The New Christians

The New Christians

Transforming Theology Wrap-Up: Everything You Think About Progressive Theology Is Wrong


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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posted March 15, 2009 at 12:23 am

im pretty sure that i could say the same thing about your views on Reformed Theology/Theologians is completely wrong too…

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posted March 15, 2009 at 12:24 am

that was horrible grammar and im sorry…haha

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Rick Ellis

posted March 15, 2009 at 1:05 am

Thanks Tony for speaking at this event, I enjoyed sitting in the audience taking it all in. It was even cooler to bend your ear right afterwards about my hopes for the conservative church. It is true that these men and women were not the sacrey monsters we imagined. I pray that with the shifts and changes our world is facing that both sides would be able to come to the table and at least talk. I look forward to reading more from you about the impacts you make on both sides for Christ.

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tripp fuller

posted March 15, 2009 at 3:42 am

awesome tony.
donna bowman (a participating theologian) also did some live blogging people can check out here:

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posted March 15, 2009 at 8:28 am

Thanks for this post, Tony. I hope this means you’ve come to a different, more nuanced understanding of “progressive” groups like the United Church of Christ. I was rather confused and vexed by your description of the UCC in your book, “The New Christians.”
For example, you say that the UCC is a “notoriously left-leaning denomination.” This dewscription is a gross misrepresentation of the UCC, since the denomination is represented by a vast array of theological perspectives. The UCC is a rather “postmodern” denomination that is made up of a diversity of the polities, theologies, perspectives, and peoples from many different contexts: Evangelical, Reform, Congregational, Frontier Christian, Black Church, Rural America, Feminist, Womanist, Queer, etc. So, the UCC is a multiform denomination that seeks unity in it’s diversity. It’s not a ideological denomination that imposes any one agenda. It’s not accurate to label the UCC as a “notoriously left-leaning denomination.” A better description might be to label it a “notoriously ‘big tent’ denomination.”
Your description of the UCC was a caricature. But like you said, we’re all caricatured by each other. I just hope that gatherings like these – and many other conversations – lead us to a deeper appreciation of the gifts of one another’s families of faith.
We all want to love and serve God. We all want to love and serve our neighbors. We all want to take the Bible seriously. We all want to listen to the Word spoken by the Spirit. We all want to live by Christian values and morals.
We all have things to learn from one another. As Parker Palmer once said, “Truth is an ongoing conversation about things that matter.”

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posted March 15, 2009 at 8:32 am

LIBERAL! What does that word mean? Is it a curse word? Does it have any value in describing Christianity?
“Liberal” is a term that is used to describe Christians who are more committed to social justice than to Jesus Christ. They are the left-wing pinko commies who want to help the poor and feed the hungry. They are the tree-hugging environmentalists who drone on and on about global warming. They are the guilt-ridden PC police who incessantly speak up about classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. They are the grass roots army who thought Barack Obama would instantly usher in a new and glorious age of peace, justice, and equality. They are the enlightened Christians who have managed to transcend superstitious ideas such as the effectiveness of praying to a listening God. They are the science-loving fact-fundamentalists who have rejected the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. They are the relativists who don’t believe we can have any meaning or purpose in life. They are the secular humanists who forced God out of public schools. Damn, dirty liberals!
Obviously, this is a caricature of “liberal” Christianity and how their opponents view them. But it makes the point. Liberal is seen as a dirty word. It’s often associated with the “high” liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. These folks gave liberalism a bad name. They were Deists who thought God was simply their side-kick. They were self-made men who saw Jesus as their buddy along their journey of success. They were supremely optimistic folks who thought they could build the Kingdom of God on earth through democracy, education, and social welfare programs. But soon they were knocked down from their high horse.
The “high” liberals were soon faced with the reality of sin and evil in graphic ways. The Holocaust and WWII pointed out the inappropriateness of extreme optimistic views of humanity upheld in liberalism. Feminists pointed out the sexism and patriarchy in liberalism. Postcolonialists pointed out the imperialism in liberalism. Black Liberation theologians pointed out the racism in liberalism. Queer theologians pointed out the homophobia in liberalism. Postmodernity challenged the Newtonian science of liberalism. The list could go on and on. Soon even liberals began seeing “high” liberalism as problematic.
Thankfully post-liberal liberalism has managed to emerge out of the ruins of “high” liberalism. Process Theology is a great example of this post-liberal liberalism. It retains a commitment to social justice, but from a more nuanced perspective. It retains a commitment to mission, but from a more humble perspective. It retains an ethic of human responsibility, but from a more realistic perspective. And, importantly, it retains a liberal vision, but from a post-(“high”-)liberal perspective.
Liberalism is a good thing to be rooted in. It keeps us grounded in our founding documents and founding leaders. Yes, being liberal means conserving the best of our traditions. Looking at the Judeo-Christian tradition and history of the United States of America shows the conservative goal of liberalism.
In regard to the Judeo-Christian tradition, liberals conserve the core teachings of Scripture. Micah 4:3-4 provides a vision of peace where all people have liberty and equity: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” Matthew 25:32-36 provides a vision of judgement whereby God requires all peoples and nations to actively work for a just and fair world: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'” Amos 5:24 provides the summary statement of the liberal vision in Scripture: “let justice roll down like waters.”
In regard to tradition of the USA, liberals conserve the core principles of our nation. The Declaration of Independence argues that liberty is a core value: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Preamble to the Constitution talks about liberal goals: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” The Statue of Liberty has a liberal vision inscribed on it: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Liberals are the conservatives. They are the ones who want to conserve the ideals that have been the traditional guiding principles. Conserving these principles has led to the great liberal movements of the USA: abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc. All of these great transitional movements were led by liberal Christians. So, “liberal” is a term that needs to be reclaimed.
“Liberal Christianity” is a good thing. It means conserving and enacting the core social teachings of Scripture – especially those taught by Jesus Christ: peace, justice, love, equity, mutuality, etc. Liberal Christianity is conserves those traditional ideals. So it’s conservative to support “liberal” things such social justice, peace making, civil rights, marriage equality, LGBT ordination, eco-justice, equal pay for equal work, etc. Liberals want traditional values such as peace and justice for all people. And that makes them liberal with their conservatism.

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Adin Eichler

posted March 15, 2009 at 9:05 am

I’m hoping that there will be Internet posts of some of the presentations that most impressed you.
In the cyberage, the conference only becomes truly élitist, when poor folks cannot access the conversation even online.

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posted March 15, 2009 at 10:09 am

Amen Adin!

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Theresa Seeber

posted March 15, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Actually, Adin, there is some access to some videos online. Tony, how can we see the dialogue recorded between you and Philip Clayton afterwards? Was the rest of the event recorded for watching online as well?
Anyway, I am stoked I was able to come be a part of this. It was GREAT seeing you again. I can’t believe I almost missed out because I didn’t realize it was local. Somehow I had thought it was in your region! Thank God I figured it out before it was too late. And I was wondering, who are the question-submitting winners? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…..? I have one posted at one of my blogs, and I asked it way better in person than I did online, IMHO.

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Your Name

posted March 15, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Stereotyping is an evolutionary development which allows us to begin with a template when facing a situation where our knowledge is limited. The important and difficult thing to do is to allow the template to be disgarded as we learn more, to displace its generalized projections with informed views based upon experience.
Now here is the challenge for everyone, me included, and it is to be open in observation, and constructively critical in review, (keeping in mind the problem of those pesky stereotypes.) Yes, it is profoundly difficult to do this, but who said life struggles and lessons would ever be easy? Worthwhile, interesting, meaningful, occasionally downright scary? Absolutely. What we are called to do is to see honestly and act charitably, (just as we would wish others to do with respect to us.) This includes self-reflections and judgments which can also catch us up in a web of destructive and strangely enough ignorance. Know thyself, accept thyself, and then come to know and love others similarly, with charity of disposition as well as action. Sometimes, (often), I wish this was easier. But then was anything truly worthwhile ever easy? We seem to have an inherent need to struggle. What we need is to discover the gift of surrender. There is another word for that …. Humility. True humility accepts the limitations we have. Here is a secret, even if you had an IQ of 250, and the strength of a titan, and the charima and looks of an Adonis, you would still bump into limits. The struggle is the same, it is merely a difference of scale. Now doesn’t that put us all on the same page.
Sorry for the drawn out, and perhaps slightly off-topic note. This is a wisdom I am slowly acquiring, often in spits and starts, and often at the end of some very tough struggles. (Anyone else ever notice that once you pass to the point of complete frustration, finally acknowledging that there is nothing else to do but shake in place, that there comes a surrender and then peace again? I will bet my bottom dollar that the approach to death is like this.)

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posted March 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Tony, You title says “everything you think about progressive theology” is wrong”, but later in the post you say progressive “theologians.” I think it’s very important to distinguish these two statements.
It’s helpful to be reminded that those with whom I disagree theologically don’t steal candy from babies or moonlight as brothel-owners. They are likely all warm and kind, gentle and humble. BUT, that doesn’t mean we can’t have vigorous debates about the value and possible detriments of their theology! In fact, your recent comments on Augustine and Calvin have seemed to try to walk this same line of “loving the theologian, while hating the theology.” This is a difficult balance to keep, but it is necessary. Sincerity and love are necessary for a good theologian, but they are not sufficient to make one helpful to the Church; thus an evaluation of one’s “theological output” will always go beyond their public personality, while also never neglecting it.
Also, I wonder if you might give us an idea of conferences you feel more-fully serve the Church. I wonder what you think about conferences like Together for the Gospel and the National Ligionier conference, which occurrs next week in FL. These run deep in practical theology and thousands of pastors and laypersons find them extremely encouraging. Are you not able to advocate such conferences because you disagree with their theology? Or do you think their theology is simply less-relevant to the life of the Church because it’s not a direct promotion of social justice, green practices, etc? I’d challenge you to listen to Thabiti Anyabwile’s sermon at the ’08 Together for the Gospel conference as a “fundamentalist” yet deeply theological, and immensely practical sermon on race in the Church. I attached the link above.

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Albert the Abstainer

posted March 15, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Your Name above is actually Albert the Abstainer.

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posted March 15, 2009 at 6:03 pm

The two old testament quotations you used are totally out of context, my friend.
Your Amos quote is talking about God killing everyone in Israel, about Israel receiving their just consequence for whoring out their souls to foreign gods and pride. Justice for Idolatry, not the social justice you fight so hard for.
And the Micah text is clearly talking about the new Jerusalem that will come after the return of Christ, and not anything we can obtain this side of that event.
Now, that being said, i think you can make a case for a personal version of what your talking about. We cannot and must not stay in our holy huddle and call the world outside “icky” and be totally isolated from the world. But the Lord himself clearly tells us to not get caught up in this world so much as we forget where our ultimate treasure is.
We must, as individuals, be as conscious as we can about being good stewards of what God has gave us, and since God made everything, including us, everything you speak of falls under that category.
But, a word of caution… this world is decaying and dying. Say what you want about original sin and its effects on creation but I for one am not prideful enough to say that I can change the course of this world anymore than an ant can control the course of a moving truck. We must not make social justice our cause. Christ is our cause.
We are his bride, we are his body, and eventually we will have to give an account for what we did with the Spirit of God and if all we did was make the world a better place to go to hell from, we have done nothing.
your going to have to

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posted March 15, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Benjamin, I’m glad that we both agree that Christ is our cause.

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Your Name

posted March 16, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Hello there! Welcome to a crash course in a single hour in practically any class one would take at CST!
What I’ve witnessed in this quick read is someone who is undergoing a paradigm shift. We bring agendas, perceptions and our own assumptions to the table at any event with people of differing viewpoints. I am happy that the author of this article, who established himself on a certain point of the spectrum, is able to be challenged and learn from others.
For everyone who is exposed to differing viewpoints at one point or another, let’s learn to reserve judgment. We will all grow in fertile soil that way.
Glad you enjoyed your stay in Claremont!
BTW-Process Theology is very kind to many a faith tradition. Everyone should check it out!

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posted March 18, 2009 at 10:24 pm

To Brian and Benjamin, it is clear that Christ is our couse, but also aknoledge that Christ couse include Social Justice, and if we do not advocate for Social Justice we are not following Christ couse.
Thank You.

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posted March 23, 2009 at 6:11 pm

I completely disagree Emilio. Jesus came according to the Bible ” … to save that which was lost.” MTH 18:11. Jesus did not focus or condemn the Social Injustices of His day. Where did you see Jesus Condemn Slavery? Jesus came for one purpose to Save that which was LOST.. What was lost. WE WERE. What were we lost to. TO an eternal life in hell. Jesus came to save us from that. What did Jesus tell us to to do. To GO and make disciples. Disciples of what. Of HIM. To also reach the lost with His promise of salvation. If we concentrate on that, and focus solely on our relationship with Him, by reaching the lost, ARE WE NOT solving the problem of social injustice? The problem is you guys are focusing on the symptoms of the problem not the source. Social injustice is just a symptom of fallen man and the Source is the disease SIN. SIN IS THE PROBLEM. If we focus on preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work in the lives of His own. Does not Jesus tell us that ” Our Father knows our needs before we even ask of him.” Does he not say that Our Father will supply our every need. If we reach the LOST then our Father will provide every need. Let’s get our priorities right. We are fallen human beings whose righteousness (good deeds) are nothing more than filthy rags (used tampons). Only through Christ’s righteousness imputed into man can we ever see true righteousness and the issues of social injustice dealt with. Focus on Jesus and ” Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you!”… Praise Jesus!

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