Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Book Idea: ABC Topics and Feedback

Now that my book with Randy Woodley is out, I have time to work on a couple of projects that have been on the back-burner.

My main focus is the ABC’s of Contemporary Theology. This started as a series of blog-posts more than 5 years ago. Since then, I have taught it 3 times in 3 entirely different contexts.

I have an editor friend who is going to help me write it and an artist friend who is going to help me illustrate it. I hope that a publisher will want to pick it up, but I am prepared to make it an E-book if I need to.

Here is what I could use some help with: how do these topics sound? Each topic has at least one sub-topic that informs it. I have paired them to form one theme.

Is there anything you would add to this roster of topics in contemporary theology?

The ABCs of Contemporary Theology

Intro: the Surplus of Meaning and our contemporary situation

A is for Atonement (also Adiaphora and Apophatic)

B is for Baptism (and the Body) more than a metaphor embodied phronesis

C is for Christology  (and Constructive Theology )

D is for Deconstruction  (and Death of God)

E is for Empire (and Evangelical)

F is for Fideism (and Feminist)

G is for Genre (and Globalization)

H is for Hermeneutics (also Heaven and Hell)

I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible and Immutable

J is for Justification (and Justice)

K is for Kenosis (and the Kingdom)

L is for Liberation (and Logos)

M is for Metaphor (and Metaphysics)

N is for Neoplatonism (and Narrative)

O is for Open & Relational (also Orthodox)

P is for Perichoresis (and Post-Colonial)

Q is for Quest for the Historical Jesus (and Queer Theology)

R is for Revelation (and words that begin with ‘Re’)

S is for Salvation (and Second Naivete)

T is for Theopoetics (and Technology)

U is for Universalism (and Ultimate Concern)

V is for Vatican II (and Voluntarism)

W is for the Word of God (and the Wesleyan Quad)

X is for X-ray (and Xenophobia)

Y is for Y2K (and Youth Ministry)

Z is for Zebra (and Zionism)


Any additions? Any changes?

Thank you so much for your feedback and help with this.





M is for Metaphor

Today we explore two words that appear at opposite ends of the language/reality spectrum but in fact have a great deal to do with each other and inform each other mutually.M-Metaphore

Before we dive into metaphor, there are two words that are needed in our theological tool-belt.

Univocal and Equivocal are important 2nd tier vocabulary words that radically transform the conversation.

Folks who hold that language is univocal tend to think that language is representative and exacting – that a word represents that which it stands in for and is exact in its ability to execute that function.

Folks who hold that language is equivocal tend to think that language is expressive and thus any word or concept expresses that which it stands in for and is inexact in its ability to do so.

If you believe language is representative (univocal), then you will say that these symbols (words & pictures)  represent that which they reference. Getting this right is essential because otherwise you are talking about something different that what is intended.

If you believe that language is expressive (equivocal), then you will say that language is both inexact and it is malleable. We do the best we can with the language/concepts/word pictures that we have but in the end they are both perspectival and provisional (it depends on where you stand and the words always stand in/substitute for the concept).

Here is how our Pocket Dictionary defines it:

Metaphor, metaphorical theology: A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that has an accepted, literal meaning is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or similarity between them. Metaphorical theology holds that God can only be spoken about through metaphors. Thus we must use metaphors to name our experience of God (the “Transcendent”); consequently, God can be described only in relational terms (that is, through the relational language of metaphor). Furthermore, metaphorical theologians, such as Sallie McFague, generally claim that such metaphors are culturally conditioned representations created by the mind as we seek to make experience intelligible.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 856-860). Kindle Edition.

Obviously we use word pictures to talk about God and God’s work. There is no shortage of examples in the Bible from a rock to a King, from a mother-hen to a dove, from a lover to a judge… and lamb.  We use analogies to talk about God and God’s work.

The question arises (post-enlightenment) when we begin to expect language to be exacting and representative. We do the same thing with the narratives of scripture when we hold them to the standard of newspaper reports and instruction manuals.

I fall squarely in the equivocal camp and think that all of our god-talk is expressive and provisional. As we come to understand more about God and God’s work in the world, we will come greater understandings and bigger revelations.

We do the best we can with the tools that we have.

This only becomes an issue when someone latches onto one a word-picture and insists that God IS a father. They mean literally and ontologically… which is impossible.
God being a ‘father’ is not exact and representative – it is a metaphor, a word picture. Jesus is saying that he relates to God as one relates to an ‘Abba’ daddy figure.
Which brings us to our second topic: metaphysics

Metaphysics: The philosophical exploration into the ultimate nature of reality lying beyond the merely physical (meta = beyond). Metaphysics deals with *ontological concerns, that is, with questions about what constitutes something as “real” or as having “being.”

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 860-861). Kindle Edition.

The important thing to understand about meta-physics is:

  • Unless you are a reductive-naturalist (that everything is physical) you have a metaphysic.
  • Metaphysics is how you explain the world (or universe) beyond what is seen and measurable.
  • A 21st century christian is not limited to the metaphysics of the ancient world that the Bible was written in.
  • The Copernican revolution (away from the Ptolemaic geo-centric world view) has seen cascading effects of de-centering both earth and thus humans from being central to everything.
  • This is why some have found a Process world-view a valuable alternative that incorporates scientific discoveries into views of the world and universe.

When one tackles metaphysical concerns, it is helpful to first have in place a notion of language (univocal v equivocal) and of metaphor when it comes to using word pictures and symbols to help us understand the world and human experience and existence.

Tell me how you are using language – then let’s talk about what is going on beyond the physical world.

Artwork for the series by Jessi Turri 

H is for Hermeneutics

You may know that I hail from an evangelical-charismatic background.  What you may not know is that I am continually challenged in conversations about the need to interpret our experiences and texts.H-Hermeneutics

We don’t just have experiences – like we don’t just read (and believe) the Bible – we interpret. We do it as second nature because to be human – and thus social – is to be thoroughly saturated in language and symbols. We speak, and indeed think, in language. It permeates every thing we do and are. It is part of what being human means.

Our pocket dictionary defines hermeneutics as:

Hermeneutics: The discipline that studies the principles and theories of how texts ought to be interpreted, particularly sacred texts such as the Scriptures. Hermeneutics also concerns itself with understanding the unique roles and relationships between the author, the text and the original or subsequent readers.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 638-640). Kindle Edition.
Hermeneutics is a massive and complex field. Since this an ABC’s series, there are two things that you need to know :

  1. The word has been in use since the 17th century even though the idea is an ancient one that can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosophers.
  2. Everything changed in past 90 years. With the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time in 1927, philosophy (and then subsequently the human sciences) took a hermeneutical turn.

One of Heidegger’s most famous students was Hans-Georg Gadamer. His 1975 book about the world of interpretation called Truth and Method expanded what is called the hermeneutical circle.
The five elements are characterized as:

  • pre-understanding
  • the experience of being brought up short
  • dialogical interplay
  • fusion of horizons
  • application.

I could not possibly do this topic justice in a single blog post – If you want more info there are links at the bottom of the page. ?

I just wanted to share an example of how the hermeneutical circle is employed in my field of Practical Theology. I tend toward utilizing the work of Paul Ricoeur and his ‘second naivety’ myself, but the example I want share is from Richard Osmer who utilizes Gadamer as his framework.

These elements allow Osmer to transition into analyzing the role of the congregational leader along these lines.

  1. He first examines the idea of guiding the congregation as a community of interpretation.
  2. Secondly, he addresses the need to guide interpretation evoked by the experience of being brought up short.
  3. Lastly, guiding the dialogue between theology and other fields of knowledge. Leadership of this kind is defined as “the exercise of influence.”

This influence engages in different forms of communication and is a collaborative effort. These three elements factor in significantly for the spirituality required to carry out the leadership that Osmer envisions.

  • The Descriptive–Empirical Task is called Priestley Listening and finds great importance in the power of presence.

The author illustrates the spirituality of presence by addressing several levels of what is called attending which is then integrated into concepts introduced earlier such as the congregation as a community of interpretation.

  • The second task is the Interpretive Task called Sagely Wisdom.

The interpretive task draws off of thoughtfulness, theory, and wise judgment. Osmer appeals to Israel’s wisdom tradition and to Jesus being the hidden wisdom of God revealed.

  • The third task is the Normative Task, which is called Prophetic Discernment.

The author utilizes a familiar pattern in this chapter similar to the previous two. Weaving together narrative, theory, and scriptural illustration.

  • The final task is the Pragmatic Task, classified as Servant Leadership.

Osmer identifies the three forms of leadership as task competence, transactional leadership, and transforming leadership.
The motif of “deep change” is introduced through the writing of Robert Quinn and is woven together with Old Testament imagery in order to illustrate the type of leadership that is required in this task. Quinn’s Four-stage model of organizational change (called the transformational cycle) involves: Initiation, Uncertainty, Transformation, and Routinization.

You will find that in almost all hermeneutical addresses, there is a common two common themes:

  1. They form a cycle, a circle or a spiral – signifying an ongoing (continual) process.
  2. The second stage or step is one of negativity, negation or something negative (like Uncertainty). This is important because it is only after was pass through the unknowing that we come to see-know-engage-understand-assimilate-fuse in a new way.

In conclusion:
We all interpret. We think, experience and speak through this lens.
The past century has seen a hermeneutical turn in almost every area related to human behavior, belief and social understanding.

For Further Reading:

A nice article on Heidegger and Gadamer

A massive and heady article on Hermeneutics from the Stanford Dictionary

A quick article on Paul Ricoeur and the Second Naïveté

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