One of the things that my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is trying to do better is helping people understand the context in which they are to be church. An initiative, the Landscape for Mission has come out that helps people explain the changing society that we find ourselves in and insight on what we can do. I like the production value and I like that the four videos tell some hard truths about the denomination, something that a number of Disciples refuse to admit.
Where I think it falls short is in the area of theology. I think we need to do more than address the situation of a declining denomination and offer reassuring words. I think that among Disciples there is a massive deficit when it comes to theology. Theology isn’t something professors do in seminary, it is about trying to understand our faith especially in the light of changed circumstances. We need to do more than say the church is declining; we have to ask, what is church? Who is Jesus? What does it mean that Jesus died on a cross? What does it mean that Jesus was raised? What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is mission? What is the mission of the church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Disciple in this day and age? Even more basic: What is a Disciple?
Fellow Disciples pastor Robert Cornwall has noticed the lack of theological thinking within Liberal Christianity with some concern. In a posting written last month, he shares a quote from Canadian Theologian Douglas John Hall:
In short, Gospel needs theology; and where it is truly gospel and not just spiritual sound-and-fury gospel will evoke theology. It was fashionable during the Liberal period to minimize the importance of the epistles of St. Paul, or even to dismiss them. But without Paul’s theological acumen, which is reflected as well in the gospels, the early Christian movement would have split into millions of mutually exclusive and quarreling cults, and we should never have heard of the Christian religion. The fundamental claims of the Christian message by their very nature, including their boldness and universality, require the most intensive, committed and sustained thinking that human beings can manage. This thinking is not something added to the hearing of gospel; it is inherent in that hearing—to the extent that where such thinking is not evoked by what is named gospel, it must be questioned whether the thing so named is what it claims to be.
To which Cornwall adds:
If we are to call ourselves Christians and consider God to be a part of our lives, then this will require clear and thoughtful thinking about God and the things of God. Hall notes that prior to the 4th century, when theology became more clearly the domain of the elite, Christians engaged in a lot of God-talk. After Constantine, we left it to the experts. While at one level theology requires significant training and expertise, at another level it can be and should be something engaged in by all of God’s people, otherwise we simply become another group therapy session.Though we needn’t be dogmatic, and doubt is part of the theological process, we needn’t be afraid to embrace the gospel with its theological dimensions. The key is holding our beliefs with a dose of an “absolute perhaps.” That is a phrase I learned from another colleague, who with me recognized the importance of theology. Can we not engage in conversation with the “absolute perhaps” standing at the center of the conversation?
I agree with this. If you look at Stone and the Campbells, they held strong theological views and opinions, but they did so with the idea that they might be wrong. It’s something that I think Christians in general and Disciples in particular have to do if it is going to have any meaning to others.
Thanks Dennis for raising the question of theology — and of noting my contributions to the conversation. I think what is important for us as Disciples is to provide the room for disagreement and remain in unity. Unfortunately churches aren’t always good about providing that safe space. May we work to create the spaces where not just those, like me, who have advanced theological training can join in the conversation.