Liveblogging Transforming Theology – Day 3

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Starting Day 3 here at Claremont School of Theology, we’re having panels about whether progressive theology can transform society.

9:26am – Jack Fitzmier, who leads the American Academy of Religion, is intense and challenging.  He says that the right people are not in this room. Who are “academic theologians”? he asks.  The people doing the best work are not systematic and constructive theologians, he says, but practical theologians.  Second, he says the focus should be on practice, not theory.  “The system which allows you to do your job — academic theology — is collapsing.” The number of doctoral programs is declining, as are the job openings. He is pissed.  “We are complicit in this system, because we accept every doctoral candidate who will get FTE funding, because we need their tuition. But there are no job for them when they get out.”

9:31am – Glen Stassen asks, “Where is Reinhold Neibuhr when we need him?” (Someone in the crowd says, “Or Marx?!?”)  How could we, as Christians, have been so naive to think that taking the regulations off of the financial system and expect it to regulate itself?  He’s talking about WMDs, etc., and saying that Christians have lost their sense of sin.

9:48am – A discussion ensues attempting to answer the question, “Are we the ones we’ve been waiting for?” In other words, are the people in this room the ones to resurrect the liberal vision of church, theology, and society.  As you might guess from academics, the most common response is “yes and no.” The equivocation among academics always amazing to me — every time someone gets close to answering a question with some amount of conviction, they always fall back on the line that, “We must think of the people who are not in this room.” It becomes an eternal deferral of action and instead begets more conferences at which the same questions are asks, and the answers are yet again deferred.


11:15am – Gary Dorrien is rounding out the second panel of the day by talking about his own personal narrative.  He came to faith, and then to teaching, by way of social justice causes. Dorrien is a frequent source for the MSM on liberal Christianity. He agrees with Harvey Cox and others who say that we’re at a crucial point in history, a point at which a version of Christian socialism is possible. He sits in the Reinhold Neibuhr chair at Union Seminary, and he’s heard many, many lionizations of Neibuhr today (indeed, if I had a nickle for every time someone has named Neibuhr or Rauschenbush today, I’d be a rich man).  But he’s also got some problems with Neibuhr — for instance, he took for granted the supremecy of white, Western society, and he never once publicly spoke against any US government policy in the name of Christian ethics.

11:23am – Harvey Cox chimes in to say that he knew Neibuhr and studied with Neibuhr, and that Neibuhr’s context was that of doing theology with and among the powerful.

11:46am – These people keep mentioning theologians and ethicists of whom I have never heard…

I’ve taken a few hours off from liveblogging because I’ve found the conversation to be less than interesting. I think that the conversation got off track a bit, and there has been too much talking in theological euphemism.  But I’ll go back into it now…for a bit.

3:46pm – John Cobb says that liberals have a problem: They too often belittle belief. Belief is a good thing, and we need to engage it.  In fact, he says, we need to fight bad belief.  He uses two examples of bad belief: neoliberal economic theory and neoconservative political theory. Thomas Friedman Milton Friedman is an example of someone whose economic theory was ridiculed at first, but he stuck with it until people were persuaded by him. One of the roles of the “ivory tower” theology is to critically question the premises and biases of popular belief.

Okay, I’m going to take a walk.  Our next conversation is off-the-record, and we have another public dialogue tonight.  In the next day or two, I’ll post my overall thoughts of this gathering.

  • Adin Eichler

    These Transforming Theology conference posts only strengthen my resolve to dedicate my life to spreading God’s Word and do my part to heal the world.
    As we progressive Christians endlessly debate, it is getting us nowhere: it’s time to act.
    We need to take concrete steps to set up the Kingdom of God, establishing the Beloved Community.

  • http://www.comingtolife.blogspot.com Mike Stavlund

    Surely Fitzmier’s measure of academic theology isn’t job placement for PhDs. That would be a remarkable critique of the academy by someone inside it!

  • Your Name

    Sounds like a bunch of pointless fingerpointing and speculation that accomplishes and will accomplish nothing. These people need to realize that the direction of the culture when it comes to religion is just as much out of their hands as it is out of the hands of their theologically conservative counterparts. All they can do is provide what they have to interested parties, they’re not ever going to be able to create a market for what they have simply through their own efforts. Selling theology isn’t like selling cars. And singing the praises of practical theology is basically just saying that if all else fails, dumb it down.

  • Your Name

    Ahem … Equating practical theology to ‘dumbed down’ theology shows an obvious ignorance about a field that is (1) explicit about its contexts (unlike, in many cases, systematic and constructive theologies), (2) just as rigorous in its theorizing/theologizing, (3) inherently interdisciplinary, and (4) pragmatic in its approaches to solving problems. If that is dumb (and somehow inferior to ‘academic theology’), then please pass the dunce cap. I say Fitzmier is right on target.

  • Your Name

    I was bothered more by the supposed need to focus on practical theology than by anything constituting the discipline itself. If practical theology is all that matters anymore…what does that say about Christianity in general? That it’s a sinking ship and it’s necessary that all hands just bail water?
    I say then let the ship sink. If Christians don’t care enough anymore to support the existing structures of the church…then there’s no point in trying to cajole them. Let the church shrink. Those who love it will continue to love it, those who do not will go their own way. Why fight apathy in this regard?

  • Your Name

    That practical theology is essential for pastors and churches I don’t doubt, but to say that systematic/constructive theology needs to be shelved in order to deal with this “crisis”…I don’t see how a shift in focus to purely practical matters is going to be some miracle fix all. Of course I don’t understand exactly what this crisis is exactly…besides the fact that church attendance is at an all time low and the average Christian today has little or no theological understanding. That’s unfortunate, but that’s our world. Telling academic theologians to give up their more ambitious projects and to focus only on lay-friendly theology…it’s not going to solve anything, and in some ways it will merely impoverish the discipline.

  • http://www.dualravens.com Patrick Oden

    Thanks for these thought, Tony. I was very much hoping to make it to the conference but the last week of the quarter, visiting mother-in-law, and big family event yesterday made for particularly bad timing for me. I’m hoping to make it to the next event.
    Your commentary is especially interesting to me now because my particular project I’m working on this week, which has to do with an intersection of liberation theology and emerging church theology. Especially interesting to me in your comments is Harvey Cox taking part. His Religion in the Secular City, written in ’84, is basically a pretty solid study of liberation theology as it was and a pretty insightful prediction of what postmodern christianity would look like–which turns out shockingly similar to what emerging church stuff looks like.


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