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The New Christians

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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.

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