Thursday, May 7, 2009

Theology Today?

I’ve just finished the last class in Union Theological Seminary’s Systematic Theology course Christianity and the U.S. Crisis and I’m still pondering what to make of it.  The course had listed its goals as describing the “various edges and contours of the deepening U.S. crisis and to chart various Christian responses to it.”  Among the topics it promised to discuss were what the progressive Christian tradition offered the current crisis; theological thinking about markets, globalization and social justice; core Christian beliefs available to address a crisis with overlapping economic, ecological, social, and moral layers; and the role that new media and new technologies play in our sense of a common good as well as how to understand these technologies theologically. 

I was drawn to the course by many things—a chance to reengage with faculty at Union, especially Cornel West—but the thing that most interested me was the last of these topics.  And, now that the course has ended, it seems to me that it’s the one topic that was barely addressed, except perhaps in the reading of his book Consumed that guest lecturer Benjamin Barber assigned.  Even there, Barber (who is a political theorist by background) doesn’t address the technologies theologically.  In that way, therefore, I was disappointed by the course.

 I was also disappointed by Cornel West.  West is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever had a chance to study with.  I’ve loved him in the past for his creativity, his engagement with new ideas and new media, but he’s becoming more and more about catchy phrases and showing off his rhetoric than about presenting the cogent ideas I used to appreciate.  These days, when he decides to use a line that he’s used a lot in the past (which he does often), even he speeds up and says it more quickly, making it very obvious that he’s on a “prerecorded” part of his speech.  In the last several of his presentations, I kept thinking how West has moved in some way from the role of the Socratic prophet to the wordy Sophist.  Even his most recent book, Hope on a Tightrope, seems to have made that switch.  So while I’ll always be grateful for the careful thinking and deep insights that West has had in the past, I grieve the encounters with him in this course.

On the other hand, there were several positives in the course.  First was the chance to do the course in the technological way they’d put it together—to be present in the audience when possible and to participate by video when it wasn’t possible.  Because much of its “live” time offering overlapped with courses I was scheduled to teach, I wouldn’t have been able to do the course if “live” participation had been required.   I’m grateful to Union for making this available in this way and hope they’ll offer similar courses in future semesters. 

Then there was Gary Dorrien.   He arrived at Union after I’d left so I’d never had a chance to hear him before this course. I was interested in how he’d interact with West, though, because of a piece on West that he’d written for a recent issue of Cross Currents. Dorrien’s organized, great at synthesizing material and bringing new insight to it, and strong at going to the heart of issues raised by others.  His presentation style is a bit tame, though next to Cornel’s just about anyone’s would be.  I hadn’t read any of his writing before this course, but plan to make my way through most of it this summer. (His newest book, Social Ethics in the Making, with a list price of $120, isn’t available yet through interlibrary loan and is well above my budget so I’ll have to wait on that.) I’m not sure yet with how much of his thinking I agree, but working through his writing will clearly make me rethink and sharpen all my understanding of liberal theology, neoconservatism, and other modern theologies. 

It was Dorrien who, toward the end of the last class, during a question and answer period, raised a question that, in slightly different words, had been on my mind a lot during the course.  Dorrien pointed out that both his talks and West’s had relied heavily on material other than theology, that while the course had looked at theologians  (Calvin, Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, and liberation theologians)  that had been created in response to earlier crises, there wasn’t much critique theologically of new ways to respond to today’s crisis.  Dorrien asked whether that was because of our living in a pluralistic world, because the crisis is different, or because we don’t believe the theologies around enough to focus out solutions on them. It was a great question, one I found myself wondering about throughout the course, one that I wished the three professors had spent more time engaging with and perhaps even answering.




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