Adventures in the Spirit: Part Five

The fifth and final part of Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit is entitled “The Theological Adventure Applied”. Chapter 15 turns attention from the natural sciences to the social sciences, which also raise challenging and important questions for theology. Psychology and anthropology both focus their attention to a significant degree on human meaning-making activities, and Clayton emphasizes that “The meaning project isn’t marginal: it’s at the center of our existence” (p.232). Yet the fact that “the construction of meaning is ubiquitous; it plays a role in all that humans do and think” (p.234) is felt to be disturbing by many religious believers, who wish to think of their religious beliefs and worldviews as the result of divine revelation rather than social construction. When the social sciences turn their attention to religious matters, they are felt to be as challenging if not more so than the natural sciences. Yet Clayton sees the insights of the human sciences as no more to be feared than the natural sciences. Embracing insights from these disciplines involves acknowledging that some kinds of God-talk tell us as much if not more about ourselves as/than about God (p.239). But the fact that religions are expressions of the human desire to make sense of our existence does not prove or disprove whether they have valid insights into our existence. To put it another way, social-scientific accounts, like those from the natural sciences, can offer much explanation of our religious behaviors, beliefs and even our conversions, but they do not demonstrate that our deep-seated search for meaning is in vain.

Chapter 16 engages in dialogue with Derrida. Heidegger is also a major dialogue partner, and he is quoted on p.245 as having written that “a faith that does not perpetually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith is no faith but merely a convenience”. Much is said that is critical of the reduction in recent decades of “spirituality” to anything and everything humans do seeking personal fulfillment. Having engaged in much discussion of the metaphysical in the chapters that proceeded, Clayton here states that “When it comes to metaphysics, it is important to be minimalists, to import only as much metaphysical superstructure as is necessary. But how much metaphysical superstructure is enough?” (p.250). Some slightly spiritual forms of naturalism (as associated with thinkers such as Willem Drees or Ursula Goodenough) are mentioned (p.250), and the question is asked once again whether religion is fully accounted for by the perspectives of disciplines such as anthropology and psychology. The answer given, once again, is that these disciplines do indeed offer important explanations, yet without “explaining away”. A key feature of Clayton’s approach to theology is defined in terms of Spirit not being reduced to matter yet being inseparable from it – and in the same way, theology cannot simply “build castles in the air”, but must undertake its metaphysical reflections in light of ever-increasing amounts of hard data from the sciences. He refers to this as “the humbling of theology in an age of science” (p.253). Clayton understands Derrida as not opposed to metaphysics, but rather as opposed to the “foreclosure” of metaphysics, which rather must remain forever open to further insights and revisions (pp.253-254).

Chapter 17, the final chapter, is the one in which I seem to have drawn the most asterisks in the margins. The title is “The Many Faces of Integration: Liberal Faith between Church, Academy and World”, and it begins with the question of what “the actual mode of religious life” will look like when this model of “theology as adventure” is in fact lived. It takes courage, but is rewarding: “Just as pursuing differences and concerns in personal relationships leads to growth and intimacy, so wrestling with the tough challenges of our age leads to a stronger and more enduring form of faith” (p.256). The desire for integration between Christian heritage and contemporary thought means neither defending one’s faith from progress in human knowledge in the sciences and other areas, nor abandoning the tradition altogether, and it is this middle way that is the heritage of liberal Christianity (p.256). Yet liberal Christianity has lost the powerful, prophetic voice it once had in spokespeople like William Sloane Coffin or Martin Luther King. To refind its voice, we must reclaim that center ground that refuses to pose everything in the black and white terms of fundamentalism, but also refuses to lose all sense of conviction by embracing a thoroughgoing relativism.

Clayton’s vision is powerful and attractive, and my summary can scarcely do justice to it. Let me allow Clayton’s own voice to be heard in his own words (p.263):

This vision for a new liberal theology represents a powerful calling. It takes some courage. It takes a prophetic voice. It takes a hatred of the trivial. It takes a willingness to be hard-nosed. It takes a constant refusal to become self-absorbed. At the heart of this vision lies the contention that liberal approaches to theology, by their very nature, work continually to integrate what humanity knows – our history, our science, our highest moral values, our involvement with political institutions – with the tradition handed down through the centuries.

…To be a liberal Christian is to return continually to the scriptures and traditions in the attempt to understand what are genuinely Christ-like responses. But to be a liberal Christian is not to take the inherited traditions as complete in themselves.

Providing quotations from other liberal Christian voices like Peter Berger or H. Richard Niebuhr, the balance between critical inquiry and passionate faith, skepticism and affirmation, is regarded as “the new liberalism’s greatest strength” (p.264). The incarnation, the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and the concept of progressive revelation are also appealed to as models for this integrative approach.

Clayton’s book, for those of us who are seeking to think deeply and critically about our own Christian faith and find once again the powerful and transformative voice that liberal Christianity had in the past, is not merely helpful but inspiring. Finding this to be the case in no way requires agreement with every conclusion drawn. It is the approach that is the broad heritage of those forms of Christianity that eschew the oversimplifications of fundamentalism that makes Clayton’s approach so important. Because, ultimately, liberal Christian faith is not merely about embracing both Christianity and evolutionary biology, both religion and reason, but about doing so in a way that leads ultimately to proclamation and praxis that challenge injustice and structures of power that oppress, denigrate and mislead. Clayton invites readers to engage with, respond to and ultimately themselves practice and proclaim a Christianity that treats integrating our faith tradition with various areas of human knowledge as but a first step towards integrating human lives across boundaries of race, economic inequity, sexuality, and other divisions that result from oppression and injustice in its varied forms.

What more can I say? At this point what remains to be done is simply to thank Philip Clayton for writing this book, and encourage not only those interested in religion-science dialogue, but anyone interested in liberal Christian theology finding its prophetic voice once again, to read it and join in the conversation, and ultimately the adventure, in which Clayton invites us to participate.

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  • Philip Clayton

    Dear James,You’ve done a beautiful job bringing ADVENTURES to life (as it were). I am grateful for the energy, and accuracy, of your summaries and interpretations in this blog series.One of the few things I’ve lost sleep over since publishing ADVENTURES is whether or not it’s helpful to the church today to use the term “liberal.” It may be that the word now carries so much baggage that it will only damage the church; it may be that I simply cannot express my belief in God and my discipleship to Jesus using this word. If so, I will drop it. But in the book I wanted to show that, if we MUST do without the term, it’s not because the project of integration, of openness to dialogue, and of Christian humility is antithetical to the gospel. Instead, it would be because the term “liberal” has been so corrupted by its opponents (and, to be honest, by a few of its advocates) that it can no longer express what was originally a positive and valuable Christian project.I’m in the midst of a summit meeting of denominational leaders from across the U.S.; see for more details. I asked them, “if we can’t say liberal, what CAN we say?” I want to ask you the same question…Again, with thanks for your great comments,Philip Clayton

  • James F. McGrath

    What about “progressive”? It is a term I sometimes use, which seems to include both the more “classically liberal” and the more “postmodern” to at least a certain degree.But I must say that among the recent books I’ve found most helpful – your own, and some by Keith Ward, in particular his What the Bible Really Teaches, have been comfortable using “liberal”, and so I’m in favor of trying to reclaim the term, and the positive legacy that goes with it, as you try to do in particular in the final chapter of your book.I know my blog has readers from a range of viewpoints, and so I’d be interested to hear from those who have strong feelings about the term “liberal” one way or the other.