Friday, January 4, 2013

Theology today

I had a fascinating conversation with my daughters the other night.  We sat up for a couple hours talking about their sense of where God is leading them and how that may or may not involve theological study.  As we talked I reflected, not for the first time, about the way theology has changed in the last couple generations.

When thousands of young GI's returned from Europe and the Pacific after World War Two, many of them became pastors, and some of them chose to enter seminaries or universities to teach theology.  The cutting edge work in theology was being done in biblical studies, especially in New Testament studies.  Theological work on biblical studies, already a focus because of the "historical Jesus" work of the early 20th century, grew out of two major discoveries in the 1940's -- the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library.  The first was a collection of documents probably stashed away by a group of Jewish recluses called Essenes. The Nag Hammadi library was a collection of Gnostic documents from the late 2nd century that broadened our picture of the religious world of the early Christian period.

During that generation, as we came to grips with the horrors of war, a lot of theological work also focused on questions of theodicy, which asks how God is related to suffering and evil.  Not surprisingly, these were the same questions that engaged theologians after the First World War.  For a century or longer, biblical studies and theodicy were the driving questions in the field of theology.  Cutting edge theological work was done by careful thinkers and researchers and textual analysts in universities, seminaries and divinity schools.  People who had been marginalized in the field of theology (notably women and people of color) made inroads into this field by becoming established as faculty in prestigious seminaries.

In the waning years of the 20th century, the theological playing field began to shift.  Instead of wondering about ancient documents or the questions of God and suffering, the cutting edge work of theology began to happen in response to a major cultural shift.  The prosperity of the 50's, the sexual revolution of the 60's and the disillusionment of the 70's began to accelerate American culture's movement away from any sense of loyalty to the institutional church.  Many writers have chronicled the demise of "Christendom" and the renewed marginalization of the church in western culture.  As that marginalization happened, however, three new concerns have begun to emerge in theological work:

1. Epistemology
2. Ecclesiology
3. Pneumatology

For the next three posts on this blog, I'm going to take a stab at the concerns of each of these branches of theology.  Interestingly enough, none of these three was considered very important among theologians a hundred years ago.  Looking at history, however, I guess that makes sense.

The bigger shift that I want to mention in this post is that the location of theological work has changed.  Instead of the careful thinker in the ivory tower of academia, today the best theology in these three fields is being done in local congregations by those who are on the front lines of ministry.  Increasingly the best theological thinking comes from those who are struggling to live at the cutting edge, not just of theological thought, but of the church's mission in the real world.

I believe that's one of the most encouraging developments of my lifetime, and it gives me great hope for the future of Christianity.

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