For those of you who wonder what happens at a gathering of progressive theologians, here's a blow-by-blow of the first panel of the last day -- quite a powerhouse group. The topic is "transforming theology for society."
Emilie Townes: Are we built to transform anything? We need to remember to live not in the old scars of history and the past, but in the freedom we deserve.
My take: Everything we do is transformative -- in the permutation of the past into the present, and the present into the future. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Our besetting sin is to think that it's the job of another, or that our actions somehow have to be special to have transforming power.
William Dean: Reinhold Niebuhr opposed the word "progressive" because it implies that we can make the world better and better through the exercise of our own inherent capacity. We've been too receptive of the secular proposals of our conversation partners, and not aggressive enough in telling them what we know: the sacred dimension.
My take: Is liberal (Dean's preferred word) any better? It doesn't imply improving the world, but it implies that exercising our own inherent capacity of free will and its results is not a means, but an end. And given that theology takes its reflective on culture and context of religious life, I'm not sure it's inappropriate for us to listen more than we dictate. It is religious people, not the theological enterprise, that are in a position to make proposals to secular people as equal partners in the conversation. (Of course, the spheres of religious people and theologians overlap, but it would be important to know what hat one has on at any given moment.)
Jack Fitzmier: Find the missing conversation partners as soon as possible. Academic theologians presume to speak for all theology. Practical theology is the antidote to functionalist theological curricula -- they're not here! The conversation will advance faster if we reflect on our questions in light of our practice in the church (as preachers, teachers, in the pew). We should make a pact never again to laugh at Sarah, the young woman who said at the public meeting that she was getting a Ph.D. in theology and would soon be unemployed.
My take: Wow. I knew Jack was frustrated at the character and task of this gathering. I wish this talk had been at the end of the day. Although I'm sure we will discuss Jack's criticisms in the next hour, they're going to be swallowed up by the rest of the day. Will they ring in our ears as they should?
Glenn Stassen: Where is Reinhold Niebuhr when we need him? An expression of rage against the last eight years of removing regulations, extra-judicial detentions and torture, war, and emboldening of terrorism, withdrawal from treaties designed to provide international checks and balances. What is the meaning of our naive trust in the structures of power to be righteous, as Protestants? On second thought, it's not Niebuhr with his 19th century Jesus and poor Christology we need; we should take his robust understanding of sin and marry it to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's understanding of Jesus.
My take: Were those of us in this room naive about the last eight years? And right after Emilie asked us to look forward, too. The atmosphere of confession, of naming our own sins, is beginning to be overwhelming. How is this going to give the heads of seminaries and divinity schools and the heads of denominations anything to work with? Is this the moment for liberal guilt run amok?
Glenn's presentation does make a point that gives me pause. The question is what Christian vision has the power to transform thise particular society with all its ills and promise. Glenn answers that the Jesus we need is Bonhoeffer's -- an excellent prescription, in my view. So the relationship between theology and transformation is this: theological elaboration of a Christian vision originated in the religious culture (Bonhoeffer did not invent that Jesus, but painted a particularly full and powerful portrait of him), imagined in response to the experiences and context of a particular religious way of life. That reflection can be rekindled, but there's no prior guartantee that it will transform. For that, we wait (as Barth says) for God to miraculously transform our words into God's Word.
Break for videotaping interview responding to questions posed by readers of the conference blog ... whoa, those were some tough questions. "Is God as arbitrary as life?" It's energizing and humbling to try to think in those terms. I think the plan is to put together everyone's best answers and throw it all up on YouTube.
I come back in as the session is ending, but in time to hear a participant once again call us to support the 9/11 truth movement. And they ask why progressive theology is irrelevant ...