Oh my but this part of the Chapter has taken a long time to write…
During my trip to the southern states in late February I managed to take in part of a theology conference hosted at Providence Presbyterian Church in Hilton Head, South Carolina. I don’t spend as much time in the presence of theologians these days for a number of reasons I guess. But since I was already planning on being in Atlanta (for another conference I will discuss shortly — in part c), it seemed like a good time to try to get a handle on what church leaders in a mainline denomination seem to be thinking in this time of Trump, America First and anti-free trade.
There was a wide assortment of people at the conference, lay and clergy, from many ethnic backgrounds and even in age, although there were not many really young adults that I could see. The theme was THEOLOGY MATTERS with a concomitant title: Confessing Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life in a Pluralistic Culture. It is not my intention here to give you a verbatim recollection of each keynote, plenary or workshop moment. And I am not going to use this space to try to convert you to any particular religious perspective. Rather I shall restrict my thoughts to some of the highlights and/or queries as I experienced them. If you need more thorough insights, let me know and I may be able to mail you copies of some of the backup material.
The most amazing thing I found, given the way the Canadian media often portrays the church in the South, was that there was no fawning love for Trumpism. In fact in a discussion on the theme of Jesus Christ the Truth, there was an interesting analysis of the church in the early days of Hitler’s rise to prominence. Pointing out that the statement has always been a provocative one, the speaker then referenced the Barmen Declaration by a dissident group of German minister which came out in 1934. He claimed that the dissolution of the church was being foreseen even then. He further contended that this Declaration actually was running counter to the general attitudes towards Hitler. And he asked why were so many great people from all walks of life in German society including ministers and scientists supporting this new leader? His response: they would have said they were motivated not by hate but by love!
History, nature, experience – these were all being renewed by Hitler’s leadership – make Germany great again. In fact, in responding to the Barmen Declaration which it found was too narrow and restrictive, the Ansbach Counsel contended that we must see God in the reality of our own lives – to the specific historic moment of the family, the people, the race, i.e. to a specific moment in history (which at the time was to acknowledge the Hitler prism). The leacture then led to a rather intriguing comment: do we have enough time on this planet to learn everything by experience? If everything depends on the moment, what really is your truth? Can there be an unimpeachable truths in such a theological or any other kind of universe? If we are not going to ground ourselves in something beyond ourselves, what is to help us defend ourselves against one who would make us all great again but only in terms that individual sees as greatness. The speaker, holder of a PhD from the Princeton as well as a Masters in Theology from Yale, is a Barth scholar, ministered to congregations in Tennessee, New Jersey, North & South Carolina and taught at Erskine Theological Seminary for fourteen years. He is not some fundamentalist screaming in the night. He thoughtfully asks us if we are part of the group that is helping the dissolution of the church by simply trying to make God in our own image rather than seriously reading the Scriptures to understand who Jesus is and what did he say?
There was one moment that was particularly interesting to me and that was when he quoted a conversation between Karl Barth and De Quénétain from Barth in Conversation…
De Quénétain: In your opinion, what is the greatest obstacle to rapprochement between the Evangelical Church and the Catholic Church?
Barth: …it is one tiny word that the Roman Church adds on after each of our propositions. It is the word and. When we say Jesus, the Catholics say, Jesus and Mary. We seek to obey only our Lord the Christ; Catholics obey Christ and his vicar on earth, the pope. We believe that the Christian is saved by the merits of Jesus Christ; the Catholics add and by one’s one merits…
Another scholarly theologian who studied at Princeton and Fuller Theological Seminaries, worked with church in the former East Germany as well as street ministry in West Harlem in New York, and taught religion and/or theology at two different US universities for over twenty years, challenged us to think not about the future but about the here & now. We should be looking not only to heaven but at the mission we have right now. His contention is that for the Christian, Jesus is the road to God, not a guide or a signpost. Again, he cautioned about trying to re-frame Jesus into some kind of popular ideologue that better suits our purposes whether that be to win elections or make life easier to live. The church today needs to recognize that it is in a similar position in Western culture that the church of the first century was with regard to ancient culture – Jesus was The Man Who Fit No Formula – he was & is the Way. He too made reference to the Barmen Declaration when he pointed out the while the state rightfully has the task of providing for justice & peace, it does not have the right to become the single and totalitarian order of human life… Nor should church ever become an organ of the State.
He also made an interesting comment about Christianity: it is a democracy where dead folk get to vote! Moreover he argues Christianity was offensive to the majority of society in the first century and it will still be offensive to most people. It is not easy and it won’t ever be – we need to get over the idea it will be popular because whenever it was, it went south in a fairly quick hurry. And we ought not be trying to use the church to further social aims – we must hold to our convictions but not to be used as a war-club to get our own way. There will be disagreements within the faithful but we need to always keep our focus. It is not that society is necessarily a-moral; it rather is that our source of life is beyond our imagination.
The third speaker, holder of a PhD from the University of Chicago and currently teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary was also a two-time Fulbright Scholar in Russia and research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, is another thoughtful theologian asking us to reflect on how we center our own theological thinking. His focus was on the theological concept of Jesus is the Life. He built his case through countless references to Scripture including several references to Job in the Old Testament (including some from the Jewish Publication Society) and concluded his entire conversation by pointing out that even in the sacrament of communion we must accept that this actual connection we have to God is beyond rational apprehension. In his referencing of Jean Calvin he continually provides examples of how our relationship to God cannot be adequately understood solely by human thinking – it is in great part, a mystery.
In the informal sessions and corridor & parking lot conversations the constant point seemed to revolve around this question: Has theology really mattered in the major debates of our times within the church let alone our society? It appears that the PC(USA) has much of the same struggles as the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and perhaps many other mainline denominations as well. One individual suggested to me that these days it seems like the General Assembly generally ignores any teachings that are recorded in books of official Confessions even though that is supposed to be a requirement. And there are few truly thoughtful theological conversations but rather panderings to current social issues as the fads of today are preeminently more appropriate than anything Christ may have said. It reminded me of a two-part sermon I worked on in late 2018 (I only was able to deliver Part I) wherein I made the case that there may have been more theology in the music of some of the greats in the late 1960’s early 1970’s than in our contemporary pulpits.
It was unfortunate that delayed flights, major rain storms and the life prevented me from attending some of the initial informal sessions and the start of my next conference kept me from the final conference workshops and post-conference conversations. As it was I have received a fair amount of materials to be utilized perhaps in some future sermons, or conversations with theologically-interested friends. I am heartened to know that in the southern USA, at least in the mainline churches, there is not the anti-intellectualism that would seem to be prevalent if one only follows news coverage of presidential rallies or of Fox News interviews of the president. I’m also encouraged that people are actively challenging the church to reflect on its commitment to theological discourse. Whether this will significantly change our world is less certain, but perhaps that is less important than whether it eventually may change or reform our church.
As for you, at this time I only suggest that you stay healthy, listen to the health professionals, and when you have nothing else to do, ask yourself where you feel most comfortable: with a God that humans continually re-create in their own images or with a God that is only understandable within your own attempts to connect?