The New Christians


Well, my time here at Claremont is just about up. I’m sitting in Mudd Auditorium, listening to the second of two public panels.  Here are my reflections, looking back on the last three days.

First, I have to note that I felt somewhat out of place. In general, I think that I can hold my own academically with people who teach at places like Harvard, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, Yale, and Claremont. But the longer that I’m out of the academy proper, the stranger I feel when I’m surrounded by academic theologians.  And these are academic theologians.  In fact, I was the only conferee without an institutional affiliation — my nametag said “emergent church” under my name.

Second, this liberalism unfamiliar territory for me. I grew up in the mainline church, but it was in the Midwest.  So we were mainline Congregationalists, but I don’t think that we could have been classified as “liberals” per se.  Now, of course, the theologians at this event were at different points along the spectrum. But I guess in general I have rubbed academic shoulders with more center-right folks in the past.

Third, I do get frustrated at the language patterns that academia breeds. This isn’t just liberals, to be sure, but liberals might tend to be more apt to use esoteric language.  There’s a lot at stake at a meeting like this, and there are lots of dynamics in the room. Some people have long histories with one another, and others are new to the group and want to make a good impression. I suppose some people in the room have applied for the same jobs, or will. To be honest, I’m not as patient with the academic language as I should be, and I’m not all that good at hiding my frustration.

Further, a couple of the theology professors here expressed frustration at my liveblog posts, thinking that I was too negative in my reportage. Dear reader, I am not an objective reporter — in fact, I’m not a journalist at all. These are simply my unedited reflections, and, especially when it’s a liveblog event, I’m more raw in my reflections than usual.

Finally, fourth, and most important, hear me well: Everything you think about liberal progressive theologians is wrong. You think they don’t believe in God? Wrong! You think they don’t believe in Jesus? Wrong! You think they don’t take the Bible seriously? Wrong!

Yes, the conversation did at times spiral into conversations about theological and methodological esoterica.  Yes, there are ideologies on the left that sometimes bump up against the theological work that we are meant to do.  And yes, evangelicals and conservatives are sometimes caricatured. But none of these sins is any more egregious than the sins of conservatives against liberals.

There were younger, rising stars here, but I was most impressed by the elder statesmen/women: Harvey Cox, John Cobb, Emilie Townes, Bill Dean, and Del Brown, Roger Haight, and Marjorie Suchocki. These are the very names that are demonized by evangelical leaders — I remember the name “John Cobb” spoken in horror when I was up the road at Fuller Seminary (by fellow students, mind you, not by faculty) — he was the progenitor of (cue the scary music) process theology!

So here I am, 19 years later, at Claremont.  And guess what? John Cobb does not breathe fire!  No, he’s a kind, kind man with a wonderful Georgia accent who speaks as openly about the work of God in the world as he does about his opinions on the World Bank.

Harvey Cox, the lion of liberal theology is, in fact, diminutive in stature, ready with a smile and a self-deprecating joke, and quick to quote Paul’s epistles.

And I could go on.  But my point is, don’t believe what you’ve been told.  If you want to know what Cobb believes, read one of his books!  If you don’t know anything about womanist theology, read Emilie Townes.

And, better yet, if one of these theologians comes to your town, get out and see them.  And trust me, you’ll be hearing more about them in this space…

My thanks to Marjorie, and especially to Phillip Clayton — my new good friend — and Tripp Fuller — my less new good friend — for inviting me.  You’ll be hearing more about those two dudes here as well…


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