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The Disappearance of Theology from the Oldline Churches

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

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 cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by permission of the author, November, 2000.


The title assumes a particular meaning of "theology," but not one that requires a narrow and precise definition. What has disappeared is the serious activity of faith seeking understanding or self-consciously Christian reflection on important issues. "Disappearance" also requires explanation. It cannot mean that no members of these churches engage in theology. I, for one, try to do so, and I am certainly not alone. It means, instead, that theology no longer plays an important role in the life of these churches. It exists on the periphery, tolerated, but not employed in making basic decisions. By "oldline churches" I mean, of course, those churches that once considered themselves "mainline." They continue to serve a large segment of middle America. What I have to say may apply to some other churches in some respects, but I emphatically do not have the Korean churches or the Black churches or the conservative evangelical churches or the charismatic churches in mind as I write.

By churches I mean both the congregations and the bureaucracies, hierarchies, and conferences through which they govern themselves as denominations. For convenience, I am not including the seminaries. However, the disppearance of theology from the churches is partly the result of its decline in the seminaries, and partly the cause of that decline. Theology was relegated to professional specialists, and increasingly it is abandoned by them as well.

The rise of "religious studies" has played its role in limiting the place of theology. This label refers to the kind of study of religious phenomena that is normative in departments of religion in most universities and many colleges. It brings to bear on these phenomena methods that have been developed by anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and historians. The data studied are both contemporary religious life and the history of religions. Although this approach was honed in secular universities so as to fit the general ideology of the university, it now dominates much graduate education in religion, so that many of the doctoral students from whom seminaries draw their faculties are educated in this way.

A second important approach has replaced some of the kind of theology I have identified. This is thinking about the Christian faith and the church in the interest of the liberation of particular oppressed groups. Some of those who do this remain theological in my sense. It is as Christians that they call for liberation. But for others the commitment to liberation is primary and Christian teaching and communities are employed for the sake of this liberation.

A third activity that has drawn off a good deal of energy from theology is the critique of the Christian heritage. This can be closely related to either of the first two approaches, but it can also be distinguished from them. The criticism may be aroused by the awareness of the depth of anti-Jewish teaching in the tradition and its continuing power for evil. Or it may be that the long history of repression of the body and its sexuality excites criticism. This criticism can come about in the context of faith seeking understanding, and in this case it characteristically moves on to repentance and theological change. But much of it does not understand itself or present itself in this theological way.

A fourth nontheological style of work in seminaries is devoted to the advancement of the traditional academic disciplines. The work of many Biblical scholars, for example, is shaped much more by the state of their discipline and the sense of what its new methods can learn than by the Christian faith of the scholars. Christian identity is largely bracketed in this process, so that it is emphatically not a requirement for participation in the academic guild. Obviously, then, the work of these scholars is not theology as I have defined it.

Theology as faith seeking understanding or intentionally Christian reflection on important questions is largely relegated to the professors of systematic theology. Some of these continue to pursue the task vigorously, but others devote more of their time to studying and teaching the thought of other theologians or sharing in some of the approaches listed above. Some devote themselves to defending classical positions without clarifying what these mean for life and action in a very different world. The work of faith seeking understanding, especially if we think of this as the kind of faith that operates in the mainstream of the oldline churches, is at the periphery of seminary teaching.

Much the same point could be made if "theology" were defined more literally as reflection about God. Religious studies and the Biblical and historical disciplines employ only those methods and approaches that are approved within the university. They cannot, therefore, speak of God. Of course, they can talk about what is said about God by those people or texts they study. But they cannot themselves affirm anything about God. For the university God is not an explanatory factor in what happens in the world. Scholars in these fields may share their private beliefs at times, but they cannot allow these to influence their teaching.

Those who are primarily committed to liberation or criticism are themselves in some tension with the university norms. They are not excluded from affirmations about God, but they are much more likely to concern themselves with images of God or language about God than with God. Hence, once again, the direct task of theology is left to the systematic theologians, and not all of these are comfortable to take it up. To affirm God and to think of God as in any way explanatory of events in the world is to place oneself outside the university ethos, the ethos accepted by so many of the theologian's colleagues. On the other side, if the theologian takes serious account of the many reasons that God is excluded from the university, her or his work is not likely to be well-received in the church.

Since so little of the scholarly and intellectual work of the faculties of theology is geared to the service of the church, it is not surprising that the church takes little interest in this work. Scholars largely write for one another and for the students to whom they assign their books. They do not expect any continuing interest once the students have graduated and become pastors. The chief exception to this in recent times is among women pastors, some of whom do keep up with the work of feminist scholars and theologians.

Having relegated theology to the professionals, and finding their work of little interest, the church has given up on theology. The dominant attitude is one of suspicion. In any case, since few church leaders or pastors read the writings of their faculties of theology, they prefer to assure themselves that they are not missing anything of value. This fits well with the anti-intellectualism so characteristic of much of our culture.

Preaching is largely based on popular psychology and common sense. This is suffused with a pious ethos and some traditional Christian rhetoric. It is designed to reassure and motivate rather than to stimulate thought about what it means to be a Christian in our complex time.

Denominational leaders make their decisions largely in terms of the wellbeing of the institutions they lead. Serious reflection about what the Christian faith calls these institutions to do and be is rare. Certainly, ethical considerations and compassion for individuals play a role. But on the whole good management practices are prized more than theology. And when Christian beliefs are explicitly appealed to, one suspects rationalization rather than theological reflection.

Pastors and denominational leaders work together to protect the lay membership from controversy. This reenforces the marginalization of theology, since latent beliefs about what the faith is vary greatly. The result is that lay people normally learn about controversial matters only through the secular press.

Three examples will suffice. The oldline churches are ecumenical in spirit and support the work of the World Council of Churches. Nevertheless few lay people learn through their churches about the work of this Council. Hence, when they read an expose of the World Council in Readers Digest they feel betrayed. The denominational and pastoral response is to soothe their feelings and relapse into silence.

On the whole academic professionals are content with the gap between themselves and the churches since it guarantees minimal interference. However, a few are distressed that lay Christians are kept in the dark with respect to what is happening in the study of Christianity in the university and even with respect to the general intellectual and cultural character of the present age. One of these professionals was Thomas Altizer who wrote a book with the shocking title of The Gospel of Christian Atheism and then cultivated the public media. The book itself was little read, but Time magazine featured "the death of God" on its cover and the church was not able to conceal from its members that the dominant cultural community no longer affirmed the reality and activity of God. Considerable public discussion ensued, but little of it took place within the churches. Their role was to assure the faithful that the problem was not serious.

Currently the churches have a similar opportunity to open up discussion which, in general, they again treat as a threat. Robert Funk has organized many of his New Testament colleagues into the Jesus Seminar whose function it is to package New Testament scholarship in a form that gains secular media attention. Thus far it seems that the churches will pay as little attention to the ensuing discussion as possible because of the fear of its negative effects on the institution.

The oldline churches have paid, and continue to pay, a high price for their abandonment of theology. Lay people no longer look to the church for guidance in most of their affairs. These include ethical decisions, family life, and even spirituality. One wonders what role is left to the church! Young people growing up in the church sense how restricted its contribution has become and are not persuaded of its importance. They may have nothing against it, but large numbers of them see no reason to continue their parents' loyalty. The major reason for the decline of the oldline churches in numbers is their inability to hold most of their children once they have reached the age for making their own decisions.

When the churches can no longer avoid controversy by smoothing things over, the positions that emerge in debate have little relation to the Christian faith. Instead, they simply reflect the deep divisions in the culture. When the churches establish commissions which engage in thorough and conscientious study, the general membership is unaffected by their arguments. Since their commitments are not in fact based on faith seeking understanding, the understanding that emerges from faith is of little interest to them. They care only whether their side wins.

The current debates on homosexuality illustrate this point. The church avoided serious reflection about sexuality as long as it could. It knew this would be controversial. Not having encouraged lay people to reflect about their faith on any topic, they are now forced to call for such reflection on a peculiarly difficult and emotion-fraught subject. The results are painful. Since there has been no habit of reflection and no clarification of how Christians are to think about anything, Christians suppose that their gut feelings represent normative Christian teaching.

Most of the argument is little more than rationalization of these feelings.

Even so, for one who believes that without theology the church can only wither away, the present situation is hopeful. Since the issue of homosexuality will not go away, the church's usual response to controversial topics cannot be employed. It has to encourage its people to reflect as Christians. Unaccustomed as they are to this challenge, still some do respond. There is some possibility that church leaders will recognize that such reflection is needed on other topics as well, that a habit of theological reflection, and that alone, can provide a context in which new problems can be met in a healthy way. There is some possibility that churches that engage seriously in reflecting on important issues will begin to affect the thinking of their members. There is some possibility that such churches will persuade their youth that they are worthy of participation and commitment.

None of this can happen without a shift from the present dominance of institutionalism to a fresh understanding of the church's mission. That, too, can only occur through theological reflection. Unless we ask as Christians what God is calling us to do and be, we cannot get beyond the institutional survivalist mode that is in fact undercutting the prospects of survival. But we cannot change from those habits except as we renew the effort to understand our faith and what it requires of us in this bewildering time.

The theology for which I am calling is one that takes place within the church. Denominational leaders must function as theologians. Pastors must reclaim not only the title but the reality. And lay theology must be renewed. All this can happen, if church people decide it is worthwhile, even without changes among professionals. But its occurrence would in fact have a great effect upon professionals, and the renewal of theology among professionals would also greatly aid the church.

The renewal of theology among professionals does not require the abandonment of the approaches sketched above. It does require that those who follow each approach claim their Christian identity and reflect on how that identity justifies and encourages work done in the chosen style. This would also affect the topics that were pursued. For example, instead of selecting research topics entirely because of the state of the discipline, a historical scholar can select a topic that the church finds important in its own theological work. Instead of being guided only by the needs of a particular oppressed group a liberationist may seek to help the church as a whole find the appropriate response to the recognition of its role in that oppression.

But in addition to these shifts of emphasis within present approaches, faculty as a whole can be asked to join the church in reflecting about their faith. Rather than leaving such reflection entirely in the hands of systematic theologians, all who are Christian should be involved. This is not really a radical proposal. As recently as twenty years ago New Testament scholars provided much of the theological leadership. A few still do. That tradition can be renewed, and a revival of theology in the church would encourage such renewal in the seminary.

There are quite practical steps that could be taken to renew theology in the seminaries, should the churches decide that theology is important for them. Suppose denominational leaders recognized that instead of waiting for internal crises to initiate a process of study and reflection, it would be good for the churches to be proactive. Suppose they decided that there are other issues as important as homosexuality on which the church needs to do Christian thinking. Perhaps one such issue might be the growing underclass that is the product of the globalization of the economy. Perhaps another such issue is the threat of practical nihilism that is engendered by the decline of traditional faiths. Perhaps a third is how Christ is to be understood in a world in which many people, including Christians, view the Dalai Lama as a great spiritual leader.

The point here is not to identify the most important questions. The problems our society faces are innumerable and they pose challenges of many kinds to the churches. The point is simply to illustrate the fact that there are difficult questions to which the church has yet to give thought. If the church decided that giving guidance to its own members, and perhaps even to a larger community, were part of its mission, it could use its resources to that end. Among its most important and underused resources are its seminary faculties.

That is not to say that members of these faculties are under worked. Most are very busy. But it is to say that in their work they are directed chiefly by considerations than the needs of the church. If a denomination turned to a specific faculty with a specific question, requesting guidance in thinking about it, that faculty could organize itself in such a way that students and teachers could work together over a period of years to come up with ideas that would often be genuinely helpful. Of course, this would not work if after receiving such reports there were no serious response from the denomination. But if the reports were widely disseminated and the resulting discussions influenced denominational policies, other seminaries would gladly take part in dealing with other topics.

The focused purpose of any such project would be helping the denomination renew Christian thinking about crucial issues. But the incidental benefits would be enormous. The current mutual suspicion between seminaries and denominations would be replaced by collaboration in a shared mission. Faculties themselves would be challenged to exemplify the integration of the various fields that they now leave to students. Students could work with professors and get a taste of what serious theological work can be, whether in Bible, church history, Christian ethics, psychology of religion, history of religions, or systematic theology. In short, for a little money and a little effort denominational leaders could transform their seminaries and their relation to the church, but if, and only if, they themselves become serious about the role of theology in the church.

Is there any possibility that the church renew theology? I do not know. The usual response to decline is to close ranks and try to survive. That has been the pattern thus far. But sometimes, when it is overwhelmingly evident that that strategy fails, that, as Christians should have known all along, those who try to save their lives lose them, there emerges the willingness to take risks. This has happened in some local congregations. Perhaps it can happen at denominational levels as well.


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