The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg w/ Philip Clayton

Bonn, CDU-Friedenskongress, PannenbergLet’s talk about Wolfhart Pannenberg!

The planet lost one of the greatest theologian this past week & in this episode Philip Clayton and I discuss his amazing career.  Philip Clayton is a professor of theology at Claremont School of Theology and former student of Pannenberg.  He recently wrote a beautiful tribute to his former mentor you can read here.  We thought it would be fun to remember Pannenberg by discussing his theology and we did.  We went through a bunch of different topics he covered and yet after 70 minutes we barely discussed a third of my list of ‘Pannenberg’s big ideas.’  I hope you enjoy this half as much as I did.

Check out this collection of Pannenberg remembrances and resources.

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Wild Goose or Mild Goose?

This past weekend I got to participate in one of best and most interesting experiences of my christian life – Wild Goose West. This was the festival’s first venture to the left coast and it did not disappoint!   Billed as an intersection of ‘Art, Justice, Music and Spirituality’, the Goose brought its unique blend of expression and conversation over the Mississippi River and across the Rocky Mountains to County Fairground near Corvallis, Oregon. Folks from all over the western states migrated – and some dedicated veterans of Wild Goose East (held in NC) flew in.  It was quite a mix of people.

I was delighted by this first Wild Goose West. I had a hundred great conversations, listened to amazing speakers and interesting musical acts, as well met dozens of new friends. I was also challenged in areas of artistic expression, racial reconciliation and both sexual and gender justice.

 If I didn’t know better, I would say that this was the best spend of a Labor Day weekend in my adult life.

But alas I have a wrinkle that some others may not have had. I used to live in the Pacific North West and while I was there I both went to an evangelical school and ministered at an evangelical church. I have since migrated geographically south and theologically left. As a progressive-emergent type who continues to passionately hang onto my evangelical roots, I have plenty of friends who still live in the PNW and who are still solidly evangelical.  And no-one will tell ya the behind the scenes scoop like good friends.

Apparently not everyone was as thrilled with the Wild Goose experience as I was! Here were the four complaints that I heard:

  • “I thought it would be wilder.”
  • “I thought this would be more progressive. This is just a bunch of evangelicals with dreadlocks or hipster glasses.”
  • “The LGBTQ emphasis seems to be presumed that we are all coming from the same perspective. There is no room for disagreement.”
  • “I thought this was an open conversation but I don’t hear any conservative voices”

 Here are my four actual responses: 

  • Wilder? Short of LSD and nudity I’m not sure what more you were looking for. This is about as wild as a christian festival can get and still be christian. I mean, this isn’t Burning Man! Did you camp here last night? (It turned out that they had not)
  • Evangelicals with dreadlocks or hipster glasses? Really? I’m not sure how widely you are circulating or how big your sample size is but I am bumped into people of every stripe, color, economic background, family configuration, age and persuasion. I’m not sure what you were expecting but there is a fairly progressive tinge here – sure there are lots of emerging evangelicals … but I don’t think your characterization is fair.
  • The LGBTQ emphasis is part of the stated justice platform. In order for this to be a safe place for everyone there has to be some assurance that those who have been injured by the church before – and many have – that they are not re-injured here. So no, it is not an ‘open ended’ conversation where we start with a blank slate and see what everyone thinks about the issue. It is an aspect of the justice concern to have a stated inclusion policy from which to launch the conversation. But I think that people are allowed to disagree.
  • Having a conversation does not imply that every perspective will be represented in every exchange. It is not the host’s responsibility the make sure that every position of the spectrum is present. Here is how I look at it: the established church is like the city. It is institutionalized and has all the media (like Christian radio). The city is like a stream with a definite current – it predominately flows one way.  So we come out of the city to camp together in the country for a weekend. We are not responsible to bring the city with us and make sure that it gets a fair shake in all conversations. That city have the privilege of being the establishment and the benefits that come with that. The city can fend for itself. We came out of the city to engage justice, art and spirituality.

As I was flying home I got thinking “How could we make the Goose wilder?” I came up with three suggestions. The first two go together, the third is just for fun: 

 1. Move from the printed schedule being celebrity centered to question centered. 

So instead of it saying “Richard Rohr: contemplative practice”, Rohr would be given a question to answer “Does prayer get us there in the 21st century ?”

2. Move from solo presentations to conversations.

I don’t want to hear Richard Rohr. I want hear Richard Rohr in conversation with Nadia-Bolz Weber.  So the schedule would say “Does Prayer do anything in the 21st century? : Richard Rohr and Nadia Boltz-Weber.”

All of these marquee speakers has a schtick. We could still provide a time for the likes of Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evans and Bruce Reyes-Chow to do their amazing (and polished) one hour presentations on the main stage if we wanted. But every other venue would be a conversation built around a question.

We did this with our Homebrewed Christianity Podcast each of the two nights and it was incredible!  As much as I love listening to Rachel Held Evans’ talk (and she could still do her solo thing) It was so interesting to hear her in conversation with J. Daniel Kirk the evangelical biblical scholar on the question “What does it mean for something to be ‘biblical’ ? ”

The night before we had Melissa Marley Bonnichsen (a Lutheran) in conversation with Eliacin Rosario-Cruz (an Episcopalian) on the question “How does liturgy, sacrament communal practice get us our of the rhythm of Hallmark holidays and the consumer calendar.

We also Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World in dialogue with Philip Clayton – provost at the new Claremont Lincoln University – the first inter-religious university in the world.

I loved Bruce Reyes-Chow’s session built around the question “Are we still talking about Race?”  But I would have loved it more if he was in conversation with Randy Woodley or  Richard Twiss.

3. Have the Hymns & Beer Tent every day (instead of just one) and don’t have anything else going at the same time.

At some point each day (one in the afternoon, one evening) folks will only have three options  sing at The Tent, take a nap, or have a side conversation with a friend.

I loved Wild Goose West. I can’t wait for next year. Those who organized and planned the gathering did an incredible job and I could not be more impressed. I know that normally a 96% approval rating would be enough … but those four comments really got me thinking and so I just wanted throw this out there in case anyone wanted to make the Goose a little wilder.

Let me know your thoughts on my suggestions or offer some of your own! 

-Bo Sanders 

Party Time with Philip Clayton for “The Predicament of Belief”

What happens when Homebrewed Christianity throws a party for the best book of the year? You don’t have to guess, ya just gotta listen!  Be prepared for metaphysics, skepticism, atheism, Christology, religious experience, doubt, the death of God, Process thought, and all the theological hype money can buy!

This week you get to visit the home of Philip Clayton, Dean of the Claremont School of Theology, where a bunch of theology nerds packed in and more streaming online while we celebrated the launch of Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp’s book The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith.

Philip has been on the podcast before live with Caputo, talking Jesus from the Emergent Village Theological Conversation, debating Creation, and 3-Ding at the American Academy of Religion.  Below is his co-author and friend Steven Knapp introducing the book and telling us a bit about its endeavour.


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Reflecting on the Resurrection part 2

Resurrecting space for belief

Easter is a big deal. Passages like Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:13-15 (NIV) tell us:

13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

As I a pastor I looked forward to Easter so much. I knew, however, that we would have  visitors, family members, and friends who would come to our services out of relational obligation or for social interest in the event. I knew that some of these would not believe in the literalness of the resurrection of Jesus’ body. 

I always had to think through how I was going to talk about this in a way that was both faithful in proclamation for us as a community of faith, while also attempting to be invitational and sensitive to potential objections or barriers from our guests.I have no interest in apologizing for what we believe as a faith community. But neither do I want to dogmatically push an ancient worldview that may, to the listener, be suspicious at best and incompatible at worst.
In light of the conversation that we have been having with Philip Clayton [around his new book] and my articulation between the miraculous and the ‘super’natural–  the resurrection takes on an interesting twist.

Here is the thing: as in so many aspects of our modern life, we exist in a world dominated by dualism and presentation designed for polarity.  The resurrection is no different. The two options seems to be:

A) it happened literally just like the Gospel accounts portray
B) the laws of physics can not be broken by even God and so the Gospel accounts are literary creations designed to portray theological themes.

I get both of those perspectives. I myself have no problem with the bodily resurrection as a miraculous event that carries deep theological implications (like prolepsis, ontological priority of the future, etc.)

But … in the same way that Jesus’ walking on water is not the POINT of that story. The point was to hear the word of Christ “be not afraid” . It was not simply to understand the physics of how Jesus might have walked on the water or to add it to a checklist of things you must believe even if you don’t understand them.

This is where Clayton’s idea is so powerful. 

In  Acts 9, Paul experienced Jesus post-ascension and he was also powerfully changed. It was that same guy (now named Paul) who penned the words that I quoted earlier (1 Cor. 15) .  But Paul did not encounter the biological body of Christ. He experienced something we can call the ‘real presence’ of Christ.


Various options are open to those who accept this hypothesis, which we might call the personal but nonphysical theory of Jesus’ post-mortem presents. There can be no talk of proof here, but there may be ways of showing that, at least in principle, a real albeit nonphysical presence of a person after death is compatible with the presumption against miracles to which the problem of evil let us in chapter 3.

One of these approaches involves postulating that the early disciples must have experienced a certain kind of event that no longer occurs today. Advocates of this view seek to do justice to the indications in the New Testament texts that, even if Jesus remains somehow present, the nature of his presence changed radically after the finite series of events that occurred soon after his death. They reason that something must have been different in the days or weeks after Jesus’s death, even if what occurred did not involve the resuscitation (even in some significantly transform condition) of the physical body.  – Predicament of Belief p. 97

My question is ‘why could that not have been what the disciples experienced?’ I know full well that the more progressive members of the Homebrewed community will say ‘Duh – we have held this for a long time.’ Please understand A) I was certainly not raised to think this way and did not know it was even an option B) most of the people I know and talk to panic when something like this is proposed.
I want to be clear: I am not trying to get everyone to believe this option. I am simply trying to highlight an alternative to the modern either-or argument that is stuck in an endless round-and-round stand off.

My only point is that those who buy into this third (real presence) option count as “believing in the resurrection”.  Those who subscribe to a literal-physical option often claim that only their option (#1) counts as legitimate. Those who hold to option #2 roll their eyes and look down their nose (not easy to do at the same time) at those who have not accounted for the literary devices employed in the Gospel accounts.

I’m interested in the ‘Big Tent’ here. To get there we must first concede that the point of the text is not about physics or biology. Even if we hold to that element of the story, we  have to remember that understanding or believing in the physics is not the point. To experience the risen Christ and be changed by that presence is the point.

So I wanted to ask
  1. What have you found helpful to include in the conversation that I am leaving out?
  2. What seem to be the sources of folks’ major hesitations that I have not accounted for?

I could really use some help thinking this through. Since I left behind my Josh McDowell evidence that demands a verdict and my Lee Strobel case for the resurrection, I am working diligently to both think and present a broader approach without going all the way to Marcus Borg-land.


[part 1 can be found here] 


Reflecting on the Resurrection part 1

He is risen! … now what?

Several of my mainline friends get to preach this coming weekend – as do I. The conversations have been great as we compared notes. The first question is usually “are you using the lectionary text?” (which I am not) and then the question of post-Easter themes as we round the corner toward Pentecost come up.

I was looking for something on my old blog and stumbled upon two posts from an Easter past. I thought it would be fun to edit them and put them up again.

The central question is “what do we do with this?” – also known as the so what question. People want to know because there are 3 key passages in the New Testament that say Jesus’ resurrection has consequences for what we as believers can expect after our death.

Here are the 4 layers of thought that seem to come out of the Resurrection conversation.

  • Layer 1: The disciples experienced Jesus after his death and that indicated two major things A) death is not the end and B) the Roman empire was not the final authority.

I like this interpretation. If this were all that there was, it would be enough for me. I often hear that this is nothing more than a ‘ghost story’ and offers no hope. I don’t see it that way, and have written about it often.

Let me just add that North Americans are good at focusing on the first implication – that death is not the end – but often struggle with the second implication because, as I have learned, we assume that the as is structure of modern existence is the final ordering. Both the Nation State and Capitalism are given realities and so the best that can be hoped for is for the system to be tweaked in order to bring about a slightly kinder, gentler, more fair, and just version of the structures as it currently is configured [as Jeremy and Tripp outline in their TNT episode breakout session entitled “Occupy Theology”]

Christian implications of the resurrection should enable us to imagine a re-ordering of this world’s governors and empower us to dream of and participate in our ordering of life to display a different operating system and demonstrate a pronounce protest to the powers the be.

  • Layer 2: At the end of our life, we are taken into (or absorbed back into) the life of God. This position holds that life after death is total and absolute communion with God and acknowledges that all the ‘streets of gold’ and ‘pearly gates’ stuff is a result prophetic language and poetic imagining- not a material (physical) rendering.

I like the language of this view. It also helps that I think the book of Revelation is a political critique of the Roman empire and has nothing to do with the end of the world and is therefor not instructive in the least about life after death. So I don’t have to worry about the personification stuff. It frees me to enjoy the thought of release and embrace: release from this life and embrace by the divine other.

The way we read the book of Revelation now is killing our political imagination. The lesson of Revelation is not what will happen in our lifetime or in history – but to model for us how to speak to our time like the author spoke to his time! We are faithful to the book of Revelation not when we take it literally (as if one even could) but when we critique our Imperial structures and imagine a different way of ordering the world in order to bring about different and better outcomes.

Critics of this view say that it is too spiritualized and not specific enough and doesn’t give dignity to the existence of the individual. I hear what they are saying, but it opens us up the to anthropomorphic critique again.

  • Layer 3: Jesus was resurrected with a trans-physical body. So we can expect a glorified – bodily – spiritual/physical existence in kind.

This is the classic reading of the text. Jesus both interacted with the physical (making breakfast on the shore and letting Thomas touch his wounds) while also not being limited to the physical (walking through walls, etc.)

I am, of course, comfortable with this view as it is what I was raised with and ordained into. The only downside is that it desperately needs to humbly engage the gaps that emerge in Biblical scholarship instead of arrogantly raising it’s voice to anyone who dares question any aspect of the accounts that were written so much later and which vary from each other. We have to be honest about the literary aspect of the Gospel accounts.

  • Layer 4: Some really thoughtful modern theologians have put forward some new theories or vocabularies with which to have this conversation. Notable are N.T. Wright, John Cobb, and the new book by Philip Clayton.

I was listening to an interview with John Polkinghorn and he said something that caught my attention.

“What is the real me? It is certainly more than the matter of my body, because that it changing all the time. The atoms are always changing – but in some sense it is the pattern of how the atoms are formed. That,I think, is what the soul is (agreeing with Thomas Aquinas).
It is an immensely rich pattern that doesn’t end at my skin. It involves my memories, my character, my personality. I think it involves all the relationships I take on. It is complex and we struggle to even say something about it. But I do not think that God will allow that pattern to be lost and I think that God will recreate that pattern after resurrection.
Faith and Science are in conversation about what could be the continuity between this world and world that has yet to come.”

I love this language. It gets away from the historical argument of only literal vs. merely spiritual and points to the possibilities of a preferable future – but does so without being dogmatic, wooden interpretation or concrete physics. It leaves the door open for faith and invites us into a conversation. In my mind, that is better than rote regurgitation repetition of old formulations. It encourages us to think biblically and explore theologically the possibilities of a new reality.

We just can’t afford for Christ’s resurrection to be a promise of escape from this present world and a subsequent passivity toward the as is structures of our existence.