Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Theology as a Craft

I am reprinting a series of brief posts on the nature of theology from my old blog Levellers. After I reprint each post, I’ll make an index page and put the series up on my page of “popular posts and series.” (The series was popular on my old blog, anyway, and I’m trying to make sure that former readers can still find material they liked on this blog, Pilgrim Pathways.)


What IS ‘theology?”

Different definitions of theology lead to different methods/approaches of “doing theology.”  I propose the definition given by the late Baptist theologian of the “[b]aptist Vision,” i.e., the constitutive vision of the Believers’ Churches, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000).  Theology, McClendon said, is “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”  He intended this definition to be broad enough to encompass the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc.  If the “convictional community” in question is the Christian Church, then theology is the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of the Christian Church, including the discovery and critical revision of disciples’ relation(s) to one another, to the Triune GOD, and to the rest of Creation.” (My adaptation.)

Certain things follow from such a definition:  i. Theology is pluralistic; done in different, even rival, camps.  There is struggle in theology–the struggle for truth. This sometimes involves struggle against the perceived errors of others.  Because Christ prayed that the Church would enjoy the same unity that he enjoys with the Father, striving for ecumenical reconciliation in the fractured Church is mandatory.  But all the ecumenical good will in the world cannot disguise the fact that theologians (and churches) disagree and that some of these disagreements are sharp and deep. Another way to say this is that theology is contextual  –related to differing church traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, “baptist,” etc.), differing eras, differing cultural contexts.

ii. Theology is narrative based, construing the lived experience of the convictional community by means of Scripture.  There are, of course, different readings of Scripture:  A 12th C. Franciscan “take” on the biblical narrative differs from a 17th C. Jesuit take on the same narrative–but they are both much closer than either is to the “take” of a 16th C. Dutch Mennonite, of 19th C. antebellum African-American Christians in the U.S. South, of a WWI-era Pentecostal, of a Peruvian “base community” in the 1970s, of a Reformed “take” in South Africa during the “Boer War” resistance to British rule, of an African Christian response to both the British and Afrikaaner readings, etc.

iii. Theology is rational.  Some (Schleiermacher, Barth) have called theology a “science,” and in the broadest sense of the term, this is true.  But because in English “science” is understood after the model of the natural sciences, McClendon suggests (and I agree) that it is less confusing to call theology a discipline that is to display the rationality appropriate to its metier, just as the disciplines of art, law, and medicine display their own particular rationalities. Thus, like these other cases, theology is a practice, a craft, that is rooted in the other practices (e.g., mission, evangelism, worship, communal prayer, preaching, hospitality to the poor and the stranger, life together in the Body, nonviolent service to the neighbor, nonviolent encounter/witness with the enemy,  etc.) of the Church.  The theologian must likewise be rooted in these practices, in a particular Christian community, even if s/he is employed by a secular or pluralist university.

iv. This leads us to the fact that theology is self-involving.  Possibly in rare circumstances a Christian theologian could write a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist theology (Hans Küng has attempted this regarding Judaism and Islam) or some non-Christian could undertake to write a Christian theology.  But these would be exceptions that prove the rule.  In convictional work, self-involvement is the rule, exceptions must be explained case-by-case.  (This is NOT to say that Christian theologians should not be in dialogue with non-Christian movements. The missionary nature of the Church means that, in each context, theologians will dialogue with major forces and thought-forms in their cultural context.  But the theologian does not attempt to adopt a “neutral” or “detached” observer frame. S/he is not an anthropologist.)

I. Is this a good way to understand theology? Why or why not?

II. What does the practice of theology look like when understood this way?

May 21, 2012 Posted by | blog series, ecumenism, moral discernment, theology, tradition | Leave a comment

Jonathan Marlowe & Methodist/Wesleyan Theology

Taking up my challenge in the comments after the Wesley post, Jonathan Marlowe, UMC minister who blogs at The Ivy Bush, will write a series of posts profiling those he decides are the Ten (10) Most Important Methodist Theologians Since the Wesleys. [update: He will do 20! 1st installment up today!]  He has 16 candidates so far. 🙂 Especially (but not only) if you hail from the Methodist or Wesleyan tradition, check out his list and upcoming series.  Discuss/debate with his choices.  I have too often heard non-Wesleyans and non-Methodists (especially Lutherans and the Reformed) claim that the movement is long on organization and short on theological depth.  I don’t think that is true and I hope this series displays some of the theological depth in this form of global Christianity.  I have also challenged Jonathan to follow the series with a list of “New Voices” in the tradition from around the world.

Here’s Jonathan’s current list of 16 which he hopes to whittle to 10:

Contemporary with John and Charles Wesley in the 18th C.:

John Fletcher (first “systematic” Methodist theologian), Thomas Coke, and the Calvinistic Methodist, George Whitefield.

Since that era (in no particular order). Those marked with an asterisk * are not known to me:

Albert Outler

Georgia Harkness

Edwin Lewis *

Borden Parker Bowne

Edgar Sheffield (E.S.) Brightman

Thomas C. Oden

John Cobb

Nathan Bangs*

William Cannon*

Geoffrey Wainwright

Stanley Hauerwas (recently become an Episcopalian)

E. Stanley Jones

William Willimon

Richard Allen

Richard B. Hays

James Cone.

Because I want discussion to move to Jonathan’s blog, I will close comments on this post–not my usual practice.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, church history, ecumenism, Methodists, theologians, theology | Leave a comment

Contributions in Ecumenical Theology

On my old blog, Levellers, I sometimes participated in group projects led by other theology bloggers.  These proved to be some of the most popular posts with my readers, so I want visitors to Pilgrim Pathways  to be able to find them, now that Levellers is d.o.a.

Encounters with Tradition  Ben Myers, Australian theologian who runs Faith and Theology, probably the best theological site in the blogosphere, ran a 7-part series called “Encounters with Tradition” showing how different theologians wrestled with their own theological/ecclesial traditions and also learned the “grammar” of at least one other tradition as a “second first language.”  My own contribution to the series is # 5 and called “Becoming a Global Baptist.”  The entire series is found here.  Scroll down to the bottom and start with the introduction. Enjoy:  The other entries make up for mine. The comments to each entry are closed, but many of them are worth reading, as well.

The second series in which I participated ecumenically in the blogosphere was called “My Peace I Leave Unto You.”  This was a series of posts on Christian pacifism.  Each participant described their own conversion to Christian pacifism and how that fit with their particular theological tradition.  My contribution was called, “Gospel Nonviolence:  An Anabaptist-Baptist Approach.”  Other contributions included a British Reformed pacifism, pacifism within the Restorationis/Stone-Campbell movement, a U.S. non-denominational Evangelical pacifism, a Free Church pacifism, and the pacifism of a convert to Orthodoxy.  In my view, it was sad that we never had a contribution from any of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers/Friends, Brethren), or from Catholicism (Catholic pacifism comes in several flavors:  Benedictine pacifism, Franciscan pacifism, Jesuit militant nonviolence, Merton/Trappist pacifism, Dorothy Day/Catholic Worker pacifism, to name the most obvious forms), the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions, nor a pacifist perspective from someone lifelong in the Orthodox tradition.  Nor did the series contain any contributions by women, non-whites, or inhabitants of the Global South.  Still, even within its limits, it was a good series.  An index to all entries is found here.  This was all done at Inhabitatio Dei, the great theological blog of Halden Doege.  Readers are invited to check all these things out for themselves.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | blog series, ecumenism, pacifism, testimony, theology | Leave a comment

Neglected Theologian: Georgia Harkness

Georgia Elma Harkness (1891-1974), first woman to teach theology in an American seminary, was once a household name, but few today know who she is–and all of her writings are out of print.  We need to recover the work of this neglected theologian for the life of the church today.

Born 21 April 1891, Harkness was the youngest of four children born to Joseph Warren Harkness and Lillie Merrill Harkness.  She was born in Harkness, NY, a town in the Adirondacks named for her grandfather.  A Methodist, she was personally converted in a revival as a teenager, and sensed a calling to serve the church.  Her family was upper middle class and progressive, thereby giving her opportunities for education beyond what was available to most girls and women of her era.  Avoiding the women’s colleges, she earned a B.A. (philosophy) from Cornell University in 1912.

In a later age, Harkness would probably have gone straight to a seminary and training for the ministry, but seminaries did not admit women as regular, degree-seeking, students and ordained women were very rare.  Harkness intended to volunteer for overseas mission work after her graduation from Cornell, but family problems prevented this. She taught high school for six (6) years, but was restless.  She wanted to do more to serve the church and she wanted to pursue studies in theology.  So, she went to Boston University (related to the Methodists).  Denied entrance because of her sex to BU’s School of Theology, she matriculated in the Department of Religion of the Graduate School  and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion in 1923 with a dissertation entitled, ” The Relations Between Philosophy of Religion and Ethics in the Thought of Thomas Hill Green.”  (Green (1836-1882), was a liberal   British Idealist philosopher and social reformer who died 10 years before Harkness’ birth. )

 For the next 15 years, Harkness taught courses in religion and philosophy at Elmira College in Elmira, NY–at the time a women’s college, but now co-educational. During summers and sabbatical leaves, Harkness continued her theological education by attending Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary (NY) always with the status of “special” (non-degree) student.  In 1926, she was ordained by the Methodist Church (later part of the United Methodist Church), but, along with all other women, she was not admitted to any Conference (and, thus, could not function as a minister) until 1956. 

From 1937 to 1940, Harkness was Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachussetts and from 1940-1949, she was Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Biblical Institute near Chicago, IL.  Garrett Biblical Institute, now known as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, is a post-baccalaureate Methodist theological seminary whose main mission is the preparation of divinity students for ordained ministry.  Harkness was the first woman hired to teach theology at any seminary in the U.S.  Today, the Chair of Applied Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is known as the Georgia Harkness Chair of Applied Theology.  Harkness ended her active teaching ministry at The Pacific School of Religion, an ecumenical seminary related to the United Church of Christ outside of San Francisco,CA.  She was Professor of Applied Theology at PSR from 1949 until her retirement in 1960. 

Her early interests in global missions and in global and ecumenical Christianity never left Harkness.  Unable to be a missionary herself, Harkness did support work for Methodist global missions, including writing materials for them, especially the Methodist Board of World Peace and and the Board of Social and Economic Relations.  After World War II, Harkness also did much to support the global ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches, serving on both the Faith and Order and Church and World Commissions. Her hymn, “The Hope of the World,” was chosen by the Hymn Society of America  (now the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) for the Second global meeting of the World Council of Churches which was held in Evanston, IL in 1954 and had as it’s theme, “Christ, the Hope of the World.”  Harkness had previously played key roles in the Life and Work conference at Oxford (1937), and at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, 1948.   In the 1957-1958 school year, Harkness served as Visiting Professor at both the International Christian University in Japan and the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary, Manila, the Philippines.

This pioneer for women in ministry and early feminist theologian usually was irenic and balanced in her approach to such matters.  Living in a very patriarchal and sexist era, she knew the dangers of appearing to male-dominated structures as “shrill,” or “strident,” in her advocacy of equality, and so was quick to praise opening or partial steps even while continuing to push for full gender equality in home, church, and society.  Typical of Harkness’ approach on these matters, she advocated equal ordination and ministry for decades, but when the 1956 Methodist meeting in Minneapolis opened the door for full pastoral ministry for women, Harkness let younger female colleagues take the lead in advocating for the motion on the floor.  However, her caution did not mean timidity, for at the World Council of Churches in 1948, Harkness openly confronted Karl Barth himself on his theology of female subordination!  Though Barth’s influence intimidated many, Harkness refuted him point-by-point in open debate and the great man’s startled reaction showed that he was completely unused to confronting strong, independent women! (A year later, when someone mentioned the event to him, Barth replied, “Remember me not of that woman!”)

Harkness wrote over 30 books in her lifetime.  She dealt with numerous theological subjects: Christian ethics, social concern in global contexts, equality of the sexes, racial equality and integration (though she was not an active participant in the Civil Rights struggle, she openly supported its goals and there was much personal correspondence between Harkness and  African America leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and Howard Thurman), the nature of the church, a study from her own Wesleyan Methodist perspective of Calvin’s ethics, prayer and the life of devotion, mysticism, the Holy Spirit, eschatology (partially anticipating themes later made more prominent by Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann), the relation of religion to philosophy and to science, secularism (which she saw as more of a challenge than a reason to celebrate, contrasting with the early work of Harvey Cox), and apologetics.  Concerned to be understood by a wide audience, Harkness wrote with clarity and a refusal to cloak her thought in academic obscurantism (which led her critics to charge her with a lack of depth or profundity), but always a wide awareness of the history of Christian thought and of current trends on the global scene. 

She characterized her theological perspective as that of a “chastened liberalism.” She had been raised in the optimism of the late 19th C., been educated in the traditions of Idealism and Borden Parker Bowne’s “Boston Personalism,” as well as the Social Gospel. Even after World War I and into the Great Depression, Harkness could declare her faith in human moral progress, her strong pacifism, and rejoice that belief in Original Sin was disappearing. “The faster it goes, the better,” she remarked to The Christian Century.  Yet she interacted with the rise of Neoorthodoxy in the perspectives of Barth, Brunner, Suzanne de Dietrich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich.  On the eve of the Second World War, Harkness called on liberal Protestantism to recall the meaning of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  Not surrendering her pacifism, she stated that although she remained committed to liberalism, “it was a chastened and deepened liberalism.” Human moral progress was possible, but did not follow an evolutionary certainty, and was dependant always on the grace of God.  She still considered traditional formulations of original sin to be problematic, but recognized anew the power of sin in both individuals and social structures.

Harkness’ books are entirely out of print and the influence she once had is largely eclipsed, even among contemporary feminist theologians.  Yet the Chair of Applied Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is named for her and so is a scholarship for women ministry students over 30 at Pacific School of Religion.   The church historian Rosemary Skinner Keller wrote a secondary study of Harkness, Georgia Harkness:  For Such a Time as This (Abingdon Press, 1992) and in the Doctrine volume of his 3-part Systematic Theology, James Wm. McClendon lists Harkness (along with Walter Rauschenbusch, E.Y. Mullins, D.C. MacIntosh, W.T. Conner, and Dale Moody) as among the guiding forerunners of his approach.  Rebekah Miles, Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, has just edited a reader of Harkness’ early essays, Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010).  Miles had previously written a biographical and theological sketch of Harkness as a chapter in Makers of Christian Theology in America, ed., Mark Toulouse and James Duke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).   So, the groundwork is set for a recovery of this neglected pioneer feminist theologian.  In my view, such a recovery cannot come too soon. We need Harkness’ voice as a conversation partner for our 21st C. context.

February 20, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, ecumenism, history of theology, Methodists, theologians | 12 Comments

Ashes to Ashes: One Baptist’s Reason for Observing Lent

The Western liturgical calendar was largely abandoned in the Protestant Reformation, especially by the Radical Reformers and later Believers’ Church groups, including my own tradition, the Baptists.  The more “low church” one’s tradition, the more likely that Christmas and Easter were the only holy days left in your liturgical calendar. (I can still remember one Baptist minister who said his church wouldn’t be doing anything on Easter that was different from any other Sunday because they ALWAYS celebrated Christ’s resurrection.)

The Medieval Church NEEDED huge reform, including reform in worship. And the desire of Reformers, Puritans, Anabaptists, Baptists, and others to scrape away encrusted ritual and return to forms of worship more directly patterned on the New Testament was laudable.  But count me among those who think that, in many cases, we threw out the baby with the bathwater.  The liturgical renewal movement, including the forging of a common church calendar and a common lectionary, has been one of the great gains of the Ecumenical movement.  Those Baptists who have been part of various national ecumenical bodies (e.g., the National Council of Churches in the US) and/or the World Council of Churches, have usually participated in this liturgical renewal. The American Baptists, the Alliance of Baptist, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, are in this conciliar ecumenical movement.  The Baptist groups which have not participated (including the SBC, the CBF, the Baptist General Conference, the Conservative Baptist Association, the North American Baptist Conference, etc.) have generally stood apart from this renewal–although individual congregations in each of these groups have participated.

Recently, several Baptists from my part of the world (the U.S. South), have written some strong arguments for observing the 40 days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, today.  Here is one such article by Darrell Pursiful, and another by Beth Felker Jones.  But I wanted to explain my own journey to the common Western liturgical calendar and then my personal reasons for observing Lent (and I’m lucky to belong to a Baptist congregation that observes Lent, too). (Note: There is tragedy and brokeness in my speaking of the Western calendar–for it points to the great schism between the Eastern churches and the Western churches.  Much healing is needed there, but that is a subject for another time. UPDATE: I learn from Pursifal that this year, the Eastern and Western churches both celebrate Easter on 04 April–which means we’ll also have the same Lents, Holy Weeks!)

First, I was not raised Baptist, but Methodist.  Now, if the United Methodists were participating in the ecumenical liturgical renewal (as they certainly are now) as far back as my childhood in the ’60s, I was not aware of it.  But we at least observed enough of the church calendar to have services all through Holy Week.  When I became a Baptist, I found no such services and we went straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday with nothing in between.  This made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why.  One day, a Catholic theologian friend of mine said to me, “The problem with you Protestants is that you raise Jesus from the grave too soon!” Well, I don’t know whether that was fair to all Protestants, but it certainly fit my experience with Baptists!  Going from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of RESURRECTION without any observance of abandonment and betrayal, suffering and death, was false to the gospel and it led to a triumphalism–a theology of glory instead of a theology of the cross, to use Luther’s terminology!  It gave us the “sweet Christ,”  when our suffering world cries out for the “bitter Christ,” (Thomas Müntzer) of Gethsemane and Golgotha. So, when I first began to be a student pastor, myself, I made sure to include services on Maunday Thursday and Good Friday.  (The Church might need to add to this to tell the Story correctly. We may need to add a “Confrontation Monday” that focuses on Jesus’ nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, too! And a Teaching Tuesday and Interrogation Wednesday, perhaps, as well.)

Building on that recovery of Holy Week, this then-young preacher discovered the need for the liturgical calendar: It teaches us Christians to narrate our lives according to the Christian Story: Advent teaches us to await the Christ (which also points to the Second Advent, we await as well) and prepare for his gracious coming. Christmas, despite its very maculate origins and borrowings from various pagan traditions, or, perhaps BECAUSE of that, helps us to celebrate fully the Incarnation, the En-Fleshing of God’s very Wisdom/Word. Epiphany, Pentecost, they all have their lessons. And Lent, too, as I’ll soon relate.  But without some such calendar, the Church gathered and scattered plots out life together and life scattered in the world by other calendars, other stories.  The liturgical calendar helps us make time sacred–to make our lives sanctified by living them according to other patterns than that of our respective cultures.  The forces of secularization are everywhere mighty–and the liturgical calendar is a shield that helps us resist the secularizing of time in our lives.  Without it, our churches still take note of the calendar, but worship is planned around President’s Day, and Independence Day, Groundhog Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day—a different narrative, often a RIVAL narrative, to the gospel.

So, I as a young preacher, started to plan my sermons and worship services  according to the liturgical calendar, and then to use the New Common Lectionary so that I did not simply preach my hobby horses. (I did not, at first, tell my congregation what I was doing! And I remain Free Church enough to not be ENSLAVED to a tool like the Lectionary–which can be set aside if the Spirit leads to a special need of the church. And since the selections for the Season of Pentecost/Ordinary Time are more haphazzard than the rest of the lectionary–especially in Year C–I would preach through whole books during the summer, a tradition that Calvin called Lectio continua and which has deep roots in Baptist life. It still put me on someone else’s agenda so that I did not preach only “my favorite verses” or my own “canon within the canon.”)

But, I admit, that I didn’t at first “get” Lent.  It seemed very “hair shirt” and to smack of “needless ritual.”  Smudging the head with ashes? Fasting or renouncing something for forty (40) days while spending time in introspection and repentence? Isn’t that too much bemoaning our sin and not celebrating the grace and new life in Christ which is ours to claim?  So, I dug into the history of Lent. (It’s what I do.) It arose AFTER the church was no longer an outlaw religion in the Roman empire. After Constantine’s shotgun wedding of church and empire, a process completed when Theodosius made the formerly illegal sect loved by women and slaves into the official Roman Imperial religion.  Suddenly the church had huge numbers of “Christians” who were so for appearance only.  Gone were the days of preparatory instruction (sometimes as much as 3 years!) before baptism (usually on Easter) into the church.  Gone was the costliness of Christianity and the apparent difference between church and world.  So, Lent arose out of the same process that created monasticism– a desire to help true Christians to reflect on the costliness of discipleship and to remind each other and ourselves that we are not the world, but strangers in an alien land (no matter how “Christian” our land claims to be) while the Lord tarries.

So, “dust to dust,” we are smudged with ash on a certain Wednesday to remind us of our mortality, both as frail creatures of dust, and as followers of the One who told us that following Him would lead to death. With Jesus our brother, author and pioneer of our faith, we “set our face(s) to Jerusalem,” toward rejection, betrayal, abandonment, persecution by the Powerful, and unjust death.  Oh, there is triumph and joy coming, friends, but no one gets there without going through a certain Place of the Skull. We are living out a story in which none of us gets out alive–as even our baptisms proclaim.  We are smudged on a Wednesday and then, helping us to set our faces to Jerusalem with Jesus, we practice the ancient discipline of fasting, we give up something, deprive ourselves–of meat or sweets or alcohol or all of the above. We embrace an extra practice, spending more time in prayer or visiting the sick, or any combination of the above.  We do this not out of some dreadful masochism, as I once thought, but because discipline and privation provide FOCUS–for our minds, hearts, souls.  “Purity of heart,” said Kierkegaard, “is to will ONE thing,” namely that which GOD wills. That takes focus, clarity. But the pure in heart, a Higher Authority than Kierkegaard even, assured us, will SEE GOD.

Thus, I, a Baptist, observe Lent.  Not because I think ritual saves me–grace does that. Nor because Lent is the only way to remember we are NOT the world–the Amish remember without Lent quite nicely.  But because this is one way that we can remember who we are and Whose we are ALONG WITH all our sisters and brothers in Christ.  Lent not only purifies us as the Church, but, helps this Body of Christ be, for 40 days, a little over a month, somewhat less shattered and scattered and broken into fragments.  Jesus prayed that we would all be one. I do not believe that takes a necessarily INSTITUTIONAL unity–but it will need to be a visible unity–and what could be more visible than the Body of Christ, Protestant and Catholic and Anglican (and, this year, the Eastern Orthodox on the same calendar) and Pentecostal and Free Church all being smudged with ash and practicing some form of fasting for 40 days?

Let us, with Jesus, set our faces toward Jerusalem tonight. “Remember, O Mortal, that Thou art Dust. From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Amen.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, ecumenism, Lent, liturgy, worship | 25 Comments