Practical Theology for Creative Ministry
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.. The following paper was delivered to graduates of Yonsei University in Los Angeles, February 12, 1993. Used by permission of the author.
All theology should be practical. Indeed, for any belief or teaching not to make a difference is for it not to be genuinely Christian theology. Theology is for the sake of God and God's world through the service of the church.
To some extent, everything I know of that is called theology does have some practical implication. Yet for an increasing part of theology, this practical implication is quite indirect. Much theology has become an academic discipline engaged in resolving problems generated in the history of that discipline rather than by the more obvious and immediate needs of the church. This theology has scholarly and intellectual content and has maintained some place, a small one, I fear, for theology in the intellectual world and the university. The lack of a tradition that has status in the university would have practical consequences of considerable importance. Furthermore, this tradition spins off ideas from time to time that have a quite direct connection to the church and its immediate needs. Hence the academic tradition of theology is practical.
Nevertheless, there is a wide range of practical needs in the church that are not well served by academic theology. Most of the calls for practical theology have had these needs in mind. Because of the remoteness of the academic discussion from the pressing concerns within the church, the church has in fact looked elsewhere for solutions to its problems. Pastoral counseling looks to psychology; church administration, to management theory; Christian education, to general educational theory.
Worse, the discussion of beliefs within the church is usually little informed by the extensive scholarship on these topics. Naive and uncritical ideas are identified with the teaching of the church, and lay people struggle with their obvious limitations and paradoxes with little help from church professionals. Thus, while the academic discussion moves off into sophisticated irrelevance, lay theology is dominated by erroneous notions of the Bible and Christian tradition and a lack of freedom and authenticity.
Neither academic theology nor popular Christian thinking typically deal with the most urgent issues facing humanity and the world. Of course, both professional and lay Christians have opinions on these matters, but it is rare that these opinions are explicitly and clearly grounded in a reasoned Christian faith. On the whole they reflect other associations of the believer and other sources of authority than the Christian tradition. Or else they are based on narrow and arbitrary uses of the tradition.
I am describing the prevailing situation in the oldline Euro-American churches. To what extent it applies in Korean Protestantism I am not sure. There is greater vitality and lay participation in the Korean churches than in the Euro-American ones. How much this expresses itself in a responsible practical theology I do not know.
As I express my hopes for the renewal of practical Christian thinking in the Euro-American churches, I hope you will consider the similarities and differences with the Korean and Korean-American ones. I believe that the chance of moving toward the renewal for which I call may be greater in the Korean and Korean-American churches than in the Euro-American ones, but I do not know. I also believe that Korean and Korean-American Christians may be in a better position to critique my proposals than are my fellow Euro-American Christians.
My hope for the twenty-first century is that Christians will learn to think as Christians about all the important matters that concern them. We would think as Christians about our personal spiritual lives, about what we do with our money, about our sexuality, and about our vocations. We would also think as Christians about our churches, about how we educate as well as the content that we teach, about how we relate to one another in the church, about how we worship. We would also think as Christians about the societies in which we live, their social, political, and economic structures, about the institutions that shape them, and about international affairs.
To do this means that first we must reflect about what it means to think as Christians. We must overcome simplistic views of what Christian thinking is. It is not a matter of finding proof texts that seem relevant to a current issue or discovering a traditional teaching on a topic. On the other hand, it is not simply asking what the most general Christian principles, such as love, require. It involves serious inquiry about the diversity within the scripture and within the tradition. It involves critical consideration of the Christian way of appropriating scripture and tradition. It involves eagerness to learn from other sources. It involves openness to the present leading of the Holy Spirit. It also involves listening to one another in love and seeking consensus. But finally it involves personal decision and taking responsibility for the convictions that emerge.
Christians who have thought about matters of importance to the church in this way have a power and authority lacking to those who do not think. They can give leadership, not by virtue of their position or status, but by virtue of their wisdom. Congregations which encourage this kind of thinking and are prepared to be guided by its outcome have a fullness of Christian reality that is lacking to those that operate out of conventions and customs.
None of this insures that thinking Christians will not err. The recognition that we may be wrong is one mark of thinking Christians. We know that we are creatures with limited understanding and vision. Accordingly we are ready for more light that will correct us, and we are acceptant of the fact that others, who are eqully thoughtful and sincere, will come to different conclusions. We will see such differences as an opportunity for further growth rather than a threat to unity.
But this does not mean that thinking Christians are lacking in strong convictions or hesitant to act upon them. It is the human condition to be fallible. But it is the Christian calling to act as best we can in light of our present understanding. If this forces us to oppose other thinking Christians, we will do so at the same time that we seek to be reconciled to them. We will seek to contain even our opposition within the fellowship of the church.
There are limits to the diversity of positions that the church can encompass without losing its soul. But these limits are not to be defined in terms of predetermined conclusions of thought. Spelling out on the basis past thought the limits of what current thinking may generate, blocks the emergence of new vision and wisdom. The limits come according to the willingness of persons to be open to the scriptures, to tradition, to wisdom that comes from other sources, to one another. Those who simply insist on their own opinions, unwilling to test them or to hear the opinions of others, thereby place themselves outside of Christian community. I do not mean that we should drive them outside the church. But I do mean that the church should make it clear that they are called to openness, that rigid clinging to particular beliefs is not Christian faith. We can include them within our fellowship in hopes that they will grow in faith and therefore in the ability to participate with others in the community of the church. But the beliefs to which they cling cannot have equal status in the church with those that come into being through Christian thinking. We cannot allow this rigid spirit to delimit what is acceptable in the church.
Another limit comes at that point where critical thinking leads someone to cease to identify with the community of faith. Such a person usually leaves the church so that there is no need for the church to draw the line. If the person does not leave, this ordinarily means that the loss of Christian identity is not settled or determined. The community may be able to help that person recover such identity. Especially if a person loses Christian identity because of a narrow and rigid definition of what is involved in being Christian, a thinking church may be able to help her or him through such a crisis and achieve a deeper Christian identity.
I do not want to underestimate the risk involved in Christian thinking. However inclusively we understand the faith, we live in a society in which much of the best thinking attacks and challenges that faith. To be ready to learn from that thinking involves the risk that we will come to share its objections to faith and find them convincing. Many people have thought their way out of the church. Becoming a thinking church will not put an end to those losses.
On the other hand, I believe that it will greatly reduce such losses and will in fact prove an evangelistic tool. If the church encourages critical thought, many who now leave it will find it a true home. Since I am convinced that authentic Christian thinking will be more critical, more open, more inclusive, and more radical that the thinking encouraged elsewhere -- such as in the university -- it will also be more satisfying to those who seek truth and wisdom. The ancient church out-thought its competition in the Mediterranean world partly by critically appropriating much of what other communities taught. We are challenged today to out-think the other institutions of society, to show that when issues are approached from the perspective of faith they can be treated more adequately, more practically, more holistically, that when they are approached in any other way.
How could we renew Christian thinking in the church? First, of course, we have to want to do so. We have to encourage questioning rather than silence it with appeals to accept beliefs on authority. We have to let people know that their opinions count, as long as they are willing to test them in a Christian way. We have to create a context in which growth in thinking is prized.
Much would change in this direction if congregatiaons gave as much attention to encouraging Christian thought as they now give to encouraging Christian fellowship, Christian prayer, and Bible study. This would mean establishing groups within the church whose task was to help one another grow in Christian thinking. It would also mean that as these groups matured, their help would be sought by the congregation as a whole in clarifying the mission of the church and its way of realizing that mission.
Judicatories should also establish groups to think about the mission of those levels of church life and how they can be fulfilled. There are many thoughtful Christians who find the life of local congregations boring and the tasks they are asked to fulfil in those congregations unchallenging. Some of them would be inspired to take their faith with a new level of seriousness if they were asked to place their best gifts at the service of the church.
All of the institutions of society, all of the professions, operate with assumptions about human beings, human communities, the natural world, and their responsbilities. Those who are shaped by these assumptions rarely reflect upon them. Christians could and should take the lead in bringing these assumptions to consciousness and critically considering them. Christians have the opportunity and the duty to critique these assumptions and offer others that seem more suitable in light of Christian faith. In principle this can lead to reforms and redirections throughout society.
The Christians who can best do this are not ministers and professional theologians. They are lay people who are immersed in these institutions and professions, who know their strengths and their problems, who have an inside experience of the tensions between their faith and their vocation. These Christians can be helped by working together to clarify the assumptions underlying their institutions and professions and to begin the process of critical evaluation. I would like to see the church in the twenty-first century lead society in such critical self-examination and in reconstructing itself on more realistic and more compassionate grounds.
I am discouraged about the direction of the Euro-American churches and Euro-American society today. I am convinced that we have the resources to do better, but I see us giving priority to institutional maintenance in ways that are ultimately suicidal. A church with strong convictions and a keen sense of mission can come alive in the twenty-first century. A church that avoids controversy and uses gimmicks to gain members will die.
I see great vitality in Korean churches. I do not know how sustainable that vitality is. In the Korean-American churches it seems to be hard to transmit this vitality to second and third generation youth. I see a danger that the churches will divide between those that rigidly maintain the doctrines and practices of the past and those that enter a decadent mainstream. But I also see the possibility that the Korean-American churches could become thinking churches, which would guide their own people in understanding themselves in their unique situation and understanding also their calling within it. They can provide a perspective on the larger society as a whole that may prove illuminating and renewing to that larger society. They could become centers of health not only in the Korean-American community but in the society as a whole.
From your letter, I gather that my presentation should be no more that twenty minutes. That allows twenty minutes for your interpretation. The attached paper may be a bit too long. I'll try it out.
Meanwhile, however, I thought it might help you to have this in advance. I hope it is more or less what was wanted.
I look forward to visiting with you en route to LA Wednesday. We can make last minute adjustments then.