Thinking theologically for the renewal of the church

In this issue of the Outlook, we explore the changing landscape of theological education — both challenges and opportunities.

Despite many moves and the forced downsizing of my personal library, I have kept a book by John Cobb, Jr., as much for the title as the contents inside. Becoming a Thinking Christian: If We Want Church Renewal, We Will Have to Renew Thinking in the Church was published in 1993, a year before I entered seminary. I keep it on my shelf because it speaks to a fear I harbor for our church — that in the face of decline and the need for new models of pastoral leadership, we will abandon our Presbyterian value of the educational development of God’s people.

When I entered seminary, I knew it would be intellectually rigorous, but I didn’t expect to have all my comfortable, inherited beliefs about God and Jesus challenged and questioned. My seminary professors not only expected me to read Calvin, Barth, Niebuhr, Tillich, Elizabeth Johnson and Gustavo Gutiérrez, but also asked whether or not I agreed with their theology.

“The best way to encourage someone to think is to ask questions and interact with the answers — through dialogue,” Cobb writes, encouraging Christians to seek theological conversation partners. His hope was to encourage laypeople to be theologians themselves, to not leave theological thinking up to the “professionals,” but to grow and develop their faith through careful, critical thought.

The classroom and the conversation partners I found in seminary brought my faith alive. For my doctoral dissertation, I focused my thesis on James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, inspired by his study of psychologists Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson and their stages of human development. Fowler discovered that most adults in churches and synagogues in this country find themselves in a state of equilibrium within the third stage of faith development, which he names the “synthetic-conventional” or “conformist” stage. At this stage, individuals mirror the values and beliefs of their community. For individuals to progress in their faith, Fowler says they must “encounter experiences or perspectives that lead to critical reflection on how one’s beliefs have formed or changed, and on how ‘relative’ they are to one’s particular group or background.” We need to “leave home” spiritually, psychologically, or physically to encounter people and perspectives “other” than those we have always known.

I understand why some choose not to “leave home” when it comes to their faith. The different ideas, perspectives and people I encountered in seminary sent me spiraling. The faith of my childhood, in which I had taken great comfort, felt weak, thin and easily shaken. But as my thinking developed, so did my faith. When truly challenged, we can reconstruct a stronger foundation, one to weather the questions that will inevitably keep coming and that ultimately, if we engage them, lead to our growth.

In this issue of the Outlook, we explore the changing landscape of theological education — both challenges and opportunities. Also, as is tradition at the end of the year, we pause to thank the many donors who make the Outlook’s ministry possible. Here at the Outlook, we want to encourage people of faith to think, to engage in faithful dialogue, to “leave home” by encountering diverse and differing perspectives.

In his book, Cobb cites reasons why more people are not engaged in theological conversation. Some believe theology is beyond them and therefore best left to the professionals. Others aren’t concerned enough to put in the intellectual effort. Also, Cobb writes, “Sometimes it seems that church leaders prefer that the church die in superficial harmony than live in vigorous debate.”

Neglecting opportunities to engage in challenging dialogue about the what’s and why’s of our beliefs leaves individuals and the church itself with a weak foundation. We owe it to the church we love and the faith development of her people to engage thoughtfully and theologically.

“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin …what gospel is that?” asked Oscar Romero. “Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, do not light up the world they live in.”

Friends, I pray this issue of the Outlook inspires you to light up the world in which we live.