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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The state of theology and the role of freelance theologians

James K.A. Smith, who stayed in our house in the Hague with his family a few years back, wrote last week about the state of contemporary theology, complaining in particular about the “balkanization” of professional theology today. He attributes this—in part, at least—to a shift in the way theologians identify themselves. Traditionally theological identity was determined by denominational allegiance: Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran. Now theologians appear to have developed a taste for more abstract and theory-laden labelling: “ecclesiocentric”, “apocalyptic”, “radically orthodox”.

Jamie attributes this development to an “ecumenical” theological education, exacerbated, naturally, by the blogosphere, and he is not happy about it. It’s unhealthy.

I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call “churchmen” in any strong sense (“churchwomen” included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.

So he argues, instead, for an old-fashioned, broad or “thick” confessionalism. It doesn’t have to be true, necessarily, but it has to be “good”, or at least “good enough”. He regards his own Christian Reformed identity not as a “recipe for sectarianism” but as something that frees him up to “engage selectively, critically, and generously”. I can see what he’s getting at, but I’m not entirely convinced by the argument for the following reasons:

  • I can see how an “ecumenical” theological education may undermine traditional commitments, but how is the new “balkanization” any worse than the old “balkanization” driven by denominational commitments? Arguably, it’s a lot better.
  • The denominational categories keep us firmly within the Christendom paradigm. They reflect the patterns, preoccupations and prejudices of historically determined debates. If theological activity has to be partitioned (I guess it’s unavoidable and probably not a bad thing) I think that it is well worth testing new ways of mapping the landscape—ideally ways that follow the contours of scripture better.
  • It ought to be much easier to let go of theoretical identities than denominational identities. If the new partitions are the product of a more ecumenical education, then we might hope that they will preserve something of this spirit of ecumenism. The institutional and cultural containers of our theologizing are much too rigid.
  • The sort of abstract theoretical commitments that Jamie is wary of cut across denominational boundaries and must to some extent mitigate the controlling force of denominational allegiances and politics.

But what prompted me, in the first place, to write this piece was Jamie’s dismissal of freelance theologizing, which I take rather personally. Freelance theologizing is what I do. I have an M.Phil and a PhD in theology. I have a loose but invaluable relationship with a non-denominational theological college in the UK and with a cautiously progressive US-based church-planting organization. I have always been strongly committed to diverse evangelical churches wherever we have lived, from Chinese Baptist to francophone African, from Anglican to Reformed Church of America, from restrained seeker-sensitive to romping charismatic. But I would not know what “thick” confessional location to plant myself in. I think of myself currently as a sort of post-Christendom, post-modern evangelical, but what does that mean?

While I understand the appeal of a centred approach to theological study, my view is that there is a real need for decentred theologians to challenge the massive consensuses that still set the agenda for western English-language theology. The blogosphere is an anarchic and promiscuous place, but it provides an important counter-medium for an exploratory, conversational, non-conformist mode of theological thought that may prove critical for the future of the people of God.

That said, Jamie is right to be concerned about a loss of collective responsibility in the shift from denominational to theoretical classification of theological positions. A “radical orthodox” or “apocalyptic” or “New Perspective” theologian has no clear constituency to support or be supported by; there is no underpinning ecclesiology; the danger of narcissism is apparent; and the connection between theology and what is traditionally called “discipleship” is greatly weakened.

But the answer, in my view is not to revert to traditional denominational categories but to seek to forge new collective identities, a new ecclesiology, a new sense of what it means to be in continuity with the biblical narrative in the aftermath of the collapse of the Christendom model. No matter how far outside the traditional boxes we find ourselves in our search for a way forward, we still have to confess. We are still part of the story. We still have to affirm the vocation of a people called originally in Abraham to be new creation. We still have to have do theology for the sake of the future of the people of God.

Comments

We’re in agreement on this one.  In the years since I left college I have often fretted about the location of theology.  It isn’t much of a choice to be sandwiched between denominational allegiance, clerical hierarchies or academic professionalism.  The testosterone fueled brawl between academics and clergy I have always found especially arid.  

Perhaps I am revealing my ecclesiology but the congregation seems to me to be a healthier theological location than the denomination.  Theology also belongs in the world.  Perhaps this is decentralization after Christendom.  Maybe in future I shall call myself a writer who happens to be a Mennonite, rather than a Mennonite writer.  

Andrew
Thanks for the post! Maybe you can comment on some of the things I’m wrestling with.  I sometimes wonder if “freelance theology” doesn’t  get confused with “fringe theology”? I understand that various categories (denominational etc) keep us firmly within the Christendom paradigm (and so we may want to be outside those constraints) but w/o a community where there’s leadership open to bringing a constructive critique and an incorporation or fleshing out of new theological perspectives VIA that community, do you think they just sort of get “tried out” on the blogosphere and then kind of evaporate in digital airspace? 

Where is there the community expression of the new theology that might bring it more credibility? You say you think of yourself currently as a sort of post-Christendom, post-modern evangelical,” and then ask “but what does that mean?” Precisely. Do you think a community’s  expression of a post Christendom, post evangelical church could contribute more dynamically to that definition?

 I agree that we need to forge new collective identities, and a new ecclesiology, and though blogging may be a part, how do you see a freelancing approach begin to merge more practically with community and bring new identity to community life “on the ground?” 

Jim,

I wonder if what we perhaps need to take account of here is the relationship between the explicit statement of “new theological perspectives”—the sort of thing that I indulge in—and the much more messy implicit expression of ideas, questions, frustrations, uncertainties, and hopes that simmers beneath the surface of much conventional modern evangelical practice and discourse.

The explicit statements are over-coherent—they give a misleading impression of clarity and cogency. The implicit expressions of new theological perspectives are under-coherent—inarticulate, fragmentary, confused, chaotic, etc. But my point is that the implicit stuff should not be underestimated.

It is natural to assume that change is driven by the explicit theology, so we look for leaders who will take the new perspectives and translate them into preachable material that will transform church and mission. No doubt it works that way up to a point. But I suspect that in many ways change is a grassroots phenomenon, driven by the incoherent implicit discourse, by a rumbling groundswell of opinion among a much broader swathe of thoughtful, passionate believers.

The two inevitably feed off each other. Or should feed of each other—it’s debatable how much theologians are prepared to listen to ordinary believers who don’t read Greek or Hebrew or Karl Barth. But the blogosphere is important insofar as it provides a place where that interaction may take place. This doesn’t have to be happening on the theological fringe. It should, in fact, be mainstream. And perhaps what freelance theologians can do is facilitate the interaction and slowly help to articulate a much more unified, grounded, visionary sense of what it means now to be the people of God.

Thanks for your insights Andrew. Maybe I’m just getting impatient. You said that you believe change will be a  “grassroots phenomenon, driven by the incoherent implicit discourse, by a rumbling groundswell of opinion among a much broader swathe of thoughtful, passionate believers.”

“Driven by the incoherent implicit discourse…” I know you don’t mean that we forsake logic and that theology was never meant to be entirely discernable and provide solid direction for the gathered life of the people of God and his mission…I’ve read too much of your stuff to believe that. But, if it is simply a “grassroots phenomenon”, and not not attached to any ecclesiological practice (or aspire to work out any of these issues in genuine community), then is it not (at least in part) simply a nuisance provocateur to already existing churches who learn to ignore this important, even groundbreaking discourse? 

I do believe, as you said, what freelance theologians can do is facilitate the interaction and slowly help to articulate a much more unified, grounded, visionary sense of what it means now to be the people of God. But I’m committed to the church’s work in actual contexts amid fairly sizable cultural shifts and want to see this incredible theological transition bring change in form and shape in relation to place. And I want the “disputable matters” triggered by the new theological perspectives resolved on the ground, brought in from the blogosphere into community, as well. Thanks again Andrew.