Since I got back home Sunday night from the Transforming Theology kickoff weekend, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the public forum held Saturday night. It was the second event of the weekend that was open to anyone who wanted to come and join the conversation. But it couldn't have been more different from the first one. Friday night five of the theologians who had been invited to Claremont gave brief presentations, and then the floor was opened for questions from the audience. The energy was low, the questions were few, and in general it felt like we had invited people in for a conversation we hadn't quite started ourselves.
Saturday night, however, Marjorie Suchocki -- in what can only be described as a stroke of genius that took real courage -- changed up the format. She asked everyone in the audience to write questions and pass them forward, and she read them aloud. Themes began to develop, and the ten members of the theology panel that night chose which questions they wanted to address -- two for each question, a call and response.
And what a response! Theologian after theologian took the podium and preached. They spoke out of their passion for the issues raised by the audience members. They provided specific resources through which the attendees could get involved. They showed that theology is a way to think through things that are important to us -- a method, a field in which reflection can be done about anything that's worth reflecting on. In contrast to the first night, where the subject matter was theology itself (and the church that presumably, according to the event's premise, needs it), on Saturday the subject was the deepest concerns of the people in the seats. And the theologians responded by showing how theology informs and motivates the way they care about injustice, poverty, AIDS, discrimination, pluralism, and other issues.
The difference between the two evenings reflected a division we struggled with all weekend. Is theology a product or a resource? For generations in the academic world, we have offered our accomplishments to those who want to come and buy. People planning to enter academia or the ministry were our customers. We wanted to equip them to do what we do, and we were secure in the knowledge that they needed us.
But I couldn't escape the feeling, all weekend long, that a different approach was needed. Do people need a finished product from us, something intended for a single use? Or do they need a pool of resources, a context carefully and complexly delineated and provided, something they can take for their own purposes? Do they need a theological world and a theological way of thinking that they apply to their own projects and passions?
To me, the two public forums made the point. We should be finding new ways to do our theology with anyone who wants to come and join us -- and being creative about how and where to gather, and whom to invite (new media, anyone?). If they come and find something they can take away, great. If not, we're doing what we have to do, anyway. But when we make the connection in a spirit of trust -- what do you care about? Here's what we have to offer -- and make a gift of our theology as the raw material for building meaningful lives and actions, we really have the possibility of transforming ourselves, our discipline, our institutions, and our communities.