Theological Approaches: Constructive and Comparative

Preparing for qualifying exams is intense. Going back over every book and paper that might be relevent to your five topics is helpful for compiling the work you have done over the last four years.

I am constantly thinking and reading about theology. One of my fascinations is the various models or frameworks that others employ to outline the theological endeavor. Some use a ‘landscape’ motif, with this group over here and that group over there, while others utilize a ‘spectrum’ analogy often moving from one ‘direction’ to the other.

One can do this in a historic sense,  from classic on the left to contemporary on the right, or more of a conviction/conclusion breakdown with conservative at one end and liberal at the other.*

The first list I encountered was in my pre-doctoral prep when researching the discipline of Practical Theology I would often see the field contrasted with the ‘Big 4′ schools of theology:

  1. Systematic
  2. Historical
  3. Biblical
  4. Philosophic

Practical Theology is different in that, like Sociology, it utilizes qualitative methods like interviews, case studies and ethnography.

I also like Grenz and Olson’s approach in “Who Needs Theology: an invitation to the study of God“, where they move from:

  • Folk to
  • Lay to
  • Ministerial to
  • Professional to
  • Academic

They don’t seem to find much value in either the Folk or the Academic (who only write for or can be understood by other academics) but they make a good case for the middle 3 approaches.

Recently I have come up with a  different spectrum:

  • Creedal
  • Confessional
  • Constructive
  • Radical

Creedal asks “What has the church historically believed about this?”

Confessional asks “What do we as Christian say about this?”

Constructive asks “What can we as Christian say about this?” or “What do we want to say about this?”

Radical asks “If we weren’t bound by institutional constraints, what would we say about this?”


It wasn’t until I was updating my blog’s ‘Big Ideas’ page that I realized that my real passion is not a ‘constructive’ but a ‘comparative’  approach. I am fascinated by the diversity and complexity of faith communities and historically situated or contextual approaches. I love to survey the landscape first (comparative) and then figure out where I want to travel to or settle down (constructive).

This approach has been very helpful to me so I wanted to pass it along.


What about you? What spectrum or framework have you found helpful?  



* Those who have read me before will know that I contest this second spectrum because there are schools outside or past liberal schools of thought and they are not accounted for but simply lumped into the liberal camp for lack of nuance and specificity. 


#Zesty Ingredients: Fierce Egalitarianism & The History of Human Sexuality

Rubens_Painting_Adam_EveOne of my new favorite podcasts is comedian Moshe Kasher’s “Hound Tall Discussion Series,” where three comedians interview an academic expert (Warning: it’s not a show for those with sensitive ears!). It’s the best combination of intellectual satisfaction and hilarious non-sense on the internet, next to TNT of course :-)

In episode two, the expert featured was psychologist and expert on the history of human sexuality, Christopher Ryan. I’d never heard of him before, but apparently Ryan has been around for a while, writing the NYT best-seller Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships, with his partner, and being featured in various TV interviews as well as a TED talk.

Ryan’s radical thesis is this: we didn’t just descend from apes, we are apes. Granted, we’re a special kind of ape, but we still are part of nature.

Radical! I know. Well…not really.

But—and here’s where it gets really interesting—Ryan suggests that, when it comes to how we engage in sex, humans are closer relatives to Bonobo monkeys (dubbed the “make love not war” monkeys) than standard Chimps. At one point in the podcast Ryan sums up the difference between Bonobos and Chimps this way: Chimps fight over sex, Bonobos use sex to avoid fighting. Human sexuality, Ryan points out, is naturally promiscuous for men AND women. Sexuality evolved, according to Ryan, first and foremost as a bonding function, reproduction was secondary. Sex, for early humans definitely played a major social function.

What’s more, unlike the tribal, territorial Chimps, Bonobo monkeys are intensely communal and engage in “fierce egalitarianism,” i.e. they share everything: possessions, food, as well as sex partners (homo and hetero). Ryan speculates that early humans lived this way as well and, sexually speaking, followed suite with their close primate relatives.

The “fierce egalitarianism” part really caught my attention.

Ryan correctly, I think, rejects the common assumed narrative of human sexuality that men bargained for women’s sexual functions by being providers/hunters, and that women graciously complied out of gratitude for this manly protection. Instead, it’s more likely that women played just as large a role as men (if not more so) in early human societies. Again, this idea of fierce egalitarianism suggests that if one didn’t share they were simply kicked out of the group.

This happy communal-ism all seemed to stop when agriculture and private property came on the scene. I think we all know where the story goes from here…Women of course, along with animals and the land, become property of men. In order to properly identify heirs, Men all of a sudden needed to know who’s kid was who’s–no more raising children as a community. Monogomy, in this sense then, can indeed be seen as a patriarchal myth.

Anyway, I see at least two more takeaways here for the theological/spiritually/religiously inclined:

  1. We modern, monogamous humans shouldn’t be too surprised when we  find ourselves struggling with those old “sinful” sexual urges (e.g. lust, masturbation etc…). An evolutionary understanding really helps put these things into context, I would think, which is definitely needed because, as we’re all aware, too often in Christian culture shame and guilt have been unjustly attached to sex.
  2. Ryan’s work all fits in nicely with environmental and political theologies like that of Ched Myers for example, whose work really focuses on (among other things) environmental/social justice and the “conviction that there was some sort of epochal ‘rupture’ that signaled the beginning of the end of the widely dispersed, clan-based hunter-gatherer culture that had likely prevailed since ‘the beginning’ of human life on earth. The implications of this rupture have been devastating not only for the natural world, but also for human social life and spiritual competence.” Myers (and others) reads the Bible as a testimony to this epochal “rupture.”

So there you have it, yet another tasty ingredient to add to your #zesty faith.

Painting: Peter Paul Rubens, “Adam and Eve”


In Defense of Prayer and Interiors

PrayWhile listening to the latest TNT episode with Two Friars and a Fool (TFAAF) on why we should never pray again, I kept thinking over and over to myself that this is such interesting stuff. Just asking the question ‘what is prayer?’ is so much fun. It’s really important stuff to think about, and I love how the guys from TFAAF are deconstructing prayer and asking what it does and how it actually functions in peoples lives. Too many folks just don’t think about this stuff. We should be the answer to our own prayers more often. I agree.

That being said, I’ve got to stick up for prayer and interiors a little bit here.

Now look, full disclosure, I haven’t read the book yet, just listened to the podcast, but I think I get what the TFAAF folks are attempting to do, and I’m all for it. Advocating for a more orthopractic shaped faith is fantastic! We shouldn’t wait around for our wishes to be granted by a magic genie in the sky. I personally love Earthy, radical, immanent, beatitude and justice focused theologies like those found in the Mennonite, Quaker, Franciscan and Liberal Protestant traditions of Christianity. But one common trap that we seemingly can’t avoid—no matter how hard we try—is that when we begin to emphasize one side of a binary, the other side is unfairly, and most times totally, denigrated. I say this because it’s too easily forgotten that with progress inevitably comes pathology. The two are intimately intertwined it seems, just like everything else in the universe I guess…

Which brings me to my two main points:

1) One’s understanding of reality—or what’s ultimately real—just means so much, doesn’t it?

2) Accordingly, if it’s a question of doing something concrete (action) vs. doing something not concrete (praying) that we’re dealing with here, we should at least recognize the presupposition: one thing is real and meaningful (the concrete) and the other thing doesn’t necessarily mean so much.

Not so surprisingly, I’m in agreement with process philosophers, like John Cobb, who argue that the boundary between the physical and mental worlds are much more fluid than many people suppose. I think one who outright dismisses certain types of prayer, such as confession or intercessory, are actually showing their metaphysical cards. If the world functions like a medieval clock, based entirely on pushes and pulls between material bodies, then great! Intercessory prayer is a bunch of mystical hog wash, and you are better off never praying again for one of those few and far between supernatural miracles.


What if God is intimately connected and involved with nature? And what if everything we do (physically AND mentally) makes a difference to us, to the world, and to God?

Now things are interesting again.

I’m continually fascinated by one of the most beautiful insights explored by process-relational thought. It is the idea that our experience of one another is not only mediated by sensory cues. As John Cobb writes so succinctly, “We actually feel the feelings of others much as we feel the feelings of the cells in our own bodies. These relations are not limited to immediate proximity.” As Whitehead would say, we are constantly prehending other people all of the time. We are the observer as well and the observed.

John Cobb continues:

“Modern thinkers still resist the notion of “action at a distance.” But in fact the evidence for this in physics is now beyond dispute. There has long been evidence for this also with regard to human experience. That intercessory prayer can have an effect on someone who is not present does not violate the known facts.”

Cobb’s understanding of prayer is what I tend to hold on to. Namely, that the “function of prayer is opening ourselves to God’s gracious working in our lives and seeking to align our own intentions with God’s call to us.” I’ve written before about how the conscious choices we make really do affect the possibilities that become available to us in any given situation.

Further, in regard to what prayer is/could be, I also really like the idea that the stance of our entire life should be one of constant prayer which, coincidentally, I liken very much to Brother Lawrence’s very immanent Practice of the Presence of God.

Finally, In the interview one of the TFAAF guys mentioned that he tries to refrain from using the phrase ‘I’ll pray for you’ because he sees it as an unnecessary, and most times hollow, replacement for the phrase ‘I love you.’ I thought this was a really sweet sentiment and a great intentional exercise, one that I’ve practiced for a while myself. For me, though, I also substitute the phrase ‘I’m thinking of you’ quite often because, as Richard Lubbock poetically writes in his great essay, “every time we move, OR think, we disturb the whole universe.”

So yeah, I will probably keep praying…as well as thinking, learning, hearing, contemplating, feeling, seeing, sensing, intuiting, and taking account of things, because when we do these psychic or mental activities, we are really doing something (as opposed to doing nothing), and these things do indeed matter (pun intended).

Photo Credit: jharada


What is Theopoetics? the answer in book form.

91lvxkbT0oL._SL1500_For years (many more than you might think) this “thing” called theopoetics has been happening, occuring, bubbling-up in various places, writings, and presentations.  Those who have called their work by the title of theopoetics come from diverse backgrounds including Biblical criticism, death of God theology, postmodern thought, and process theology.  Such a wealth of fields and interests encourages broad interest but at the the same time can result in students, practicioners, laypeople, and theopoets themselves lacking a connection to the wider body.  Callid Keefe-Perry’s book, Way to Water, remedies this by mapping a path through the sundry strands of theopoetics past and present, all the while working to demonstrate just what theopoetics is or aims to be.

Callid skillfully summarizes the positions of early theopoetic thinkers Stanley Hopper, Amos Wilder, and Rubem Alves before moving in subsequent chapters to more contemporary versions of theopoetic thought.  He works his way through the contributions of Melanie Duguid-May and Scott Holland, process theologians Roland Faber and Catherine Keller, radical theologians Peter Rollins and John Caputo, and the work of Richard Kearney and Karmen MacKendrick.  As the title suggests, Callid provides a path on the journey toward theopoetics (or a theopoetic) by gathering together some theopoetic events, examining their moments of resonance and pointing out their places of dissonance.   He is careful not to coorindate theopoetic “schools” into fixed positions in relation to each other, which would be antithetical to the theopoetic project in general, but rather he treats the various thinkers/writers as bodies that might collid, slip over each other or dance together in the on-going effort to name and describe that which we call God.

Additionally, and importantly, the last two chapters of Way to Water indicate practical applications of theopoetics for churches and pastors.  I would expect nothing less from a practical theologian, and again Callid proves wonderfully adept at parsing out how an embodied theopoetics might (and does) take shape through preaching, pastoral care, and liturgy.

Since Callid is well aware that there can be no conclusion to the infinite movement of divine rhythms, for me the end of the book unfolded into new beginnings in two significant ways.  First, Callid suggests three definitions for the term theopoetics, each textured by what Callid has gleaned from the theologians he addresses in the book.  These definitions struck me as deeply personal and intimately situated in various ways, which I believe only further demonstrates an important point Callid makes in the book:  the symbolic, prerational, and sensuous modes of theological discourse are not to be ignored.  Second, and very much related to the definitions he offers, Callid’s epilogue consists of a series of aphorisms intended not just to describe theopoetic work, but to actually be theopoetic writing.  Here he shows us through stories and poems that, while not entirely elusive, the divine is not within our grasp, cannot be pinned down.  Rather the aphorisms open the reader to the continual progression, the unfolding process of naming God, of articulating our relationship to the divine.

Way to Water provides a helpful text for those teaching or studying theopoetics for the first time, and it is accessible to non-academic readers as well.  I highly recommend this book to all my pastor-type friends, as I know it will spark conversation among you and in your churches.  I also recommend it my friends who might consider teaching a course on theopoetics and taking up the task of training the next generation of theopoetic thinkers.

My buddy Jeremy wrote this review and I shared it because I love Jeremy and Callid.


TNT: Homebrewed Never Prays Again

Two Friars and a Fool come by to explain why they think you should stop praying. It’s an interesting conversation about their concept of prayer and action. 2friars

We want to thank Chalice Press for sponsoring the show. Check out the book on Amazon (Kindle is $7)

Make sure to check out Phillips Theological Seminary ahead of our AAR event!

We have a new ‘Support the Pod’ page


On Thought Experiments: Two Ingredients for a theological dish


In the spirit of the Homebrewed mission, I’d like to share two ingredients that someone out there can take and make a tasty theological dish with.

Ingredient #1:
This interview with Yale Philosopher Keith DeRose. In it he basically says two things that caught my interest: 1) Neither atheists nor believers know (at all) whether God exists. I agree. 2) there’s still a good reason to take a stance on the issue. DeRose explains:

“Those who take a strong stand may most effectively develop and defend their position. I don’t think it would aid philosophy or politics if we all quickly abandoned our positions whenever we hit significant resistance from well-informed opponents. Often, that’s just when things get interesting.”

Ingredient #2:
I saw Harvard Philosopher Catherine Elgin speak last week (two great papers here by her: 1, 2). The thesis of her talk was that art, like science, embodies, conveys and advances understanding. She also talked a lot about exemplification and experiments. She made two interesting points on the subject of experiments:

1) Scientific experiments are “fictions,” or as she puts it “vehicles of exemplification. They do not purport to replicate what happens in the wild. Instead, they select, highlight, control and manipulate things so that features of interest are brought to the fore and their relevant characteristics and interactions made manifest…”

2) Thought experiments can be just as useful (if not more so) as physical, scientific experiments performed in a lab. Further, for Elgin, works of fiction are, in many cases, thought experiments. Elgin again:

“Like literary fictions, thought experiments neither are nor purport to be physically realized. Nevertheless, they evidently enhance understanding of the phenomena they pertain to. If fictions are thought experiments, they advance understanding of the world in the same way that (other) thought experiments do.”

So, with these two ingredients I am confident that someone who is theologically inclined, for instance, could make a pretty persuasive case for engaging in metaphysical/speculative and/or theological thinking as a phenomenal way to advance ones understanding of the world. I mean, to be honest, I can’t think of a more robust and ambitious thought experiment than speculating on the nature of the Divine…


Lederach’s Peace Train…And Coloring with Satan! (CultureCast)

Reconcile CoverThis week on the CultureCast, we welcome special guest John Paul Lederach, international peace activist and negotiator, and author of the popular nonviolence book, “Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians” this book, just reissued with a new foreword from Bill and Lynne Hybels, tells amazing stories, like when rebels groups in central America threatened to kidnap his daughter and how it changed his understanding of scripture forever. He offers some practical advice for how we, too, can live out real reconciliation in our midst, here at home.

Then we get Buddhist on your ass and talk about the Dalai Lama’s recent announcement that, just maybe we don’t need another successor after him. We explore the prospects for the first female NFL commissioner (it’s the consensus in the CultureCast crew that Roger Goodell’s days are numbered), and what happens when you put Rain Man in charge of a wine collection worth six figures.

We also talk about why it is that Florida schools have some new children’s literature circulating about with connect-the-dot pentagrams and goat-head color-by-numbers. Yes, kids, the satanic coloring books are here!

Oh, and of course, Amy has a fear of the week. And guess what…you’re it!


Plug in ‘the Church’ as an experiment

An interesting way to expose the difference between two things is to take out the subject of great quote and replace it with something else to see if it still

If your replacement X cannot work in place of the initial Y then you are forced to ask ‘why is this the case?’

Let me give you an example:

(The Church) was there to remind the (society) of what it had flouted: art, pleasure, gender, power, sexuality, language, madness, desire, spirituality, the family, the body, the ecosystem, the unconscious, ethnicity, life-style, hegemony. This, on any estimate, was a sizable slice of human existence.

When I find a great quote or list, I try to plug-in ‘the church’ and see if could be true historically.

I would love to be able to say that the church has been about these things:

  • art
  • pleasure
  • gender
  • power
  • sexuality
  • language
  • madness
  • desire
  • spirituality
  • the family
  • the body
  • the ecosystem
  • the unconscious
  • ethnicity
  • life-style
  • hegemony

If that has not been the case, then, I have to ask “why not?” and it is often that search which is telling.

If the church has not, or is not, about promoting those things then what has it represented? It is that search which is illuminating.

What is keeping that sentence from being true of the church?


Here is a second set of examples. All of these quotes are from the same chapter:

(The Church) refuses to identify freedom with any institutional arrangement or fixed system of thought. It questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice. It has little use for what is known as ‘perennial philosophy’. (The Church) insists that thought must respond to new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances.

I want the above quote to be true! If it is not, then what is keeping it from being so?

 They investigated the ways in which thinking was being reduced to mechanical notions of what is operative and profitable, ethical reflection was tending to vanish and aesthetic enjoyment was becoming more standardized. (The Church) noted with alarm how interpreting modern society was becoming even more difficult. Alienation and reification [turning people into things] were thus analyzed in terms of how they … robbed the world of meaning and purpose, and turned the individual into a cog in the machine.

The above quote is challenging because it is almost possible.

The next one is just for fun.

(The Church) lost its ability to offer an integrated critique of society, conceptualize a meaningful politics, and project new ideas of liberation. Textual exegesis, cultural preoccupations, and metaphysical disputations increasingly turned (the church) into a victim of its own success. The result has been an enduring identity crisis.

Any guesses as to who this was actually referring ?

  • Textual exegesis
  • cultural preoccupations
  • and metaphysical disputations
  • victim of its own success
  • enduring identity crisis

These 3 quotes are from chapter 1 in Critical Theory a very short introduction. The first quote was from Terry Eagleton. After Theory (Kindle Locations 325-327) in reference to Cultural Theory and the traditional Left.

Why am I attracted to both Cultural and Critical Theory? Maybe it is because they are often about the things I desperately wish being a pastor was about …

I find this experiment helpful in attempting to crack assumptions about what the church is and has been.

I will never tire of reminding people that there is a gap between what many think the church is and what the church can be.


What do you think? Does the experiment work? Is it helpful? 
Any quotes that you love we could try it with? 


Christianity Without A Cross?

On this week’s TNT I introduced an interesting thought experiment: take the cross out of the Jesus story and see what you can still do.cross-150x150

This this thought experiment appeals to me for two reasons:

  1. Modern Protestants have overdone it on the cross
  2. The incarnation and resurrection hold far more interest and power


I have started to get some great responses to my assertion that one could still come up with over 90% of Christianity without the cross.

I thought it would be good to give it more form here and open it up for conversation.

Keep in mind what I’m saying and what I am not saying:

  • Just because Jesus’ story went the way it did doesn’t mean that it had to go that way.
  • Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that they have to stay this way.
  • Jesus’ resurrection could have followed any death – not just the cross.
  • The incarnation is where the old formulation of divine/human or transcendent/imminent are breached or fused.
  • The Christianity that we have was formed in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection … that is not evidence of the cross’ necessity.
  • Had Jesus died some other way, he still would have died once for all.
  • The satisfaction, propitiation, expiation and reconciliation that so many focus on in atonement theories are still there without the cross.
  • The Christianity that would have emerged would have been slightly different but still largely the same.
  • Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.
  • The cross really doesn’t play that important of a role – not like the previous 4 – it’s main purpose is decoration on our buildings, necklaces and t-shirts.

Those are some of my thoughts about the variable of the cross.

My final point is not included in the same manner as those above, but to be honest: once the Roman Empire co-opted christianity (the Constantinian Compromise) the cross has mostly been a hood-ornament on the machine of empire. Except for a few places on the periphery and during a few periods of severe oppression and domination … the powerful church has been better, as Tripp says, at building crosses than bearing them.

This point does not prove the thought-experiment, so I don’t want it to distract the conversation, but in the end … I’m not sure how much the cross really does for us.

This is one of the many reasons that I promote being an Incarnational Christian. That is where the power is – incarnation and resurrection!

  • Jesus could have died of sudden-infant-death-syndrome or of old age and still died once for all.
  • Jesus could have been stabbed or beaten to death and it is still the resurrection where God vindicates the victim.

I would go as far as to say what the cross was meant to expose – the scapegoating and victimization mechanism – is still firmly in place and actually still employed by those who sing ‘The wonderful cross’ and ‘on a hill far away’ on Sundays.


There ya go! I have tried to make a case with this thought experiment – I would love your feedback, concerns, and questions!

Let’s have some fun with this.