Transitioning toward Theology

In the book “Who Needs Theology?” Grenz and Olson provide a helpful little spectrum of 5 kinds of theology: Folk, Lay, Pastoral, Professional, and Academic.  I have pastored for over 15 years and have always considered myself a Pastoral Theologian.

Over the last 5 years I have been transitioning toward more of a Professional and Academic location. This is not as simple as it might appear. It is complicated by the presence of two variables:

  1. I continue to be a pastor while I am in the Doctoral program. The church and the academy do not always communicate that well, are not always focused on the same things, and have developed a level of distrust/suspicion at points.
  2. My field in the academy is Practical Theology. This discipline is primarily focused on the activity of the local congregation-community and so even my academic pursuit is church oriented.

The result of this is that I seem to have the same two conversations on a fairly predictable monthly loop. One conversation is with my former congregants who knew me as only a pastor. The second conversation is with my fellow students who are pursuing an interest in one of the “Big 4” Theological disciplines (Philosophical, Historic, Systematic, or Biblical).

The first conversation with former congregants who are suspicious or or unaware of theology usually finds me trying to explain that “theology is a 2nd order reflection – or a 2nd tier discipline – that as a practical theologian I recognize is not the main event (1st order) but an examination OF  that main event.”  I compare it to being in the balcony  watching those who are in the auditorium who are watching what is happening on stage.   I am concerned with the interaction between the stage and the auditorium. I am not focused on the stage primarily. I am analyzing and describing, from a 2nd tier position, the dynamic that is at work and its effect.

The second conversation is usually with people much further into theology than I am. I am continuously explaining that I am not looking for a system to buy into wholesale or a framework that accounts for everything in a totalizing way. I am simply looking for conversation partners.

  • I am intrigued by Liberation Theology by am not (as of yet) convinced of God’s preferential concern for the poor. I want to hear what Gutierrez and Boff have to say.
  • I am not a Whitehead-ian (yet) but love John Cobb and the host of other Process thinkers (Epperly, Suchoki, etc.)
  • I am not Catholic but get so much from Elizabeth Johnson, John Caputo, Karl Rahner and Joseph Bracken.
  • I think that George Linbeck and Hans Frei are really onto something about theology and scripture, but I am certainly no Wittgensteinian.
  • I am fascinated by Paul Knitter and John Hick but have no interest in trying to defend a Kantian dualism in order to explain how a Barth style-Protestant might access the noumenal real (an actual challenge I received when quoting Paul Knitter).

Admittedly, I don’t understand the “guilty by association” Lord of the Flies atmosphere that seems to previal in many post-Barth theological conversations. I am simply looking for dialogue partners. This fits my field, as Practical Theology is an inter-disciplinary endeavor.

Unfortunately, I get accused of being a “cafeteria Christian” – picking and choosing what I will take from each discipline or tradition. I am accused of theological “Bricolage”…  I choose to call it Mosaic thinking – piecing together the little elements that present a fuller picture of the whole.

On one hand I get why people are repelled by the lingering attitude of “total buy in”. On the other hand, I simply embrace that this is the atmosphere under which I am transitioning toward being a theologian.

I would love your thoughts. 

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Blake Horridge
Blake Horridge

Make it three. I also have felt put-off by the demand that I work within one theological tradition. Part of it may be my epistemological humility that says that I may never get it all right, so I should keep an open, yet critical, theological system to allow for positive contributions from wherever they may come. This whole conversation reminds me of the political rhetoric that tends to dissuade the "blurry" view point. When I was living in DC, I was especially taken aback by how much I was pressured to pick sides. The only thing worse, it seemed, than someone from the other side was a fence-sitter who didn't "take their convictions seriously." I've never understood that logic. Just because I didn't pick a team, doesn't mean I don't care about the game. What if both teams seem lacking to me? What if I think the game would be better played with a different set of rules? (Though that would arguably make it a different game. Not a perfect metaphor, I know) I'm curious to see in the academic conversation if the current push toward cross/trans/inter/multidisciplinary work actually makes it more professionally feasible to escape the "all-in" demand. I'm not holding my breath, as something tells me that there will be a hold out for a while. But, I am hopeful that some change may be around the corner.

Dan Hauge
Dan Hauge

I, for one, agree with you on this. I have never understood the push by many that we need to go 'all in', to pick a particular theological or philosophical perspective and go about making our thought consistent enough with that identity. Of course we will gravitate toward some perspectives more than others, and it can be very helpful to identify that way in conversation, as a shorthand to let others know where we are coming from. But persoanlly I see nothing wrong with being a cafteria Christian. I can see, I think, the argument that we are all contingently situated, in cultures and positionalities, and to choose a tradition or perspective is a way of acknowledging that--to do otherwise, this thinking goes, is to set ourselves outside and above our particularity, claiming to be able to synthesize our selections from these different views into some kind of 'God's Eye' perspective. Which is, of course, modernist arrogance. I understand, but I don't buy it. Yes, we each come from a particular context, and part of being a responsible thinker, human, citizen is to recognize this--recognize how our particularity shapes our interpretation, and how we decide which views and practices 'feel right ' or not. But there is a big difference between admitting our particularity, and insisting that we need to proactively fit our thinking into one of a list of available options, if we honestly find ourselves valuing and agreeing with different insights from different traditions. Exactly what is wrong with a cafeteria? If the cooking is good, you can get some damn fine meals there. One might call it, instead, the historically and culturally diverse banquet of the Kingdom of God.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Dan, that was great! Thanks for the thoughts and the feedback. I really like the final response - May we eat well and be nourished! of course, we both know that those we love being 'Company Men' or 'On Team X' will not see it this way ;) but at least there are two of us. -Bo