John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
The following paper was presented at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD, in October, 1998.
To renew theological thinking in the church will not immediately end its statistical decline. It may even drive out some who are now members. But in the long run it would reinvigorate the church and develop a core of membership that can carry the church through its decline and provide a basis for new health and even growth.
Speaking here in the heart of Lutheran country, the question that is my title may not seem meaningful. There are so many healthy Lutheran congregations full of young adults, youth, and children, that the future of oldline churches does not seem in doubt. But the sections of the country in which this is true are shrinking. In California, where I live, the question hits us in the face every time we go to church. We notice both that the congregation is smaller than it once was and also that the average age is much older. There is every reason to suppose that the statistical declines we have already experienced will become steeper as the people of my generation die.
Unfortunately, as we project the future, the situation in California is likely to be more predictive than the one in South Dakota. California reflects in extreme form what the nation as a whole is becoming. In California the population grows, and some forms of Christianity flourish, but the oldline denominations shrink and age. Apparently they were deeply meaningful to my generation, less so to our children, and almost off the map of real options for our grandchildren. Looking with California eyes at the South and the Midwest, where these denominations continue to flourish, one sees there also the seeds of decay.
Perhaps the decline of these denominations is not a calamity. Perhaps we should simply accept that Protestantism is taking new forms in our day. My own denomination, the United Methodist, came into existence in the eighteenth century, helped to bring the gospel to the frontier in this country, took the gospel around the world, and devoted itself at home and abroad to realizing the social meaning of that gospel. Perhaps, it has performed its functions in the providence of God.
There is no Christian reason why my denomination should survive forever. Perhaps our efforts to prolong its life show that we care more about our institution than about God’s purposes in the world. Perhaps much the same can be said of some other oldline Protestant denominations.
On the other hand, I am not cheered by the prospect of the demise of the oldline churches. They have played a role that no others, at present, are prepared to assume. We have both proclaimed the gospel and been attentive to new knowledge and understanding. We have exposed ourselves to the intellectual developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that have raised fundamental questions about our inherited teachings, and we have rethought much in light of these questions.
We have also adjusted to the reality of religious pluralism. We have recognized the values of other religious traditions and accepted our place as one among others. We have promoted interfaith dialogue and entered into interfaith cooperation and joint work.
In short we have shown that Christian faith is a real possibility for persons who are richly informed and deeply sensitive. To be a Christian does not require a leap away from thought and knowledge. Indeed, it requires of us a quest for truth and for righteousness that leads us continually into self-reformation. We do not see this kind of commitment in the forms of Protestantism that clearly do have a future. Is it not important to avoid the identification of Christianity only with forms that perpetuate ideas and practices that cannot withstand criticism in terms of either the advances of modern thought or the norms we derive from the gospel itself?
It is for such reasons that I, as one who has benefited so much from the work of the oldline churches, ask the question of their future. Must we simply accept their continuing decline and marginalization? Or could they, despite reduced numbers and resources, find an ongoing place in American society from which their distinctive contribution can be made vigorously and faithfully?
To answer this question we will first look at the sociological conditions that contributed for many generations to the influential role of these denominations in American society. I will identify only a few factors that are now eroding.
First, the frontier was ripe for evangelization, and some of what we now call the oldline denominations were in position to respond. Evangelization was at the same time civilization. Those on the frontier needed this civilization, and they were prepared to accept the leadership fo the Protestant denominations in this task. Strong loyalties were established.
Second, the communities that were established on the frontier tended to become stable and growing for several generations. The churches maintained a central role in their lives. The rites of passage into adulthood were adminsitered largely by the churches. Giving leadership in the churches was a major way of giving leadership in the larger community.
Third, other parts of the frontier were settled by ethnic enclaves. The major institution they brought with them from the old country was the church. As a result the church often played a much larger role in the lives of the settlers than it had played among them before they came. This was true of many Catholic groups, and it has been a far more important factor for Lutherans than the frontier revivals referred to above. We see the same phenomenon today among Koreans coming to the United States. Many who were not Christians while in Korea join Korean churches here, and the church often becomes central to their lives.
Fourth, the frontier leaders recognized the importance of education. The churches were the chief institutions capable of responding to this need. Education and churchmanship were closely connected in the popular mind. The colleges to which children were sent undertook to broaden their horizons and introduce them to a wider and deeper tradition. But they did not try to alienate them from their churches or from their piety. They aimed at a thoughtful faith and an informed piety. In many ways they insulated the churches from the more radical attacks of leading intellectuals in Europe.
When the controversy over evolution forced the churches to confront a basic problem in the relation of faith and science, Christians were divided. But on the whole, the oldline churches supported the right of scientists to advance human knowledge even when that required revisions of Christian teaching. They were more committed to responsible openness than to unchanging formulations of the gospel.
I have listed sociological factors favorable to the oldline churches that are now eroding. The churches are no longer perceived as a major factor in civilizing society. Stable communities are now rare. European ethnic enclaves have diminishing need to maintain their separate identity. And the church colleges that undertook to hold faith and learning together are now a minor factor in higher education with lessened commitment to faith.
There is a natural transition here to what I call theological factors in the decline. More people in the oldline churches are exposed to the corrosive effects of modern thought on the confidence of faith. Much less of higher education supports the integration of faith and learning. Accordingly, whatever is done to achieve this integration must now be done in the churches and their remaining institutions, especially the seminaries.
Meanwhile a whole new wave of criticism has swept over the churches. Often in the past the objections were directed to central Christian beliefs about God and about Christ, because of their incredibility in the modern world. In most instances, basic Christian values were affirmed, and there was some acknowledgment of the positive role of the church in the society. But in the past fifty years, Christianity has been blamed, with some justification, for the Holocaust, for participating in colonial oppression, for arrogance in dealing with other communities of faith, for ecological destruction, for cruelty to animals, for oppression of women, for repression of the body and its sexuality, for suppressing the voices of minority groups and thus participating in their oppression, for the persecution of gays and Lesbians, and many other crimes. Often Christian scholars have led in these criticisms. The oldline churches have been placed on the defensive morally as well as intellectually.
On most of these points the oldline churches have confessed their guilt and have undertaken to repent. To repent means to change course. In each instance repentance requires rethinking of traditional teaching as well as change in church practices.
In most instances, we can find individual Christian thinkers who have analyzed the problems and have proposed new formulations of Christian doctrine that carry through the needed repentance. That oldline churches could move forward, purged and renewed by authentic repentace has been demonstrated. But this remains true only in principle. It could happen in actuality only as hundreds of thousands of members of oldline churches faced the criticisms, studied the responses, and internalized ways of remaining faithful with full integrity.
This is not happening. Just as the need for theological reflection in the churches has grown, adult education has declined in both quantity and quality. On the whole, it functions not to confront believers with the greatest challenges of our day but to protect and reassure them as believers. Whereas in thousands of towns and villages in this country the church was once a center of adult education, now it has been marginalized, and it further marginalizes itself even with respect to its own members. They look elsewhere for their education even with regard to questions of religious belief.
In short, repentance has gone only half-way. We all regret the role of Chrsitian teaching in creating the anti-Judaism that expressed itself climactically in the Holocaust. We all try to avoid perpetuating that anti-Judaism. But few of us have dealt reflectively with all that this entails. Accordingly, even though we emphatically reject calling Jews “Christ-killers”, we continue to give most of our members the impression that “the Jews” of Jesus’ day rejected Jesus and were responsible for his crucifixion. Even though we do not engage in missions of conversion directed toward the Jews, our normal teaching about salvation continues to imply that those who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior are not saved. A few do know that it is possible to confess Christ as our Lord and Savior in a way that does not invalidate the salvation of the Jews through their convenant with God. But few have been helped by their churches to think this through.
The general impression remains that if one is a full-fledged, unqualified Christian, one will hold to an exclusivist understanding of salvation. Yet many people who have friends of other faiths do not believe that they are damned. They continue to identify themselves as Christians, but now qualifying their connection to Christian faith. They cannot be whole-hearted about it, since they suppose that being whole-hearted would lead them to an exclusivism they reject.
The consequence is that the oldline churches do not inculcate strong convictions. Their thoughtful members are more aware of the problems with the Christian beliefs that inform their liturgy, creeds, and hymns than of solutions offered by Christian thinkers. They find reasons to continue to be supportive and active, but they are reluctant, or perhaps unable, to encourage others to share Christian beliefs that they themselves find problematic. Even their children are unlikely to be inspired to shape their lives according to these beliefs. As social pressure to take part in church life diminishes, they are likely to drift away.
As the future of the institution becomes more uncertain, its leaders typically become more cautious. Controversy seems ever more threatening. To avoid controversy is to avoid facing theological issues. It becomes increasingly difficult to introduce theological discussion into congregations.
There is a tendency to blame the decline of the church on the changes it has made to adjust to new knowledge and sensitivity. One remembers the good old days when we proclaimed Christ without the qualifications introduced by sensitivity to implications for Jews. One remembers when one could read and speak in patriarchal language without embarrassment. One remembers when moral teachings about sexual behavior were unambiguous and emphatic. And one supposes that it would be better to return to a time like that. Such repentance as the church has implemented is criticized, and calls for further repentance, for example, for our exclusion and condemnation of gays and Lesbians, are met with stronger opposition. In short, the oldline churches are becoming less able or willing to assimilate new understanding and repent of their sins.
Yet the only form of the oldline church that is worth preserving is the one that is open to all truth and ready to reformulate its faith in light of new learning. Such a church is ready to change its practice to conform to new understanding, but it must do so as a faithful response to the gospel, not as compromise with the world. This can happen authentically only through continuous rethinking and reappropriation of its heritage. In short, it is a major theological undertaking. And theology fades away from the life of our denominations. The situation is not promising.
So we must ask again, do the oldline churches have a future? If, in order to survive, they transform themselves into the patterns successfully developed by other Protestant movements, then the answer is No. That would be the abandonment of their role, not its fulfilment. They would survive then only in name, not in mission or true identity.
The sociological forces that have weakened the oldline churches are unlikely to change. The sprawling suburbs are not like the frontier. Neither are the inner cities. Sociologically speaking, both respond better to forms of Chrstianity that are not ours. Established communities are fewer and fewer as the economic system and modern transportation increase mobility. Ethnic enclaves of groups from Western Europe will be less and less important. Higher education in general is unlikely to help us bring faith and learning together. The oldline churches will not be renewed by sociological trends!
Nevertheless, in this new situation interest in spirituality and in communities of shared convictions has not declined. Indeed, it seems to have burgeoned. As established, culturally supported religious practices and traditional communities have weakened, many people feel the need for some way of dealing with their inner stress and emptiness. Many also feel the need of new forms of community, often for a community based on shared beliefs and lifestyles.
The hunger for spirituality and the hunger for community with those who share convictions that provide direction for life are often found in different people. Some want meditational disciplines to order their inner lives without the constraints of committed involvement with others. Others are prepared to surrender their individual determination of their lives if they can find community support and authoritative leadership.
The interest in individual spirituality has been responded to most widely by meditational practices coming from South and East Asia. In some instances these also draw people into groups in which there is much mutual support. In some of these instances the groups go on to take responsibility for the wider society, engaging in work for peace and the environment, for example. The movement of socially-engaged Buddhists among American converts to Buddhism is particularly impressive.
The most effective responses to the need for faith-based communities has come from conservative Protestants. Some are Pentecostal, others are not. Both offer opportunities for study and fellowship and clear guidance for daily life. They do not deal with intellectual problems or global responsibility, but they provide practical direction with a clear sense of right and wrong. They create communities of mutual support and reinforcement of the basic teachings. They tend to depict the larger community and its ideas more as threats than as sources of new insight. They rarely discuss the criticisms that have been directed against practices stemming from traditional Christianity.
The proper role for oldline churches is not that of criticizing these responses to popular needs. Our task is to devise better ones. We may deeply respect the meditational practices of India and China and admire the results that issue from them, but they do not express the wisdom of Israel as transmitted to us in our Bible. That wisdom also offers ways to still the restlessness of the soul and to find an inner peace that passes understanding.
The route to this peace is not so much through meditational disciplines that lead to unusual states of consciousness, although they need not be excluded, but through a widening of concern that brings an end to the tension between our personal good and the good of the whole. In short, the spiritual discipline most central for Christians is coming to love the neighbor as we love ourselves. The goal is to reach the point where our petition that God’s basileia come, that God’s purposes be realized on earth as they are in heaven, becomes our most authentic prayer.
Unlike the usual presentation of Asian meditation and its goals, the Christian knows that this expansion of concern is the work of grace. But Christians have always rejected the passivism that could arise from some formulations of this knowledge. Grace works as we are open to its working, and we are open to its working as we are opened by grace. Such attainment as results is not our doing, but it happens, all the same, in and through our practice.
Christians know that a love for others that is not distorted by self-concern is, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, an “impossible possibility”. But it is not an irrelevant goal. We can grow in genuine caring for others. What matters most to us can become changes that are relatively indifferent to our private wellbeing. For example, we may come to care about the release of others from degrading poverty, the ending of war, or the preservation of the life-support systems of the planet in ways that are relatively separate from any gains to us personally. Or, better, we may come to define our personal gains so that they are not distinct from these gains of humanity and the Earth.
Some of the practices of Christian spirituality can be conducted individually and privately. One may spend time in prayer, asking God’s blessing on others, especially on those one is tempted to dislike. One may spend time asking God to help one understand the distorting role of one’s own ego even in such prayers. One may spend time simply seeking to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit within one.
But the Christian also knows that one is bound up with other believers. Together we constitute one body of which Christ is the head. To seek to love others as oneself without embodying that love in working and worshipping together with others who are on the same quest does not work. We need one another. We are members of one another. Truly to love others is to love them in the messiness of these relationships, not in the security of privacy. Committee meetings and shared actions are part of the practice of Christian spirituality.
Furthermore, if we truly come to care for the whole world, we cannot be satisfied to relate to it only in prayer and meditation. We need to act. But we cannot act significantly in isolation. We need to act with like minded people. We can be personally involved in a few ventures, but we need to be part of a movement that supports many others in diverse ventures, so that we can take part in healing the world on many fronts even while our own efforts are extremely limited. In short we need the church in order to express our love for the whole.
The Christian also knows that the power of self-deceit is such that we need the help of others to avoid it. How easy it is to believe that one has disinterested concern for world peace as one becomes active in organizations that work for it, when others see that we care a great deal about our role in the organization and gaining recognition for our efforts! How many noble causes are frustrated by quarrels that express the narrow interests of the parties more than genuine differences in belief about how to move forward! Purely private disciplines, at least those of the Christian sort, do not protect us adequately from contributing to these distortions. We need to hear how others, who genuinely love us, perceive what we are doing. Again, we need the church.
We can move from the side of meeting the needs for faith-based community as well. Whereas the danger of many of the responses to the hunger for spirituality is that they are too individualistic and even privatistic, the danger of many of the responses to the hunger for community is that they threaten the personal integrity of those whose needs they meet. A healthy response by the oldline churches would not do this.
The emptiness of isolated existence and the meaningless of a life that has no goals besides individual gain opens people to accept the authority of those who promise answers in exchange for conformity and obedience. The church, historically, has no doubt taken advantage of people’s need to gain such conformity and obedience. This may be true of our oldline denominations as well.
But on the whole we have also respected the freedom of conscience of our members and encouraged their personal development. We have held that people should identify with us as their own reflection leads them to share our ideas and our goals. We have tried to explain these persuasively, but not to gain acquiescence through pressure or coercion. The community we want is of diverse individuals, each exercising personal freedom, and supporting one another in that exercise. Of course, this works only as long as these individuals cherish one another and the community among them and are willing to work collectively to achieve goals none can achieve alone.
For such a community to be a Christian church, it must find its unity in Christ. This means both that all acknowledge Christ as their Lord and Savior but also that all measure their individual lives and their shared work by the understanding of God’s purposes they receive through Christ. But the authority of Christ is not a restrictive one. Christ’s power is the power that empowers, not the power that compels. Participation in the body of which Christ is the head makes one more free, not less.
My argument here is that the traditions of the oldline churches at their best do offer a powerful spirituality and a faith-based community that, in principle, constitute an adequate response to the continuing hungers of our culture. It is not that, if we did our job, other responses would be superseded. There are many who want a spirituality that is purely private and does not involve them with others. There are many who want to be freed from the responsibilities that accompany authentic freedom. But I am convinced that there are also many who would respond with joy and relief if the potentialities of the oldline traditions were actualized in our congregations. Indeed, I believe that where we find vital congregations today, there are many who are finding in them something of what I describe.
Nevertheless, there is a large gap between what I am describing and the reality of most of our congregations. I have described communities of persons who find their unity in Christ and are helped to develop a fully Christian spirituality. That would mean that their Christian identity is primary.
Unfortunately, that cannot be taken for granted today in our oldline churches. Many members are businessmen, or professionals, or workers for whom their status as Christians is a second, third, or fourth consideration. Some are primarily committed to good citizenship, and regard the church as one valuable contributor to the community for which they care. For them, to be a Christian may mean little more than to be a Rotarian or a Republican. The church is simply one of the institutions they support. Others are nationalists first, and support the church only as it is a means of advancing nationalist goals. Others have their ideology shaped by economic theories supporting the global market economy, and judge Christian teaching according to its conformity to that. Still others think of the local congregation as bound up with their family history, and, for the sake of their ancestors, continue to take part.
To the extent that the oldline churches are shaped by a membership that is not decisively committed to Christ, they cannot respond well to the challenge they face to. Such people can hardly engage in reflecting on how Christian faith illuminates the issues faced by the church. If answers arise in such reflection that conflict with their primary identities and loyalties, they may leave the church. A church already declining in membership and resources feels in cannot afford to lose such members.
But this is a vicious circle. If we cannot afford to reflect seriously about the meaning of Christian faith in relation to new issues that confront us, Christian faith ceases to be the central organizing principle of our thinking and living. We must turn to other guides for much of our being. Christ inevitably becomes one Lord among others. By failing to engage our members in serious reflection about the meaning of their faith, the number for whom commitment to Christ is central inevitably continues to decline.
I have said the task is a theological one, but in calling for reflection about the meaning of Christ for new challenges, I have not used that word. The term has become a turn-off for most laity and many pastors. If theology is to be renewed as a central part of church life, we must face the question of why it has been marginalized.
One reason is the broad anti-intellectualism of our society. Many people suppose that it is how one behaves that is important, not what one believes. But we should recognize that that itself is a belief the consequences of which are vast and troubling. It is true, of course, as Jesus taught in the parable of the two sons, that it is better to do God’s will after saying one will not than to fail to do it after saying that one will. It is also true that we can test the worth of beliefs by their fruits. Practice is immensely important.
But we should frontally attack the anti-intellectualism that dismisses beliefs as unimportant. It is simply false. Behavior is deeply influenced by beliefs, for good and for ill. Much of the greatest suffering in human history has been caused by people acting as their deepest beliefs dictated they should act.
If we go back in our Christian history to the age of the Fathers of the Church, we find good examples. It was great Christian saints, such as Chrysostom, who contributed most to the anti-Judaism that has poisoned so much of our history. There is no reason to question his sincerity. He spoke and acted out of his positive beliefs about the centrality of Jesus Christ.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux contributed greatly to the Christian fervor that led to crusades against the Muslims in the Holy Land. It would be hard to doubt his sincerity. He acted in terms of central Christian beliefs. But the suffering both of the Crusaders and of their victims was enormous.
In more recent times, as belief in the greatness of their nations has become the central motive for so many people, one can cite innumerable instances of the evil consequences of such beliefs. Wars among England, France, and Germany have dominated much of the history of modern Europe and sucked in much of the rest of the world. The imposition of their rule throughout much of the planet also expressed the belief in the greatness of their cultures and the importance of affirming their national glory.
Today many act sincerely for the good of the poor in promoting global capitalism. They genuinely believe that this is the salvation of the world. But those who see the results in the actual lives of people everywhere are painfully aware of the enormous suffering caused by acting on these beliefs. As long as the beliefs are intact, this suffering is hard to acknowledge.
At present our denominations are torn apart by the struggle over homosexuality. It would be foolish to suppose that most of the advocates of the opposed positions are insincere, that their beliefs are unimportant. Some deeply believe that homosexuality is contrary to the intentions of God as expressed in creation itself and as reinforced in scattered references in the Bible. Others deeply believe that the love expressed in Christ demands that the church be inclusive of those whom society excludes and affirming of all regardless of their sexual orientation. For them, such inclusion and affirmation cannot be conditional on lifelong abstinence from sexual intimacy. These differences of belief threaten to tear some of our oldline denominations apart.
The healthy response to such deep divisions would be serious shared theological reflection among persons whose deepest commitments are to Christ. That would entail a genuine effort to find the mind of Christ rather than to justify deeply held beliefs by appealing to Christ. In a community in which such theological reflection was well established, discussion would be genuinely fruitful. But today we do not have the habit of such conversation. We move quickly to arguments that express views that have been shaped by other forces and only subsequently grounded in theology.
Thus far I have blamed the anti-intellectualism of our culture in which the churches share for the inability to respond well to the crises of our time. But the blame falls equally on those of us who are professional theologians. We have defined “theology” as an academic discipline and thus removed it from the church.
This was not done by people of ill will or by those indifferent to the church. It was done by those who cared deeply for the faith and saw the seriousness of the threats coming from changes in the intellectual context. Schleiermacher played an early role. Theology had long been the queen of the sciences, but in the modern world, it was dethroned. It was in danger of being excluded from the university. The irrelevance of Christian thinking to the contemporary scene, already charged against the churches, would be confirmed. Schleiermacher saw to it that theology would be a continuing part of the modern German university.
In the German scene, the identification of Christian theology as an academic discipline did not separate it far from the church. The ministers, at least, were well schooled in theology as a central part of their education. They might not participate in the debates among the theological professors, but many of them kept up with these. Even laiety were involved to some extent. Thus the theological faculties could play the dual role of guiding the church’s thinking and engaging centrally in the life of the universities. German scholarship, including German theological scholarship, was the wonder of the world.
In the United States, also, in the nineteenth century theology as taught in universities remained close to the churches. As late as the first half of the twentieth century, college teachers of religion and seminary professors were often ministers who distinguished themselves by their reflectiveness and scholarly habits. The issues they discussed in higher education were not far separated from those that were of concern in congregations.
But after World War II the situation changed. There had long been admiration for German scholarship, and a number of professors well before that time did much of their study in Germany. They brought back to the United States a knowledge of the German tradition that showed up the simplicity and naivete of much that had transpired in this country. As seminaries expanded dramatically after World War II, their most distinguished and influential faculty looked to German scholarship. The history of modern theology that they taught was basically the history of German nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology.
At that time this culminated in what was broadly called Neo-orthodoxy. The spectrum of German-language positions from Barth and Brunner to Bultmann and Tillich defined the choices for American seminary students. If the story of American theology was taught at all, it was as a minor elective. To take this seriously was a sign of lack of sophistication.
This introduced a break between theology and the American churches. For a while the excitement of the German debate swept up a good many pastors, so that there was some theological ferment among them. But it was extremely difficult for them to relate the German debates, highly relevant to church life in Germany, to their American congregations. Lay people might be willing to study theology, but the theology they studied did not arise out of their own experience or clearly relate to it. For American Christians, theology had been redefined as an academic discipline with only tenuous relations to their individual or ecclesiastical experience.
American theologians continued to have a significant role to play. The history of European thought in relation to which they posed their problems and did their research was shared by other scholars and intellectuals. These could not look to the churches for serious grappling with this important history, but academic theologians could participate respectably in intellectual discourse. This is important for the future of Christianity.
Although I believe that it is the grafting of the work of American theologians on the history of German, or Central European, theology that has most clearly defined the meaning of theology, and its irrelevance to the average American Christian, this is not the only role played by professional theologians. For example, some have devoted attention to the history of their own denominations, often with special emphasis on their founders. The churches find these scholars useful when they make official statements or engage in interchurch conversations. Among Lutherans, I believe, this kind of theology plays an exceptionally large role, whereas it is peripheral among United Methodists.
But even this kind of theology separates it from the lives o church people. Only those who can engage in careful historical study can participate in it. Church people may listen with interest to the results, and may be able to apply some of them. But it is someone else’s work, that of someone with scholarly authority, that they are applying. It would not make sense to have lay people engage in a debate about the details of Luther’s teaching. This kind of theology remains an academic discipline in which a Christian can participate only by extensive specialization in academia.
There is a deep irony here. In the initiation of Protestantism there was great concern that the basis for theological reflection, the Bible, be available to all believers. Implicit faith, that is, the acceptance of the authority of others to determine what one believed, was not enough. Christians were to form and formulate their own convictions. This applied to lay and clergy alike.
On this point, surely the Reformers were correct. Yet for fifty years we have acquiesced in the professionalization of theology, leaving most Christians either with naive and unexamined notions or an implicit faith in what the church teaches. It is this abandonmnet of a cardinal principle of the Reformation that I blame most for the decay of our oldline denominations.
Can we change this? If changing this meant introducing all Christians to the history of professional theology, then we cannot. If it meant studying the history of their denominations and the thought of their founders sufficiently to participate in debates about these, then we cannot. But theology does not have to mean either of these academic activities, valuable as they are in themselves.
That is why, for me, the redefinition of theology is so crucial. My redefinition is radical against the background of recent professional theology, but not in relation to what theology has meant in the overall history of the church, and especially of Protestantism. I define “theology” as “intentional Christian thinking about important matters.” I believe all serious Christians can be theologians in this sense, and that being a theologian is a part of the vocation of all Christians.
To unpack the definition, I will begin with the last phrase. It is intentionally open-ended. Some issues are important to some Christians and not to others. For those for whom they are important, intentional Christian reflection about them is theology. Of course, this is a matter of degree. The definition suggests that it is best for theological thinking to concentrate on the most important matters as judged by an individual or by a group collectively.
The topics of theology, then, may well be God, Christ, and the church. These are indeed important matters. But the topics may also be urgent ethical issues such as human rights, medical care, abortion, environmental protection, or world peace. Or they may be highly theoretical topics such as the ideology that supports global capitalism. One very important change needed in the way theology is understood is recovery of the great breadth of topics treated in classical theology. Psychological, social, political, and economic questions are not less theological than are God, Christ, and the church. Lay Christians may contribute more on many of these theological topics than clergy or academic theologians.
For reflection on any of these topics to be Christian theology, the reflection must be intentionally Christian. It is not enough that the thinker be a Christian. Sometimes because of the thinker’s Christian faith, what is thought about these topics is influenced by that faith. But the ability to compartmentalize is enormous. When a Christian has been socialized through graduate education into an academic discipline, the influence of faith in the reflection that follows is often exceedingly marginal. However sincere that Christian’s faith, what she or he says will not be theology.
That is why it is so important to understand that theology is intentionally Christian thinking. When one is reflecting about a psychological, sociological, political, or economic issue intentionally as a Christian, one submits one’s judgments to Christ. That does not mean, at least if one understands Christ as I do, that one takes the established facts less seriously or is less concerned to be fair and honest in dealing with them. Quite the contrary. It does not mean that one’s thinking will be less disciplined than that which makes up the academic “disciplines”.
On the other hand, it is likely to mean that one is critical of the thinking done in established disciplines. It may mean that one presses harder for the assumptions underlying a discipline and engages those assumptions critically. It may mean greater suspicion of disciplinary claims to objectivity. It may mean more attention to the subjectivity of the people who are studied and whose fate is being decided. It may mean that one brings understanding from one discipline to bear on decisions made in another. It will certainly mean that one brings questions and insight formulated out of the wisdom of the Bible and the Christian tradition to bear.
Engaging the academic disciplines and the professions is an important role for lay Christians, especially those who are involved in those disciplines and professions. But there are other questions that are more accessible. Many Christians are perplexed about how to understand the relation of Christ to Jews or Buddhists. They can begin their intentional Christian thinking there. Others are troubled that so often it is good people, sincere believers, who suffer. They can begin their thinking there. Others may wonder about the efficacy of prayer. They can begin their thinking there. Still others ask what happens to us at death. They can begin their thinking there.
Whether one has read what others have written on any of these topics is not the first consideration. One can articulate whatever opinions one holds and examine them as to whether they are conformal to the mind of Christ. One can also examine how one seeks to identify the mind of Christ and become critical about that method as well. In this way one can become a responsible theologian without benefit of the opinion of others. Becoming a good theologian is quite different from becoming a good scholar.
Nevertheless, we need one another. The questions of others help us to see problems with our thinking. The opinions of others cause us to rethink. The perception of others can help us to see where we are not making clear and honest connections. Theology works best as a group project.
Furthermore, we can benefit greatly from the work of scholars. Learning something of the history of the discussion of our topic widens and clarifies our issues. It can point out the limitations of our own solutions and suggest new avenues of thinking. Encountering solutions proposed by theologians can also stimulate and challenge. In short, intentional Christian thinking among all Christians can build bridges to professional theologians. It may be surprising how many of them will happily cross the bridges to join the broader theological task.
To renew theological thinking in the church will not immediately end its statistical decline. It may even drive out some who are now members. But it is my conviction that in the long run, and even in the relatively short run it would reinvigorate the church and develop a core of membership that can carry the church through its decline and provide a basis for new health and even growth. The kind of churches that would emerge would carry forward the best of the tradition of the oldline churches. These churches would have a future.