Theology Feed

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


"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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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."


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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


"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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The Bible is with the Poor

George Washington Woodbey
George Washington Woodbey,
 was  a black minister who ran for lieutenant governor of Nebraska in 1896. He later became a Socialist speaker and according to Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, "He got a movement going in Omaha, speaking every night in the streets and parks. A Nebraska comrade later told Socialist organizer A. W. Ricker, 'Omaha had never had the crowds that attended Woodbey's meetings.'" I'm intrigued to learn more about this chapter of Omaha history.

The Bible is loaded with normative ethical statements bearing on politics, Woodbey stressed.  More precisely, the Bible is loaded with Socialism.  Woodbey marshaled biblical texts opposing rent, interest, profits, love of money, and the exploitation of the poor.  Rent is a violation of the fundamental biblical principle that the earth was given to all of humankind as a home.  To violate the law of common ownership is to commit sin.  Socialism, Woodbey argued, was a modern political expression of the biblical right to cooperative ownership and control of the land.  In the Bible, the land belonged to God and the Israelites were tenants upon it.  In modern capitalism, a handful of "cunning" types stole possession of the earth to live off the labor of others. Woodbey contended that only Socialism came close to the biblical law suspending agricultural work in the seventh year and canceling all debts in the Jubilee fiftieth year. . . In biblical times, the aim of the Jubilee was to prevent huge debts from accumulating "for parasites to live upon from age to age, as they do today."

He even understood the connections between economics and environmentalism:

Isaiah 24 was another staple of Woodbey's street preaching.  Verse 5 pictured the earth lying polluted from the ravages of its inhabitants, who broke God's laws, violated the statutes, and broke the everlasting covenant.  To Woodbey, this text was mostly about economic injustice--the defilement of creation by economic greed.

Woodbey believed in open borders: "I am in favor of throwing the entire world open to the inhabitants of the world.  There are no foreigners, and cannot be, unless some person came down from Mars, or Jupiter, or some place."

Dorrien describes:

Woodbey spoke the same language about "new abolition" and "new emancipation" that the NAACP liberals used, but he insisted that emancipation had to cut deeper and wider, liberating the vast masses of the poor from poverty. America was supposed to be a democracy, but Congress and the courts defended the right of individual capitalists to own what the public needed. To Woodbey, there was little difference between the capitalist and slaveholder uses of government.  Both relied on government to protect their ostensible rights to dominate people lacking effective rights.

Dorrien writes that Woodbey grew frustrated with atheist Socialists and anti-Socialist Christians.  Woodbey proclaimed, "The Bible, in every line of it, is with the poor as against their oppressors."

Barbarities of Fundamentalism

Walter Francis White

Walter Francis White led the NAACP from 1931-1955.  He could pass for white and exploited that as an investigator.  As Gary Dorrien writes, he "undertook assignments in the South, passing for white to investigate lynchings.  Risking his life repeatedly, White investigated forty-one lynchings and eight race riots."

In 1929 he published Rope and Faggot: An Interview with Judge Lynch in which he concluded that "lynching mania could only have occurred in a Christian society."  He "equated racist terrorism with fundamentalism."  He wrote:

It is the Christian South, boasting of its imperviousness to the heretical doctrines of modernism, that mutilates and burns Negroes, barbarities unmatched in any other part of the world.

Note: Omaha had a horribly violent lynching in the early twentieth century.  Protestant Fundamentalism probably does not explain that lynching.

White wrote, "Baptist and Methodist preachers were the very best material for Klan organizers."

White grew up at First Congregational Atlanta.

"The Source of Power" was the last post in this series on The New Abolition by Gary Dorrien.

The Source of Power


"Until he started school at the age of seven," Gary Dorrien writes about Adam Clayton Powell, Senior, who was born in in 1865, "he had one piece of clothing, a shirt made of a bleached flour sack.  His bed was a bag filled with cornhusks. In decent crop years he ate corn and wheat; at other times he had to subsist on dried apples and black-eyed peas."  But he was whip smart.  On his first day of school, he memorized the alphabet.  He soon memorized the Gospel of John.

Powell characterized himself as a Progressive and not as a Fundamentalist or a Modernist.  Dorrien writes, "Progressives worshipped the biblical God of love and embraced the social gospel of Jesus without submitting to literalistic tests of orthodoxy."  He was known for bridging the divide between intellectual preaching and emotional worship and grew the churches he pastored.  Dorrien writes, "He was theologically liberal and evangelical, an exponent of biblical criticism and biblically centered, and politically pro-Washington and anti-Washington."

And also developed a wide array of church programs and ministries.  "To save a man is to get him out of a bad environment and to put him into a good one with Jesus Christ as his example, ideal, and inspiration."

"When you get a man into heaven, he is not worth anything more to his family and the world; but when you can get heaven into him, you have done a great deal for Christ and humanity."

Praying "with a heart cleansed of carnal rubbish, the little Ultimate Reality in [a person's] soul rises like the tide to meet the great Ultimate Reality, which is God, and he becomes conscious of the fact that he is in touch with the source of power."

During the onset of World War I he declared, "While we love our flag and country, we do not believe in fighting for protection of commerce on the high seas until the powers that be give us at least some verbal assurance that the property and lives of the members of our race are going to be protected on land from Maine to Mississippi."

Dorrien writes, "True patriotism, he preached, was love of one's country plus something higher--an unselfish devotion to the highest ethical and spiritual ideals."  Powell said, "Patriotism is not only a love for one's country and nation but a love for weak suffering people everywhere."

Powell advocated pressing for civil rights during the war, while other leaders like DuBois cautioned waiting.  Powell ultimately believed the war made things worse for black people.

He wanted Abyssinian Baptist Church to employ only black builders when they built their new building in Harlem, but they could not find enough.  He was angry and apologized for his attacks on Booker T. Washington's emphasis on industrial education.

Dorrien writes "If one proposed to follow Jesus, Powell urged, one had to take up the costly, fellow-suffering discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount."  It was this theme which deeply influence Dietrich Bonhoeffer who attended Powell's church while a student.  Given that this theme as worked out by Bonhoeffer has been one of the most influential in theology in the last century, it is far past time to give the source its due.

There is a disappointing paragraph in which Dorrien details Powell's homophobia.

In politics he wanted great leaders: "I am appealing for men who will get in touch with world currents and world movements, men with cosmopolitan spirits, men whose purview has been so broadened that they can say, 'The world is my country and all mankind my countrymen.'"  One sighs to think of our current leadership.

He was an early proponent of Gandhi, who of course came to influence the next two generations of African American civil rights leaders.

I was appalled by this statement of Powell's "Had not thousands of Negro ministers preached the meekness of Jesus to their people, they would have long ago suffered the tragic fate of the Indians."  What of the religious tradition of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey?

But I liked this one, "These spirituals are the finest revelation of the will and heart of God outside of the Bible."

As World War II began he said, "The greatest danger to the civilization of the United States is not Germany, Japan, or any other foreign country but the vitriolic hate which exists between the white and the colored living withing its borders.  This hatred is at an all-time high and is mounting higher every day."

Dorrien writes, "Powell stressed that he had been a hoodlum, so he knew what it felt like.  The church had saved him from a short, destructive, and meaningless life.  Now the church had to pour itself out for a generation of nihilistic wreckers."  Powell proclaimed, "Don't shoot them.  Don't send them to a reform school.  Don't brutalize them, but brotherize them."

During his 29 years pastoring Abyssinian Church, the congregation grew from 1600 to 14,000 members.  In a charge to his son and heir, Powell said:

Preach with all the power of your soul, body, and mind the old-time simple Gospel because it is a fountain for the unclean, food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, strength for the weak, a solace for the sorrowing, medicine for the sick, and eternal life for the dying.

"The Superior Individual" about Nannie H. Burroughs was the last post in this series.