As this new year begins, I am convinced, more than ever, that the majority of Christian denominations, churches, and individual disciples need major reform, and that ecological disciples like you can help lead the way. To that end, I am revising and republishing a series I wrote a few years ago called "Seven Shifts We Need to Make," and I need your help. I would like to publish the revised columns as a sharable booklet with reflection questions for individuals and groups. The goal of the booklet is to call followers of Jesus to a new way of discipleship rooted in God's love and care for all creation.
Here is where you come in; I need to know what images, metaphors, stories, and questions are most helpful (and which ones are not). What connects with you? What would connect with friends of yours who are open to a new vision of faith but need help understanding what it is and how they might get started?
Will you add your voice to the conversation and help shape a resource that can shift people towards a more ecologically conscious faith? The best way is to leave a comment at the end of the column so others can read it. But if you prefer to email me directly, I can be reached at email@example.com. Let's begin...
We Are All Theologians
The work of theology does not always interest people, even people of faith. Many assume that theology is reserved for those with formal training, like pastors and seminary professors. Theology can also seem a little daunting. It asks and articulates answers to big questions: Who is God? Who are we? How should we live? What is the purpose of life?
But in its most basic form, theology is simply the practice of reflecting on how God and life intersect. Most people do this at least some of the time, and every person of faith does it on a regular basis; when we pray, worship, study, or simply attend to daily life with God in mind, we practice theology. Therefore, we are all theologians! And the practice of theology is inherently practical. Since God intersects with every aspect of life (a theological belief of mine), there is no part of life that theology does not touch.
Theology is Always Re-forming
Good theology holds in tension what we can know and what we cannot. It is, after all, an attempt to describe the indescribable, to contain the uncontainable, to wrap our minds and hearts around the Great Mystery. It requires a mixture of boldness and humility, a willingness to declare what we believe about God while acknowledging that those beliefs may change. This work is not meant to be done as individuals; theology is a communal endeavor. Our churches, denominations, and broader traditions have ways of understanding the intersection of God and life that have been shaped, debated, passed down, and practiced over time. These beliefs have shaped the lives of countless believers in their individual faith practices, work life, home environment, community engagement, church formation, political outlook, and so on. They have most certainly shaped you.
But our theological traditions are not static; theology is always in flux, because we are reflective creatures who are able to change how we think and live based on new understanding or new situations. There is a Latin phrase that is often used to capture this – Ecclesia semper reformanda: “The Church is always reforming.” Some reforms are good; I consider the shift in most Protestant churches to recognize and welcome women’s gifts for all areas of ministry a positive (and overdue) change. Some reforms are not so good; I consider the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave theological justification for European colonial expansion and exploitation of “new lands,” a profoundly destructive innovation (and am pleased that my particular church family has formally repudiated it).
If you have been a follower of Jesus for a while, chances are your understanding of the intersection of God and life – your theology – has shifted. This is normal and natural – as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13,
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I grew up, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
In other words, his faith matured. What is interesting is that Paul did not equate maturity with theological certainty. The very next verse says,
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Shattering the Intolerable Carapace
While most reforms are limited to particular times, people, and places, every now and then a moment arrives which calls for widespread, radical reform. These are times when the forces of history and the breath of the Spirit brings us to a moment when we recognize that an entire belief system has gone off the rails, and that we need to completely reimagine our core theology, identity, ethics, and mission. The late religious scholar and writer Phyllis Tickle identified these moments as more or less occurring every five centuries.
“[A]bout every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
Tickle believed that we are in one of these moments right now, and I agree. As I wrote in a previous column, the Western theological tradition, along with the cultures it has helped shape, has played a key role in leading us to our current moment of ecological and cultural crisis. Two significant theological pillars bear much of the responsibility for this:
- The tendency to overemphasize God’s transcendence and separateness from creation.
- The placement of humanity in a position of dominance and self-serving rule over the earth and other creatures.
The destructive implications of these theological pillars are becoming clearer by the day - here are two big ones:
- The reduction of religion and spirituality to non-physical, “heavenly” ideas. This keeps God “up there” and relegates the created world to temporary background scenery while we pursue “higher” spiritual reality. We are taught that God cannot truly be found in the created world, despite most people's experience and the irrevocable marriage of Spirit and matter in Jesus! And so we pursue God apart from the world that God creates, redeems, and inhabits.
- The license to exploit and abuse land, water, air, plants, animals, and our fellow human beings. This is a reversal of our God-given vocation of earthkeeping and has become exponentially more damaging through modern scientific and technological power. Instead of helping God creatively weave the world into ever more flourishing webs of life, we are pulling everything apart.
Confronting, critiquing, and reversing the damage that the Western Christian tradition has wrought requires more than just tweaking our beliefs and practices – the very foundations of faith need to be "shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” But we must also pick up the shattered pieces and begin forming a new faith that can cultivate the renewal and new growth that we need. All this requires massive shifts in what we believe and how we live out those beliefs. This is my attempt to articulate these shifts and invite you to help build the foundation on which a renewed faith will arise.
The Seven Shifts
Here are brief descriptions of the seven shifts we must make:
- A New Cosmology – We need to shift the way we perceive creation from static backdrop in the human drama to dynamic creation in which we play one of many roles.
- A Bigger Story – We need to shift our understanding of the gospel from human-focused salvation to the renewal of creation.
- A Servant Humanity – We need to shift our role on the earth from independent masters to interdependent servants.
- A Place-Based Discipleship – We need to shift how we follow Jesus from generic placelessness to bioregional particularity.
- A Creational Mission – We need to shift our common calling from saving souls/society to cultivating life in the new creation.
- An Interconnected Church – We need to shift our families of faith from splintered sects to creative collaborators.
- A Different Destination – We need to shift our future hope from an earthless heaven to a heavenly earth.
These shifts have already started to happen in people and places all around the globe, but we need more followers of Jesus to explore, embrace and share them. To help you on this journey, I will be focusing on one shift each week for the next seven weeks. Your questions, ideas, and feedback are welcome. Let me know what resonates, and what I may be missing. Let’s learn together.
With you on the Way,
Please add a comment and join the conversation. I can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.