Theology After Google
by Philip Clayton
A note upfront to the reader: Spencer Burke, Tony Jones, Tripp Fuller, I, and a bunch of others are embarked on a revolutionary project to get theology out of the classrooms (and pastors’ studies) and into the streets (living rooms, pubs, etc). In this short post I write about this project under the title “theology after Google.”
Though I was trained as an academic theologian and have published a number of brainy books, I no longer believe in theory for theory’s sake. This short post is no exception. I want to stimulate your mind, but I also want to get you to do something. (Of course, it’s you who has to decide what you’re going to do.)
The network I’m involved with — TransformingTheology.org — is partnering with TheOoze to put on a first-of-its-kind event in southern California this March. It’s all about theology after Google: what it is and how to do it. We call it “leveraging new technologies and networks for transformative ministry.” I hope this post will influence your view of what the church and its theologies need to become. I also hope it will convince you to come to Claremont this March 10-12 — to listen, and to speak your mind in response.
— Philip Clayton
- Why is it that most Americans today don’t walk down to their neighborhood church on Sunday mornings for worship, Sunday School, and a church potluck?
- Although some Christians seem to get it that “everything must change,” why is it that the vast majority don’t seem to recognize the enormous changes that are already upon us?
- Do we really inhabit two different worlds: those who text, Twitter, blog, and get 80% of our information from the internet, and those who are “not comfortable” with the new social media and technologies?
- Could we today be facing a change in how human society is organized that is as revolutionary in its implications as was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg over 500 years ago?
- If we are, what does all this have to do with theology and the church?
This is not Kansas Anymore…
Let me not mince words: for better or worse, I’ve cast my lot with a rabbi named Jesus. That makes me one of his followers, whom individually people call “Christians,” and who as a group are known as the church. Church will still exist in AD 2100. But I’m not convinced that Church 2100 will look anything like Church today.
Of course, church has theological definitions, such as “the Body of Christ,” the community of the redeemed, the locus where the sacraments are celebrated, the place where Christians gather for worship, teaching, and community. But what church actually is has always been deeply affected by the world around it. When that world changes, so too does church. Everyone acknowledges that we are living in a time of revolutionary change. So tell me why we don’t think church is in for some radical changes?
Consider this comparison. On the eastern seaboard in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the expansion of a young nation westward toward the Pacific Ocean, churches played very specific social functions. Not only were they the center of religious life, the place where one came to be baptized, married, and buried (“hatched, matched, and dispatched”)… and everything in between. They were also the heart and soul of the community — the center of social, communal, political, and even economic life. There was simply no other game in town. The church stood for the moral values of the community, “what made America great.” When you see the white steeples in a New England town, or when you drive through Midwest towns with a church on every corner, you realize how central a social institution the church once was.
But things have changed. It’s obvious that churches no longer play most of these social functions. We are now a massively pluralistic society living in an increasingly globalized world. Every major world religion is represented among United States citizens.
Take the question of authority. In the frontier town, the Southern city, or the New England village there was the authority of the law and the government. A lot of folks weren’t very educated, so they didn’t read much, and there was no radio or TV. The pastor of the church was not only the moral and spiritual authority — the representative of the only true religion and its obviously true scriptures — but also probably the most educated person in town. He (there were virtually no female pastors!) spoke with authority on a wide variety of issues that were important to the society of his day.
Contrast that with today’s situation. Rarely are pastors approached as figures of authority, except (sometimes!) within their own congregations. Radio, television, and the internet are our primary authorities for the information we need, with newspapers, advertisements, and movies coming in a close second. For many American Christians Beliefnet.com (“Your Trusted Source for Free Daily Inspiration & Faith”) is a bigger authority on matters of Christian belief and practice than any pastor. We love self-help books, so we’re more likely to read Spirituality for Dummies than to go to a group Bible study. Forty years ago people were influenced in their judgments about religious matters not only by their pastor but also by the editorials in the Religion section of their local newspaper. Today the blogs one happens to read are more likely to influence her beliefs.
Where’s the Revolution?
I’m almost embarrassed to list these differences, because they’re so obvious. But here’s the amazing fact: Denominations aren’t changing. In most cases they’re not planning for and investing in new forms of church for this brave new world. (There are some great exceptions.)
This is not a matter of blame. The assignment of the administrators who head up denominations is to run the organization that they’ve been given. I once heard a major national leader say to a group of similar leaders something like, “We all know that the ship is in grave danger, and it may go down. But we all seem to have the attitude, ‘Not on my watch!’”
Pastors have a bit more latitude. Individual pastors and churches are doing amazing things across the U.S. (and outside it); so are para-church and extra-church groups, organizations, and ministries. But in most cases, it’s the denominations that determine how pastors are educated, what kinds of ministries they can engage in, and what kinds of church assignments they get. A lot of young men and women lose their idealism in seminary. (That’s a damning fact that I, as a seminary teacher, take very, very seriously.) If they have the good fortune to depart seminary with their idealism intact, they’re generally assigned to a traditional church that has virtually no youth or younger families present, an average age of 60, and a major budget crisis on its hands. The orders are, “Keep this church alive!” The church members like the old hymns and liturgies; they don’t like tattoos, rock music, or electronics. They are about as likely to read and respond to blogs as I am to play in the Super Bowl. So the young pastor folds her idealism away in a closet and struggles to offer the traditional ministry that churches want.
In short: the majority of our resources continue to be flung at traditional church structures. Those doing the real revolutionary work, those trying to envision — and incarnate — the church of the future struggle on with the barest of resources.
This is not smart. Let’s do something different. Let’s do it now.
Theology after Google
I used to think of theology as an academic discipline. Although about Christian beliefs, its primary goal was to meet the standards of the Academy. When I finally got the stars out of my eyes and began to look around more closely, I realized that the “trickle-down effect” — the idea that the brainy books in academic theology flow through pastors to help congregations and ordinary Christians — is no longer happening. If it ever did. By and large academic theologians are not addressing the questions that lay Christians are asking; or they’re answering them so incomprehensibly that only other academic theologians understand them.
Now when I use the term “theology” I mean the questions that all Christians ask and the kinds of answers that ordinary people give, no matter how hesitating and uncertain. This new definition has a wonderful implication: theology is tightly bound to whatever church is at a given time. Theology is about what the church is now and what it’s becoming. So “theology after Google” means: What must the church become in a Google-shaped world?
Here’s my answer in five theses. Whether you love them or hate them, I hope you’ll interact with them:
• Theology is not something you consume, but something you produce. In the Age of Gutenberg, you read theology in a book; you heard it preached in sermons; and you were taught it by Bible teachers. In the Age of Google, theology is what you do when you’re responding to blogs, contributing to a wiki doc or google doc, marking up a Word doc on your computer, participating in worship, inventing new forms of “ministry,” or talking about God with your friends in a pub.
I remember participating in 1991 in the birth of what would eventually become the worldwide web. (People now call it Web 1.0.) One used a protocol called “ftp” to access documents on someone else’s computer. No mouse and no pictures, but still: amazing — you could read someone else’s stuff without needing a floppy disk! What most of us now do is Web 2.0. We contribute to, mold, and play at the places we visit; we go there to do things. (If you’re unsure about this, watch a kid playing on the web. My seven-year-old twins will click on anything anywhere on any webpage to see what’ll happen and what it will do. The idea that the internet is about passive reading of content never occurred to them.)
• No institutions, and very few persons, function as authorities for theology after Google. Ever since Jesus’ (often misunderstood) statement about Peter that “on this rock I will build my church” (Mt. 16), the church has had issues with authority. The point is too obvious to need examples. The pastor standing up in the pulpit in the early 1960s was still a major authority. Of course, pastors still stand up in pulpits today, and some still view themselves as indispensable purveyors of truth.
But the world is changing around us. Those of us who speak in pulpits are having to rethink our relationship with the audiences we address. Most people today shrug their shoulders at those who claim to be authorities in religious matters. (For many of us, scripture continues to be an authority, but the way in which it’s an authority has changed massively over the last 30 years. More on that topic the next time I write.) Theology today means what some number of us find plausible about our faith or are convinced of. Our leaders are people like Brian McLaren or Tony Jones or Spencer Burke — people who say things that ring true to us, so that we say, “Yeah, I think that guy’s got some important insights. I’m going to read his blog or find a way to talk with him, and I’m going to recommend to my friends that they do the same.”
• Theology after Google is not centralized and localized. Likewise, the church cannot be localized in a single building. We find church wherever we find Jesus-followers that we link up with who are doing cool things. This point is huge. Denominational officials and many pastors have not even begun to conceive and wrestle with what it means to work for a church without a clear geographical location.
• The new Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses true teaching, wise words, and the sole path to salvation. I first really got the host idea in a conversation with Spencer, and it has turned my understanding of Christian leadership upside down. Today, the leaders who influence our faith and action are those who convene (or moderate or enable) the conversations that change our life — or the activities that transform our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our God. It could be an older Christian who convenes discussions at a church, a house, or a pub. It could be Shane Claiborne leading an activity at The Simple Way on Potter Street in Philadelphia, say a time of gardening in the communal garden that gives you a sense of community that you’ve rarely had but always longed for. It could be a website or a blogger that you frequently go to, where you read others’ responses and add your own thoughts. Christian leadership is about enabling significant community around the name of Jesus, wherever two or more are gathered in His name.
• Theology after Google does not divide up the world between the “sacred” and the “secular,” as past theologies so often did. All thought and experience bears on it, and all of one’s life manifests it. Thus the distinction between one’s “ministry” and one’s “ordinary life” is bogus. All of one’s life as a Christian is missional.. The great 15th-century theologian and mystic Nicholas of Cusa imagined God as a circle whose radius is infinite and whose center is everywhere. It only takes a second to realize that Cusa’s picture wreaks havoc on all geometries of “inside” and “outside.”
Here’s the picture: I find myself a follower of Jesus; that part seems to stick and to deepen the longer I live. I’m not sure exactly how I got here; it’s almost like it happened to me. I call it grace. I find others around me who follow the same Teacher and who therefore struggle with many of the same questions and issues that I have. They help me understand myself and remain faithful to my Guide. I call them church.
But what exactly do I believe? What must I say, and what should I not say (and do)? This quest is more open-ended. It’s filled with uncertainties and indecisions, and it’s constantly evolving. That quest just is theology. It’s everything I think about and do. It’s reading the New York Times headlines online each morning when I awake. It’s the philosophy text that I teach in a classroom or the intriguing idea about christology that I talk about with friends over a beer. It’s our attempts to be involved in authentic forms of ministry and Christian community, and the questions we ask about whether those attempts are really faithful and how to make them better. It’s that recurring question, “What should I do with my life?”
In the book that Tripp Fuller and I just published, Transforming Christian Theology, we argue that theology is about attempting to answer the Seven Core Christian Questions. These questions have impressive-sounding names: theology proper, anthropology, soteriology, christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, eschatology. But they are really just the simple, recurring questions that every Christian wonders about as he or she struggles to be a Jesus disciple: Who is God? What are human beings? How are we separated from God, and how can that separation be overcome? Who is Jesus Christ? What or Who is the Spirit? What is the church, and what should it be doing? And what is our hope for the final future of the cosmos and humanity?
These do not have to be high-falutin’ debates sprinkled liberally with Greek and German technical terms. The most humble attempts to answer these questions, in word and action, are as authentically theology as are the rarified debates within the Ivy Tower — indeed, they may be more authentic than what academic theologians do. Call it the Theology of the Widow’s Mite.
All right, what can we do?
Theology after Google is about what you do, not about passively reading stuff. So here’s what I hope:
• I hope you’ll comment on this post. Take a minute to write a sentence or two of response. I am equally intrigued by disagreements as about agreements. Participate! That’s what counts. The rest is merely listening, a kind of theological voyeurism.
• Talk about these issues with friends. Blog and post on your own. If you go to a church, talk with church leaders about theology after Google. Set up a discussion group in your home or some other venue. Theology after Google (Church 2.0) is a network of networks. Every group and every network counts.
• Come to the big “Theology After Google” conference and celebration on March 10-12 at Claremont School of Theology, about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Check it out at TransformingTheology.org. You can do two and a half days for as little as $99, and you can stay in the area for as little as $40 a nite. Interact with Tony Jones, Spencer Burke, John Franke, Adam Walker Cleveland, Bob Cornwall, Dwight Friesen , Jon Irvine, Glen Stassen, Tripp Fuller, and other speakers. Participate in the workshops. Let your voice be heard, and thereby change what other people take home. Be transformed by what you hear, and then “go thou and do likewise”!
Philip Clayton is Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology and head of the TransformingTheology.org project. He made the journey from conservative evangelical to liberal before staking his tent with the emergent church. His most recent books are Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action and Transforming Christian Theology. He blogs here .