Introduction to (modified) Theology
- make partial or minor changes to (something), typically so as to improve it or to make it less extreme.
transform (a structure) from its original anatomical form during development or evolution.
(especially of an adjective) restrict or add to the sense of (a noun).
Our Contemporary Situation
We live in a rapidly changing world. In fact, it might be said that we have entered a new era where change is not just incremental and predicable, like it was in the past, but is now exponential and erratic – even random. The sheer amount and rapid rate of change has created a collective disorientation and what can feel like wide-spread chaos.
These changes affect almost every area of our lives, from technology to politics, and from the weather to real estate prices. In fact, it is almost impossible to think of anything that is not in the midst of rapid change. In this environment, some people hold up religion as the one thing that should be constant, dependable, and predictable. These people say things like, ‘God never changes,’ or ‘Jesus is the same yesterday today and forever,’ or ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’ and use these aphorisms as an excuse to not question inherited assumptions, doctrines, and dogmas.
The reality is, however, that religion – Christianity included – is experiencing a time of rapid change which is forcing an era of overlapping crisis, decline, anxiety, and adjustment. In her book “The Great Emergence,” Phyllis Tickle says that this is a fairly predictable 500-year cycle in human history. Society revisits its priorities and structures to correct the bad (or outmoded) and embrace or adapt to the new circumstances.
This can feel destabilizing, but I want you to consider that this might all be a good thing. The current environment of exponential change and perpetual transition may be a wonderful opportunity to do some much needed updating and innovating. Christianity in the 21st Century may need more than a minor tweak or some fine-tuning. This tradition that we have inherited may require some structural changes and a whole-hearted redress of some fundamental flaws. Acknowledging, accounting for, and attending to theological concepts from the past will be a major piece of our theological task in the 21st Century.
Why Modified Theology?
One of the changes that is most notable in our era is the addition of modifiers to nearly every noun. The use of these phrases is not a secondary issue nor an incidental change. The evolution of our language to include so many of these modified nouns points to an important change in the structure of our society. Consider the fact that a modifier can so powerfully alter the anchor word or concept that it radically transforms the subject or changes the meaning entirely. Examples of powerful modifiers are everywhere:
- Social Media
- Identity Politics
- Organic Vegetables
- Online Dating
- Community Gardens
- Emerging Leaders
- Custom Countertops
- Unisex Bathrooms
- Global Markets
- Democratic Socialism
- Independent Bookstores
- Asian Americans
- Mega – Churches
Modifiers play an important role in our era because ours is an age of specialization. The upside of specialization is that many things can be customized, tailored, or retro-fitted to be more useful, appropriate, and productive. The downside is the trend toward fracturing, fragmenting, and division. The stress of this trend is evident in our politics, our families, our communities, and even in our denominations.
In the medical field, specialization has been embraced for the positive. We have moved from having generic doctors to having general practitioners and a plethora of specialists from proctologists to orthopedists, pediatricians to oncologists, obstetricians to optometrists, and surgeons to internists. We have benefitted from this specialization through having access to professionals with increased levels of expertise in whatever ails us.
In theology, on the other hand, specialization has been utilized to minimize and marginalize those who have traditionally been unrepresented or underrepresented. Whether feminist, black, decolonial, queer or any other number of perspectives, a modifier was applied to these minority theologies to label them as special interests and silo them into their own sidelined conversations.
Times are changing, however. Everyone is about to get modified. As I said in my recent book with Randy Woodley:
“In the new landscape, no one gets to claim a privileged place on tradition or legacy alone. Everyone gets modified and everyone has to explain what their project is all about. There are no free passes and no one gets to be “regular” or “normal.” We are all up to something, and we each take our turn qualifying our project and justifying our approach.”
This is a positive development. No longer is there a ‘standard’ or ‘normal’ theology by which other theological perspectives must be measured. This legacy theology will itself be modified, as ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘establishment’ or ‘European’ or ‘complementarian.’
The addition of modifiers is not the only significant change today. You may have also noticed the multiplication of plurals. This is a noteworthy development because it is more than just adding an ‘s’ to the end of words. It is a recognition that there is multiplicity at work. It is an acknowledgement that our reality is inherently diverse and that, to be accurate and account for the complexity of most topics, a single view will not suffice.
You will notice modifiers are often used in conjunction with plurals when it comes to theological concepts. This is intentional as the fields and disciplines within theology are not only increasingly specialized but inherently diverse. The emergence of Feminist theologies, Postcolonial theologies, and Liberation theologies is a massive and extremely consequential development. It is in this combination of modifiers and plurals that the implicit is made explicit: that there is not just one stream of thought in these theological schools. They do not speak with one voice, they do not always agree, and they are not monocultural. There is not just one type of feminist theology or postcolonial theology or liberation theology. This is one of the best developments of the past 50 years!
The domino effect is that the entire discipline of theology is impacted. As I mentioned, what has been traditionally seen as standard in the field of theology must be modified as well. We must categorize these inherited approaches as Catholic theologies, 20th Century theologies, historic theologies, evangelical theologies, etc. This is more accurate and thus more illuminating. It is a wonderful and helpful development from which every discipline now benefits – even if they view it as an imposition and inconvenience. The rules of the game have changed and now everyone must play on a more level and inclusive field.
The Surplus of Meaning
Why do I like this development so much? I subscribe to a theory put forward by a thinker named Paul Ricoeur called “the surplus of meaning.” In any symbology as rich as that found in the Christian faith, there is bound to be an overflow of meanings and interpretations. Think of the richness of the sacraments, full of imagery, ritual, and ceremony. There is no single understanding of something like the Lord’s Supper that explains or contains its full meaning. That can be seen just in the sheer number of different names it is called. There are layers of meaning that get to different facets of the sacrament when it is called the Table of the Lord, Communion, Eucharist, or Mass. There is an overflow of possibilities and a multiplicity of interpretations and applications. Theological concepts are layered in complexity and richness. We cannot hope to explain or illuminate them with overly simplified or one-dimensional understandings.
More on this in PDF : ABCs (modified) Introduction
From the very first chapter of this book, A is for Atonement, you will see my conviction that we must recognize and celebrate the multifaceted nature of our theological concepts in order to even begin to understand their full richness. I start by exploring the five most prominent views of the atonement that have developed in history, acknowledging the complex nature of the topic. Then, as with most topics we will cover, I highlight a contemporary view that seems to deal with the flaws of the historic understandings. The ‘surplus of meaning’ approach allows me appreciate what the traditional understandings were attempting to do while celebrating the multifaceted, complex, tiered, and layered texture of the topic. Atonement is the perfect place to begin because, unlike so many other subjects, neither the Bible nor the creeds have taken a clear stance on ‘the’ right way to view it.
Then, as with all of the chapters, I explore another word that begins with the featured letter (adiaphora in this case) that both compliments and ties into the main concept of the chapter. Sometimes the complimentary word will get as much attention as the title topic. My hope in pairing these concepts is to give you new strategies for cultivating a theological understanding that is fertile and fruitful for your life of faith and your community in this new landscape that we find ourselves in. The world has changed and is rapidly changing. Our theological understandings cry out for updating and innovation.
People are fond of the saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” That saying has never been less true than it is today. Now, it may be more accurate to say, “the more things change the more momentum they pick up and the more they seem likely to keep changing.” I am delighted that you have decided to join me on this journey of grappling with and celebrating these changes. I hope that you will find these chapters to be a helpful resource for your theological project and understanding. After 12 years of blogging and podcasting with this approach, I know that it can be challenging, disorienting, empowering and even liberating all at the same time.
If you find yourself discouraged, lonely, or afraid of where this road leads, please do not hesitate to reach out to me via email or social media. I also invite you to join the online community that will be formed around this book. It will be a good place for conversation, clarification, and comradery on this journey.
Sign up for the learning cohort that starts next week on the ABCs of (modified) Theology
 Decolonizing Evangelicalism: An 11:59 pm Conversation. p 48