can debunk bad theology. We must all engage in this work as if the future of this republic and its place in the peaceful order of the world depend on it — because they do.

This essay in the NYTimes criticizes the bad theology of Robert Jeffress who is trying to give religious cover to the President in his vitriolic threats of nuclear war.


Death of God & Mainline Protestantism

An interesting essay on how Death of God theology from the 1960's was more influential than most people have realized and that much of what it predicted has come true.  This rich essay concludes:

Are the Church and her historical teachings therefore necessary? Only so long as the wider culture has not yet adopted its message of tolerance, pluralism, and individual freedom. Once it does, the Christian mission is complete, and secular society itself becomes the kingdom of God.

In this we see the larger ambition of Death of God theology—and its enduring relevance. The Gospel forms a community that, following the biblical injunction to die in order to live, extinguishes itself so as to spread its message into the secular world. And has not exactly that come to pass? The central fact of American religion today is that liberal Protestantism is dead and everywhere triumphant. Its churches are empty, but its causes have won. In 1995, the sociologist N. J. Demerath observed that mainline Protestantism has a paradoxical status in American life. It has experienced both “institutional defeat” and “cultural victory.” Mainline Protestantism has succeeded in communicating its progressive moral and political values to the surrounding culture. On virtually every issue that consumed its postwar energies—from civil rights to feminism and gay rights—the mainline churches have been vindicated by elite opinion. At the same time, their membership has evaporated. The institution that once brokered the postwar cultural and moral consensus for America has now almost vanished.

Peter Berger, who argued against Death of God theology, died recently.  Here is his NYTimes obituary.


The Power and Vulnerability of Love

The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological AnthropologyThe Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology by Elizabeth O'Donnell Gandolfo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gandolfo argues that vulnerability is not only a basic human trait, it is the source of anxiety that leads
to suffering and causes suffering in others. After an analysis based upon maternal experience, she discusses Christian theological and spiritual responding to vulnerability and then practices of dealing with vulnerability.

While I felt the first section was overly long and often redundant, sections two and three were quite good, in particular her discussion of incarnation and the natal experience of Jesus.

She also brilliantly draws from a great diversity of thinkers--Paul Tillich & Delores Williams, Alfred North Whitehead and Martha Nussbaum, Nicholas of Cusa and David Hume, Julian of Norwich and Edward Schillebeeckx, etc.

I also greatly appreciated her discussion of privilege as our attempt to control our vulnerability. This section will be quite useful to ministers because she gives a theological description. Remember just this week my denomination passed a resolution calling for ministers to receive ongoing training in their privilege. Since I volunteered to help organize that for the Nebraska conference, I'll use her work as a means to approach the topic.

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Hearing Voices

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"You lit the fuse of dynamic, inclusive environmental change that heard all voices.  This is the Lord's action," declared Aaron Mair, former president of the Sierra Club.  He was referencing the impact that the UCC's 1987 study Toxic Wastes and Race had upon the environmental movement.  This study coined term and first drew attention to the concept of environmental racism, the reality that there is "a direct correlation between the placement of toxic waste facilities and communities of poverty and/or color." 

Mair discussed how the conservationist movement of the early 20th century had ties with the eugenics movement and that modern environmentalism was largely a movement of white, privileged people.  The UCC's study not only drew attention to a vital problem but also laid the groundwork for transforming the environmental movement itself.  Thirty years later he celebrated the UCC's work and shared how he had used the study in his own work for environmental and racial justice.

In the afternoon there was an immigration march from the convention hall to the federal building which houses ICE offices.  In partnership with local faith communities and the Annapolis Sanctuary Network, we were demanding justice and freedom for an artist and father who had been detained in Annapolis.

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Today was largely a day of business, with occasional breaks to celebrate our ministry or launch new initiatives, such as a new Caribbean Initiative from Global Ministries, new fundraising campaigns, and the local church mission efforts of the Three Great Loves--Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation.

The business included passage of the Constitution and Bylaws changes to the way the board committees work and the portfolios of the officers of the church are determined.  I was one of only two to speak against the second part of those changes.  I have practical and governance concerns for streamlining our national leadership into a model where associate ministers report to the General Minister and their portfolios of ministry are not set by Synod, but my primary objection is theological.  I liked the Collegium of  Officers.  For much of my time in the UCC there were five co-equal ministers who deliberated together.  I believe this modeled a form of leadership that fit our ethos--conversation among a diverse group.  I believe it gave them unique authority when they issues pastoral letters to the church on topics of importance.  Now there will be one boss and a staff working for him.  I'm grieved to lose something that I believe was important to our character.

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But most of the day was taken up by the long series of resolutions on  a variety of topics--climate change, gun violence, survivors of abuse, diversity training, fair wages for farm workers, and more.  With generally harmonious debate though sometimes getting into the weeds of amendments and procedural motions and questions, we deliberated and decided on all these topics.  Some resolutions passed overwhelmingly, some failed narrowly (resolutions of witness require a two-thirds vote).

The resolution I was most concerned about was one calling on the church to support the right to die.  I rose to speak in opposition to the resolution, but did not get a chance to speak, as a series of procedural questions and motions robbed much of the time and my effort to extend debate failed, though at least a dozen people were still in line to speak both pro and con.  So, let me state what I would have said.

As a pastor and an ethicist I believe we do have the right to choose death when we have a terminal, debilitating condition.  But I believe that before the church takes that position, we must engage in robust theology.  Previous significant theological steps have included study committees who met over many years to research a topic and then draft a thorough report that was received by Synod.  I believe we should do the same on this issue, and not simply pass a resolution of witness.  This is more than a social justice or civil rights issue, but a matter of clearly articulating a Christian theology.  I believe we owe a clear theology to our church members, to the wider community, and to our sisters and brothers in the church universal.

I did not get to say that.  But the opponents who did speak included an interesting coalition of some conservatives, some very liberal queer folk, and representatives of the disabilities ministries.  And the resolution failed, by less than 1 percentage point.

And so it was a day in which we heard many voices speak on many issues, trusting that we are also listening to the Stillspeaking God.

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Truth Will Rise

Some Willimon quotes from Who Lynched Willie Earle?

Race is a socially constructed, psychologically rooted attempt to name humanity through human designations.  Christians defiantly believe that our identity and our human significance are bestowed upon us not by our culture, family, or skin color but rather given us in baptism.

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The origins of Southern fundamentalist Christianity have their roots in the creation of this disincarnate "empty space" sealed off from theological scrutiny.

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In a critique of how church often functions he writes "church is made into a font of positive feelings, a sabbatical for the soothing of anxiety, healing of stress, a place to receive placid balance, and a retreat where we go to pray for those in the hospital."

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In a society of racial denial, blaming and falsehood, rituals that enable repentance are great gifts that the church offers.  When so many white Americans adamantly maintain our innocence, our guiltlessness, it's a remarkable witness to be in a community where sin is admitted, confessed, and given to God.

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Much of my church family wallows in the mire of anthropological moral, therapeutic deism, a "god" whom the modern world has robbed of agency, an ineffective godlet who allegedly cares but never gets around to doing anything.  Such a "god" is an idol who is inadequate to the challenge of our racism.

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Christians answer to a theological vocation whereby we must demonstrate to an unbelieving world, by our little lives and in our pitiful churches that, in spite of us, nevertheless there is hope because God is able.

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We preach about race as those who believe we have seen as much of God as we hoped to see in his world when we look upon a brown-skinned Jew from Nazareth.

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His critique on much worship and pastoral care is spot on:

Should we be surprised that a racially accommodated church reduces Christian worship to the cultivation of subjectivity and interiority, presenting the Christian faith as a therapeutic technique for acquiring personal, individual meaning and joy in life?

Also,

Though moral, therapeutic deism takes the guts out of preaching, truth, smothered by therapeutic mush and self-pitying theodicy, will rise.

 


Theology in Congregational Polity

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"We have come to declare what we believe about God," so proclaimed Rev. Traci Blackmon during the opening worship of the United Church of Christ General Synod.  And we were down to work to do just that. Committees gathered this afternoon in educational intensives to learn about the issues addressed in the resolutions assigned to them.   This is how the theological work of the church is accomplished.

I'm in committee #14 and we were assigned the resolution on studying gun violence as a public health emergency.  When we arrived for our educational intensive we learned that we had also been assigned the late resolution on climate change, reacting to the President withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.

These resolutions were joined together because both cited John 18:37-38 in their theological rationale.  Both were about speaking truth.  In one case, public health researchers are not empowered to pursue the truth regarding gun violence and in the other, climate change and the moral imperatives of the moment are denied.

The climate change resolution was targeted to what we as the church should do, most importantly what we should proclaim. This is a resolution about the power of preaching, the effectiveness of the spoken word of God to advance God’s mission upon the earth.  And the committee discussion swirled around precisely these points, why the author, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister, had written the resolution this way instead of within the more expected theological framework of our stewardship of creation or God’s sovereignty.

And so we debated.  What were the best words to express our consensus?  Someone would raise a question or critique and the room would move toward them to accommodate them.  Then, someone else would make another point, and we’d move toward them.  And we’d try to keep everyone’s point-of-view included. So, for an example.

In lines 74-75 of the climate resolution, one somewhat conservative member of the Massachusetts conference didn’t like the reference to the administration or the use of the verb will, which seemed to speak for and not to the church (which is what Synod does).  He proposed new wording, that was probably fine with most of us.  Then, someone said they thought his wording wasn’t quite strong enough, so they proposed “any administration” in order to make the resolution not simply a response to Trump.  Many of us weren’t sure about this recommendation.

Then a pastor from rural Ohio spoke.  She had preached on this issue in her conservative congregation.  She needed the denomination to include the political reference because it supported her preaching.  Yes, we were in this committee discussing the role of the spoken word of God to speak truth.

And so we were soon bogged down in multiple wordings of the sentence, so I worked out what I hoped would be wording that kept everyone at the table.  The committee chair, who did an excellent job the whole session, appeared a little frustrated that I wanted to offer another option to the already bewildering array of choices.

My wording was “When the powers-that-be deny or obscure the truth, we followers of Jesus will proclaim the truth to protect our common home.”  Immediately many of the parties liked it.  The Ohio pastor wasn’t convinced it addressed her need.  But after some further discussion it was the overwhelming consensus of the body. 

Here, in theological, even Christological language, we had expressed our mission as the people of God.

And, this is how we do theology in the United Church of Christ, with God’s people talking with one another, learning from one another, holding each other in relationship.  Thereby we declare what we believe about God.


Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism

Who Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront RacismWho Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront Racism by William H. Willimon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Willimon speak on this issue at the Festival of Homiletics in May. He was angry and sassy and is so in the book. This is a vital text for preachers. A clarion call to preaching as God's weapon to defeat white supremacy.

Willimon tells the story of a lynching in his home county when he was one and how one local pastor preached about it. He uses this to explore the ongoing issues of white supremacy and its corruption of the church and gives encouragement and advice for how preachers must respond.

I'll post some quotes and details later.

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The New Abolition

The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social GospelThe New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After emancipation leaders in the Black church had to cope with new realities--segregation and lynching. This is the story of the generation that developed the Black Social Gospel and laid the groundwork for the liberation efforts of the Civil Rights generation of the middle twentieth century. Besides DuBois, many of the people covered in this volume are mostly unknown. And the stories of political struggles and personal relationships equal the stories of the early centuries of Christianity as the difficult but good work is done to create a theology relevant to the people.

The Black church may have saved Christianity by focusing our attention on the liberation of Jesus and expunging our modern theology of its inherent white supremacy. This is part of the story of how that happened.

I have only two complaints with the book. I did not like the organization. Chapters might cover 100 pages with chapter sections running to 30 pages. Better to break into more chapters. And the book was neither a linear chronology nor a series of foci on major figures but a strange blending of the two which was at times confusing to me.

The very final section includes a very good theological analysis of the cross in this tradition (borrowing heavily from James Cone). I wish the author had included more theological reflection like this throughout the volume.

Overall, a magisterial work and well worth the months of effort I put into it.

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