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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Constructing Theology

There is an art about constructive approaches to theology. I am a big fan of the current trend toward constructive theology and away from ‘systematic’ theology. The problem, as I see it, it two-fold. First, God did not give us a system. What we have inherited is a story – a narrative.  Call it a covenant, call it a relationship, call it the community of creation … what we have is organic and earthy, connective and fleshy, sacred and ordinary at the same time. Systems are very man-made (and in this case ‘man’ is not generic but historically masculine) and extremely formulaic.

Systems are not inherently bad, mind you. It’s just that systems, and systematic theology, sometimes take on a life of their own and become mechanistic and assembly line in the age of factories. Doctrines and ideas are not gears that interlock in intricate and interchangeable ways. Even as an analogy, it leaves much to be desired, let alone the actual exercise production of systematic theology.

The second problem is that in order for all of the moving parts (gears) to work together in systematized and mechanistic ways, much of the data must be shaved off or conformed so that it all fits together in a coherent formula. The goal of systematic theology is to create a system that works as a unit – not to create a story that accounts for the all of the material and data. Systematic theologies are like feature-length movies that have been cut and spliced with a lot of film left on the cutting room floor. The result is that some elements may be neglected while others may get ‘forced’ to fit.

I am not begrudging the history of systematic theology, it is a rich tradition, but only saying that I prefer the move away from systematized and mechanistic approaches to theology and toward a more holistic and organic approach that accounts for more of the data/material of both scripture and church history, as well as human experience. Constructive theology is a different approach that says (in essence) ‘what we have here may not fit together or work together perfectly, but neither does life or faith’ – not everything conforms to a perfect form and it may not necessarily come together in a perfect and transferable unit.

Life and faith are messy but I would prefer that more of the picture be re/presented or accounted for than I am concerned that the categories work together cleanly.

What this shift to constructive theology has meant in practice is that I have taken a half-step away from systematic theology to begin the transition. I have inherited an Essentials of Theology class for this year-long appointment as my school (Portland Seminary) transitions to a new curriculum that will not include this class in this form in the future. So while I have left the inherited categories the same, I have changed two things:

  1. I changed the sequence so that ‘humanity’ (anthropology) was not an afterthought
  2. I don’t expect the content of each category to come together in tidy or even functional ways. They may – but that is not the highest priority.

These little changes make a big difference. Placing ‘humans’ second in the sequence means that we have to deal with the reality of bodies and location before we can tackle the idea that ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Our sequence of conversations goes God, human, Jesus, …. Instead of the more classic approach of God, Jesus, Bible, Holy Spirit, Church – then humans. As you will hopefully notice in today’s and tomorrow’s posts on humans then Jesus, sequencing is not trivial. [We will get back to nuclear-theology later in the week].

 

When I talk about being human from a theological concern, it seems to bring up a lot of complex words: incarnate, embodied, context, and enacted.  This is an opportunity to employ a playful and structural examination of these concepts. For instance, by simply applying a well-placed backslash, these concepts take on a new level of clarity.

  • In/carnate
  • Em/body
  • Con/text
  • En/acted

These notions take on a profound weightiness to validate human experience (and your story) as a place (or text) of spiritual insight and divine revelation. Your story matters to God. Your experience is valid and tells us something. Your existence is a living text (to quote Bonnie Miller-McLemore) that informs our theological examination.

I close with this: it is important to talk about what it means to be human before we talk about Jesus so that we know how big of a deal it is that Christians claim that Jesus was a revelation of something divine – that Jesus embodied God – or that the Word became flesh.

This isn’t a system. It isn’t simple. It doesn’t always fit together in a neat and tidy formula. It is a story that is messy, fleshy, and earthy. I hope that our approach re/presents that truth whether our ‘final product’ does or not.

 

 

Nuclear Theology part 1

How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A number that you probably haven’t even heard of.

Several years ago, I became concerned about the fading awareness of the atomic age. Growing up in the 1980s, the ‘cold war’ loomed over our politics and our evangelical Christianity. Thirty years later, the post-9/11 world sent me in search of theological addresses of some of my concerns and this is when I stumbled into Theology for a Nuclear Age by Gordon D. Kaufman. While Kaufman’s larger work is outside the scope of my particular theological project, I connect with his concern about the nuclear age very deeply.

It has now been more than 70 years since the bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is odd that Kaufman wrote in the 1980s – 35 years later – and I read his work almost 30 years after they were written. There is something oddly symmetrical about the reality of ‘the bomb’ becoming an issue again 70 years after its devastating power was first unleashed. I have been reading all of this nuclear theology for the past 5 years partly to exercise my own demons on the issue but partly because I feared that it would become a concern again with our global geo-politics.

The recent US elections have elevated nuclear war to a crisis level again.

My fascination with theological implications of the nuclear age is like being into a vintage band that has only recently come into popularity – thus the hipster joke above.

What follows below, and in the next several posts, will be selections of Kaufman edited or summarized into blog format. The book is a thin 63 pages and my hope is to whet your appetite to pick it up and join me in this consideration.

In a previous address Kaufman had suggested … that the nuclear age into which humankind has now moved – an age in which it is possible we may utterly destroy not only civilization but humanity itself – challenges scholars in theology and in the study of religion to do some radical re-thinking about our discipline and about some of the presuppositions taken for granted in our work. (vii)

There is a new situation in which humanity now finds itself – in which we are able, by the mere press of a button, to destroy our entire world as well as humankind itself – isn’t in a significant way ‘out of sync’ with the central traditional claim about God’s sovereignty over the world. (ix)

The religious eschatology of the West was undergirded by faith in an active creator and governor of history … and the end of history – whether viewed as ultimate catastrophe or ultimate salvation – was to be God’s climactic act. (3)

An end brought about by nuclear holocaust must be conceived primarily not as God’s doing but as ours. The possibility that we will obliterate all future human life is so novel and strange that it is difficult for us to grasp what we are up against. Human kind was never believed to have the power utterly to destroy itself; that power lay with God alone. Many, such as Karl Barth, say that this utterly calamitous self-destruction of humanity will never be allowed to occur. (4-7)

While it is my prayer that this is true … I am deeply convicted that we need to adjust the way that we think about our concept of ‘god’ in light of the new possibility and threat. If folks want to cling to classic/antiquated notions of a BIG GOD, I am fine with that (I really am). They will need to justify those claims again in this new era and not simply parrot formulations of previous centuries. Claims regarding GOD’s power and intervention cannot be grandfathered in to the emerging reality carte blanc.

 

Is the New Year new?

The MLK holiday provides a time to check in on the new year. I actually start getting ready for this question during Advent. Once we round the corner of Christmas day and I begin to take inventory of the past year in preparation for the New Year … I know that today is coming.

Each MLK holiday I ask myself how our society is doing with Dr. King’s triplets of evil: racism, materialism, and militarism.

I am currently reading “The End of White Christian America”  and it reminded my of a post that I put up two years ago today. I thought I would share a part of it again:
The loss of my mother has caused me a nearly indescribable amount of pain. I have given great thought to changing the entire direction of ministry – it has to be about more than just helping people understand the Bible better or be a better person.
Dr. King’s ‘triplets of evil’ are alive and well in our world and impact us all everyday … but because they are embedded in larger structures they can hide from people’s awareness and so they need to be investigated, exposed, and subverted.

In honor of this holiday and my mother’s memory I want to say two things:

  1. Be kind to each other. We are all carrying hurts and concerns and scars that may be impossible to see from the surface. As humans, we are all in this together … the world doesn’t need more strife and violence and division.
  2. We are all caught up in systems and structures that work against the ‘common-wealth’ of humanity and the planet. They need to be confronted and radically dismantled.

Now, as a christian minister I have chosen to stick with the gospel as I think that it provides the tools to do these two things.
On this MLK holiday I just wanted honor the legacy of a man and movement that has deeply impacted me and inspired my vision.

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The God Revealed In Christ

Who said anything about omni-potent?

One of the difficulties of being both a believer, and for me, a pastor is how much time and energy gets taken up by the god that you don’t believe in. I believe in god very deeply and have given much of my life to teaching and leading people into a fuller understanding of faith in and participation with the divine-eternal-transcendent.

I love and try to imitate Jesus. I guess that makes me a Christian. Which is fine because even if there was no such category as ‘christian’, I would still be fascinated with the phenomenon that gets labeled the spirit of Christ/the spirit of God/Holy Spirit. My attraction to the field of practical theology is to examine the ways that religious communities and people of faith live out their beliefs in embodied practices.

I am really committed to this thing that gets called belief-faith-religion. It plays an important role in my life, in my family, in my networks, in our society, and in our world. I feel the need to say this because I get frustrated at the increasing amount of time and energy that gets taken up explaining what I don’t believe.

God has really gotten out of control in our culture. You say that you believe in God or that you have had a religious experience and suddenly you find yourself defending lofty and foreign concepts like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, immutability, and impassibility. You get overwhelmed by an avalanche of historical atrocities and are asked to defend classic conceptions of an all-mighty or sovereign god in the face of human evil and suffering. Now there are accusations of hypocrisy, genocide, crusades, sexual abuse, and every manner of discrimination and hate.

All I said is that I like Jesus and the one that he called Abba. What have I been pulled into and am I obligated to adopt/defend all of these other things? Is it possible that the concept of God has gotten out of hand and grown over the centuries into the bloated and oversized thing that is unsustainable and indefensible?

Are we allowed to downsize this whole thing to a more understated and humble version? Someone might ask “you want a more manageable god?”

It’s not that I want to manage god or be in control of god … I just want a conception of god that isn’t so amped up, highly-caffeinated, or on steroids. I was looking at a model in the range of ‘the god revealed in christ’. I find that a compelling vision of god – more servant than Caesar, more nurturing parent than distant monarch.

I feel at times like the person looking for a reliable car but getting stuck with a pushy salesman who is bent on getting me into something bigger, faster, more powerful, and fancier. I just want something that gets there, I’m not sure about all the bells and whistles – nor can I afford the payments on the luxury model.

I’m looking for a place to rest but all the mattresses are king-sized, pillow top, space-age foam, with dual temperature control and animated bi-level posture support. I was hoping to watch the evening news and maybe enjoy a game on the weekend but all the cable packages are premier bundles with 500 channels from 130 countries including an extreme sports package and a 100 gigabyte DVR included with your unlimited data upgrade.

A smaller and humbler vision of god seems like heresy to most folks for whom the whole point of there being a divine being is that it is the biggest and best of whatever it is that you would value. Anything less, it appears, is not even worthy of worship and so it becomes an all or nothing dichotomy where God had better be everything that has been promised or there is no point in believing in God at all.

Like so many other things in our culture right now, religion has been turned up to 11 and you had better like it OR YOU CAN GET THE HELL OUT!

Through the advent season and into the new year, my meditation has been on the incarnation and the amazing reality that the eternal word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us – emmanuel means that god is with us. For good or bad, god is now eternally bound up in the creatures’ fate. God has not only identified with humanity but has become entwined with humanity.

Incarnation is why our bodies matter to god and why our embodied practices mean as much or more than our ideas and concepts about god. I’m looking for the God Reveled In Christ.*

Tomorrow I want to ask if the classic notion of the big-god was destroyed when we entered the nuclear age. I’m not sure that conception of god survived the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the star over Bethlehem, the mushroom clouds loom over us and divide history from its previous era.

_____________________

*I understand that G.R.I.C. may not be the biggest or best. I get that when we say ‘GOD’ we are saying more than ‘human’ loudly. I have no interest in projecting all of our hopes and dreams onto the screen of the heavens. I accept that those who hold to the inflated and super-sized Almighty King of the Universe are the gate-keepers and boundary guards of what they term orthodoxy. It has taken me 20 years to get comfortable letting go of their interpretation of the KINGdom but after surveying the theological landscape, I am sure that there is plenty of real estate that does not require certainty as an entrance fee.

Getting Ready For God Week

The semester is off to a good start and my 3 classes are coming together in exciting ways.

Side-note: my 3 classes this semester are ecclesiology, culture & systems change, and essentials of christian theology. 

In ‘essentials’ the topic for next week is God. A really interesting cross-reference comes from Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal Downing, which is being read by the culture & systems change class this week.

She has a really innovative take on (re)signing our inherited symbols in order to clarify what those sign/symbols point to or signify. There is a part of me that wishes we could have the two classes meet at the same time and talk about what it would mean to (re)sign the symbol of that little three letter signifier ‘g-o-d’.

For those of you who are planning to follow along and participate in the essentials conversation, I just wanted to let you know how excited I am about how this is all coming together. In the book that we will be using as our primary focus, the list of authors is impressive:
Stanley J. Grenz; John B. Cobb, Jr.; Sallie McFague; Serene Jones; Robert W. Jenson; Hughes Oliphant Old; Ellen T. Charry; Paul F. Knitter; Richard J. Mouw; Noel Leo Erskine; David S. Cunningham; Kathryn Tanner; Clark M. Williamson; Leanne Van Dyk; Letty M. Russell; Michael Battle; J. A. DiNoia, O.P.; and Ted Peters.

What is going to make this exploration even more interesting is that we are putting each section of the essentials book in conversation with an author/thinker from a different tradition/perspective. Those authors include:

  • Emily Townes
  • James Cone
  • Rita Nakashima-Brock
  • Catherine Keller

I am also adding:

  • Randy Woodley
  • Elaine Graham
  • Sheila Greeve Davaney

It is going to be an epic 4 month journey and I hope that you will join us for it.

Let me know if you have any questions or if I can be helpful in any way.

Prayer for the New Year

by Catherine Cameron

God who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place,

Flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space;

We, your children in your likeness, share inventive powers with you;

Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do.

 

 

quoted in chapter 4 of ‘God – the world’s future’ by Ted Peters

Your Kin-dom Come!

Kin-dom language has really captured my imagination. It is a much needed upgrade for the alternate translation of Greek word βασιλεία, (‘basileia’) instead of the antiquated (and problematic) ‘kingdom’.

I have toyed with the idea of leaving such rich and nuanced words/concepts untranslated into English like we do with agape in Greek or selah in the Hebrew psalms. For a while I thought that leaving it untranslated loaned it an air of mystery or exotic foreignness.

Later, I considered novel translations such as economy of God, reign and rule, commonwealth, government as a possible way forward. These concepts, however, convey many of the same associations with the intrinsic hierarchy, coercion, and domination that is incongruent with the love of God revealed in Christ. Jesus brought a counter-kingdom, an anti-kingdom, or even an un-kingdom that is weighed down with the baggage and violence that ‘kingdom’ has picked up through church history.

In the end, I have circled around again and again to the kin-dom of God. It signifies that we are all interrelated (kin) and that as family, we are relationally constituted. Our related-ness is our prominent characteristic. What defines us? Our connection to the divine/transcendent/reality in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

In this vein, I have found an advocate in the work of Ada Maria Isasi-­Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. It resonates with me because both Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 talk about the inner witness of God’s spirit in our spirit that we have been adopted and are children of God.

David Harstkoetter tells us:

She skillfully argued that the gracious, salvific work of God, through love of the neighbor, entails solidarity characterized by interconnectivity—namely commonality and mutuality. … Yet, rather than describe solidarity as God’s ‘kingdom,’ a term that Isasi­Díaz names as sexist and is in the contemporary context “hierarchical and elitist,” she instead uses the term “kin­dom” to emphasize that the eschatological community will be a family: “kin to each other.”[1]

In the past I have been concerned/critical of ‘the kingdom’ translation. There are so many objectionable aspects to it and I am especially concerned when Americans seem to romanticize the monarchy and the imperial ideal of domination. It seems so ironic! That is why I have dug into what role or function is being accomplished in this romanticized obsession.

Since I have started working on this a couple of years ago, there has been an uptick in King or Kingdom related books in my circles. Tim Keller, NT Wright, Scott McKnight and others have doubled down on this phenomenon.  The more I prayerfully study this concept, the more I understand its appeal to them and the louder that I must suggest that Christianity’s future is not found in Europe’s past.

Jesus didn’t speak English, so there is nothing sacred about the translation ‘kingdom’. In fact, the more one examines the merit of the kin-dom translation, the clearer it communicates the virtue and the loving relational characteristic that Jesus modeled and taught.

I realize that it sets off a potential chain reaction and leads to a set of subsequent concerns and changes – and we can tackle those one at a time as they become relevant – but if this move toward the kin-dom is the only upgrade that we adopt, it is a significant improvement on its own!

May your kin-dom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

__________________________

[1] p. 89 in Getting Back to Idolatry Critique: Kingdom, Kin­dom, and the Triune Economy.

 

Yes Please

A couple of weeks ago I read a fantastic article that has stuck with me. The article was entitled “Feminist theology’s contribution to pastoral theology” [link] and it was 10 pages  packed with goodness.

One section that I have returned to several times said, “Margaret Farley[1] effectively encapsulates the program of feminist theology under three themes:

  1. relational patterns among human persons,
  2. human embodiment, and
  3. human assessment of the meaning and value of the world of ‘nature’.”

Those three themes resonate with me deeply.

Relational patterns among humans is the entire reason I got into the field of practical theology. I wanted out of theology as abstract ideas and speculation. The practices of faith and the lived reality of religious communities fascinates me. I want to know what people do with their faith, how it forms and informs their activity in the world. I am convinced that meaning is socially constructed and that belief must be relationally enacted.

Human embodiment is the logical outcome of this line of reasoning. Christianity is a religion centered on the event of the incarnation. Said another way, Christianity is an incarnational religion. Faith, to really be faith, must be embodied and enacted. Our bodies matter to God. This is why I love Elaine Graham’s use of ‘perfomativity’ in her book Transforming Practice. 

Value of the world of ‘nature’ is going to be increasingly crucial in our lifetime. The environmental/ecological issues are only going to become more intense and more consequential. The thing that many christians seem to confuse is that the ‘new heaven and new earth’ promise of scripture is not a clean break with this current one but a redemption/restoration of it at some level (or in some way). God loves the world (John 3:16) and what that means needs some new attention.

These three themes got me thinking: much of the time I wish that feminist theology was just theology. Part of how masculine theology gets to avoid using a modifier and hold onto the mantle of regular or plain ole’ theology is by employing the modifier feminist to qualify certain work.[2]

I’ll pause there for today. I just wanted to:

A) share this quote and these three themes with you

B) encourage to look for the work of Kathryn Tanner , Serene Jones, Emilie Townes, bell hooks, Elizabeth Johnson, Marjorie Suchocki, Monica Coleman, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and my PhD advisor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook in our theology in the new year series.

I’ll pick up tomorrow with ‘Your Kin-dom Come!’ and the work of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. 

________________

[1] Farley, Margaret A. “Feminist theology and bioethics” in Feminist theology: a reader / edited by Ann Loades. 1990, pp.238-254, at p.240

[2] ie. Mary Daly, Sallie McFague, Rosemay Radford Ruether who are explicitly addressing issue related to gender and patriarchy

 

Theology in the New Year

Starting in January, I will be teaching an Essentials of Theology class.  I wanted to invite you to follow along and even participate here as the weekly class themes will provide direction for blog posts.

We will be using 2 books and each week we will put them in conversation. The first book is Essentials of Christian Theology (Kindle $17) and the second is Introduction to Christian Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives. There are a couple of PDFs later in the reading that I will provide links to when it is time.

This is going to be a fun format. Each section in the Essentials book provides two authors’ perspective. We will then place that material in conversation with a third (and different) perspective to both challenge and round out the dialogue.

The content will be electric so I wanted to invite you join in and give your theological reflection some zip in the new year! Consider picking up the books and following along as we explore some of the big themes of the faith. You will also be able to listen to MP3s of the lecture portion of class each Tuesday.  

January 9 – January 15

What Are We Doing Here? The Task of Theology

Reading: Essentials – How Do We Know What to Believe? p. 1-50

Lecture: Informed and Formed by the Faith

Conversation:  Intro – Badham chpt. 1

 

January 16 – January 22


God

Reading: Essentials – What Do We Mean by “God” p. 51-92

Lecture: 5 Gods That People Worship

Conversation:  Intro – Williamson chpt. 3

 

January 23 – January 29


Human

Reading: Essentials – Is God in Charge? p. 93-132

Lecture: Located and Active Agents

Conversation:  Intro – Brock chpt. 13

 

January 30 – February 5


Jesus

Reading: Essentials – How Does Jesus Make a Difference? p. 183-220

Lecture: Jesus in not Superman

Conversation:  Intro – Cone chpt. 14

 

February 6 – February 12


Spirit

Reading: “Spirit” chpt. 6 in Constructive Theology pdf.

Lecture: The Power of Pentecost and Perichoresis

Conversation:  Intro – Keller chpt. 16

 

February 13 – February 19

The Evangelical Tradition

Reading: Intro – Pinnock chpt. 6

 

February 20 – February 26


Sin

Reading: Essentials – What’s Wrong With Us? p. 133-182

Lecture: Competing Desires

Conversation:  Intro – Townes chpt. 15

 

February 27 – March 5


Church

Reading: Essentials – Why Bother With Church? p. 221- 256

Lecture: Ecclesiology and Environment

Conversation:  Intro – Oden chpt. 5

 

March 6 – March 12


Christian Life

Reading: Essentials – How Should We Live? p. 257-296

Lecture: Character and Habitus for the 21st Century

Conversation:  Intro – Hauerwas chpt. 8

 

March 13 – March 19


Context: Colonialism and Consumerism

Reading: Woodley “Missiology” pdf.

Lecture: Conscripted Into A Better Story

Conversation: Intro – Isasi-Diaz chpt. 17

 

March 20 – March 26


Other Religions

Reading: Essentials – What About Them? p. 297-326

Lecture: Are All Religions Paths Up the Same Mountain?

Conversation:  Intro – Hick chpt. 2

 

March 27 – April 2


The Good News

Reading: Elaine Graham – “Between a Rock & a Hard Place” pdf.

Lecture: The Evangel – Good News for the Poor?

Conversation:  Intro – Jeanrond chpt. 10

 

April 3 – April 9


Eschatology

Reading: Essentials – Where Are We Going? p. 327-365

Lecture: The End of The End

Conversation:  Intro – Taylor chpt. 18

 

April 10 – April 16


Putting It All Together

Reading: Intro – Devaney pdf.

Lecture: The World Wide Web of Christian Practice

Conversation: Weaving a Web of Meaning

 

April 17 – April 23


Constructing A Christian

Reading:  Intro – Buckley chpt. 7

Lecture: Dancing Our Prayers

Conversation: The Body and Embodied Practice

 

April 24 – April 30


Parousia

 

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