American Theology: Taking Stock

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The main building of the Pacific School of Religion, established in Berkeley in 1901, it is the oldest Protestant seminary West of the Mississippi which is now seeking to sell its property after years of decline.

Entering my third and final year of seminary education at the Graduate Theological Union it is a fair question to ask about my theology. I mean if I has gone to Berkeley for an M.A, in Anthropology you might well as what sort of Anthropologist I was becoming – and perhaps doubly so if I had been studying anthropology and working “digs” on my own all my life.

On the one hand it is an easy question to answer from a personal standpoint; from a professional one it is not easy at all.

Let me say first (on the latter) that I am relieved of the burden of pastoral ministry. I did not seek a Masters of Divinity leading to a pastoral position quite on purpose. That ship has long since sailed, and I leave it to better men and women than myself to do it.

No, I am a theologian – which means that I study God and God’s actions in the world most acutely – and then I try to make sense of this anthropologically. Unlike many a theologian today, I place my horse (God) firmly in from of the cart (humanity) and not the other way around. If your God is simply a projection of your own plight, wishes or agendas then you  will end up hopelessly lost in those very same horizontal waters. God is really not required at all. And if you know this you can actually test it with many people’s theology by removing God from the equation, and noting that really nothing much changes at all. Gid was just window dressing to spiritualize things.

Such is the state of much of much of American Theology – from the “Sublime to the Ridiculous” as they say. We will start with the Sublime.

DSCF9022The Sublime

It is exciting upon starting seminary to think of the theologians you will tackle, the in-depth exegesis of biblical texts you will do and the major issues you will get to discuss with in a long line of theologians.

None of this will actually happen. If you are clever (after you hit enough walls at fairly high speed) you will find ways to do some of this work via other classes. I found that Art and Literature-related classes gave me daylight to run and do some real work (so long as I also did art and  dealt with the literature at hand). Comparative religious studies also enabled me to read in areas like Christology), But my dreams of doing in-depth work on Paul’s Great Christological Hymn in Colossians chapter 1, had absolutely no takers and my papers doing more Middle Eastern unpackings  of Jesus’ parables were met with terse reviews and reluctantly high grades.

I think the worse thing I can say is that I really haven’t learned a damned thing. No new skills or tools. If anything I have consistently asked questions that have been left unanswered and ignored.

As for the Academy itself? It is largely dying – the result as I see it of over-specialization and accommodation to political winds. It would be as if I was that Anthropologist who, while studying in Graduate School, found his program constantly de-railed by theological concerns taking center-stage over anthropological ones: teachers coming to class to skew all there anthropological concerns according to religious moorings and doctrinal ideas like original sin, predestination or the Second Coming and biblical prophecy. If something like that were to so dominate the field of Anthropology you might think it utter madness; yet when immediate anthropological or geopolitical concerns immediate cul-de-sac the study of  theology no one seems to pay it the slightest mind.

Which is actually fine because the result is a dead lifeless theology of no concern: scholars writing to other scholars in a language which can best be described as “turgid.”

So the great Protestant seminaries of America fade into obscurity having forgotten their true subject, and making the mistake of thinking that endowment money will last forever.

The Ridiculous

Meanwhile one would love to say that in such a vacuum men and women of vision have taken up the mantle of vibrant theology and decided to go grassroots. I mean why not? We live in an affluent society and many a Megachurch alone could support and truly advanced learning/explorative new for of biblical/theological study.

Naw. That would interfere with their commercialization process or Christianity Lite.

Clean out those bookstores of all their theology, biblical studies – everything but Bibles (put them in the back so folk have to walk past all our wares) and pack the store with Osteeen, Hagee, LaHaye, Warren, Chapman, Dobson, Piper etc…

Elsewhere I have likened it to the mass production of Fast Food when what we need is healthy organic food. The veering off into politics and joining of “Good News” of freedom, faith and hope to the “Bad News” of moralising power politics has led to the all too accurate accusation of hypocrisy, lack of love and wholesale greed.

And o truly healthy theology can be taught alongside such nonsense.

People Are Hungry: Theology Survives

In times of famine people get inventive or they look to the past to what has worked. There are signs this may be taking place now. On the “Top Ten Christian bestseller list”we are used to see the ever-present C.S. Lewis book (one of our last great explorative 0s). theologians who, with Thomas Merton, died in 196o.

Of great note are books on Dietrich Bonhoeffer like Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxes. A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God and J.I. packer’s Knowing God.

But all of this underscores the reality that no new real theology is, or has been done in three to four decades.

Personal Theology

I said the current public situation was complicated (and this overview has been a simplistic one – you really don;lt even wanna know how messed up it is in all its intricacies.

But personal theology is not dependent of human institutions or social situations. Every since Athanasius fled tot the desert to seek refuge with St. Antony it became clear that your fidelity to God is never contingent on other people.

I love God, which is the first and most important quality for any real theologian to possess. People are critical of this but they are not really thinking it through. Who is the better veterinarian – the woman who loves animals or the one who dislikes them and thinks of them as just “things?”

All the more so with God Who, as you study Him is also your Creator and Redeemer via grace and love. if you have no awe them you have misunderstood your subject; if you have no love then you have not fully opened yourself in every way of understanding.

And if it is true (and it most assuredly is) that God gives God’s own Spirit to those who believe in Him in order to better understand Him then the more open and heart-felt and devoted your mind and heart is to Him the more illumined the Spirit can emblazon your  mind.

You will have the courage to entertain new notions and explore aspects of God;s nature and love others would shut down for fear’s sake. Far from using scripture to limit God; it would invite new “aha” experiences yet to be had.

I mean the same Spirit who inspired the Word of God inhabits your being. This does not releave you of the burden of training to study or the hard work of it – but it can leave you open to new discoveries.

 

 

 

 

 

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