Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Portland Seminary

Here in an interview that my seminary just posted introducing me as the visiting assistant professor of theology for this year.

It gives me a chance to say how much I loved being a student here and to tell a little bit of what I have been up to since I left and went to LA. Since I am not on Facebook or Twitter for another couple of months, please feel free to pass it on to anyone who might want to know what I have been up to …

This has been a fascinating year to be here! I have been able to watch the behind the scenes of:

  1. A name-change / re-branding
  2. creation of an entirely new curriculum
  3. job search for the permanent position

What an amazing opportunity – even if those three things had not been going on. When you add those three things, however, this had been a wild year to be a visitor to this school that has meant so much to me.

I am excited about the name change. As a contextual theologian, I appreciate the identification with place and know how important it is to locate oneself. Theology and ministry do not happen in a vacuum. They are not universal. They are particular and they are located.

The unfortunate part of the move to Portland Seminary is the loss of both ‘George Fox’ to signify the school’s Quaker ties, and ‘evangelical’ which is a hold-over from the original merger with Western Evangelical Seminary back in the day.

As you know, I am not a sentimental person nor do I feel compelled to privilege the past and attempt to hold on to things for historic/heritage reasons alone. This change, however, has really demonstrated to me that change and updating must be done with deep conviction. I have heard people’s hesitance and reservation about the change. So while I personally a big fan of updating and innovating, I respect the communal aspect of continuity and preservation.

In the end, I really believe in this name change and hope the best for Portland Seminary in the years to come! I am glad to be helping out during this year of transition and deeply believe that God loves the people of Portland, the spirit of Portland, and has great desires to see this city reached with the love of Christ.


L is for Liberation (and Logos)

Two concepts that anybody doing theology in the 21st century must know are Liberation and Logos. They play into so much of what we do in the theological endeavor.L-Liberation

Liberation Theology: This term most often refers to a theological movement developed in the late 1960s in Latin America (where it continues to hold prominence). In attempting to unite theology and sociopolitical concerns, liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez emphasize the scriptural theme of liberation, understood as the overcoming of poverty and oppression. Liberation theologies have also found expression among representatives of seemingly marginalized groups in North American society, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 797-800). Kindle Edition.

It might be helpful to understand how I came to liberation theologies. I was writing my Master’s Thesis at an evangelical seminary on ‘Contextual Theology’. I was doing so because I had been raised and ordained in a Missionary denomination. I wanted to encourage and advance the work of those who claimed the ‘missional’ and/or ‘missions’ moniker. It was in the midst of engagement with Bevans and Schreiter that I stumbled upon a form of contextual theology (an alternative perspective) that stood apart from the enlightenment/colonial models. It was called ‘Liberation’ and it was unlike any of the other models being examined.

Gonzalez adds a couple of important clarifications:

Some liberation theologies center their attention on international economic oppression, while others are particularly concerned with classism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and other foci. Besides acknowledging and claiming their contextuality, … liberation theologies insist on the need to promote and practice justice and love, not only at the personal level, but also in societal practices and structures.

Justo L. González. Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2442-2446). Kindle Edition.

The only thing that I will add as far a Logos theology goes is that one must account for they way in which the word (logos) became flesh. ?This is the case, not just because John 1 is so important in protestant-conservative-evangelical-charismatic circles, but because one must figure out in what way God was present in Christ. There is much to be said on this issue not just because the Incarnation sets the tone for contextual (liberation) models of ministry but because the entire christian gospel is based on (centered on) the reality that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt (camped-tabernacled) among us. In more philosophical circles, Logos theology takes on a much broader concern. As early as the 6th century B.C.E. Greek philosophers were addressing the Logos as “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.” The Gospel of John borrows/appropriates/adopts this term to address the pre-existence of Christ and how that manifested in the person of Jesus. It is important to understand that the gospel writer integrated/adapted Greek philosophy. This move is significant for several reasons:

  1. Proclamations about Jesus were not made in a vacuum.
  2. Some early church writers drew from Hebrew narratives and themes.
  3. Others spliced in philosophical ideas and concepts from non-Jewish sources.
  4. Both in scripture and in church history we see a constant and elaborate mixing/integrating of external philosophies and concepts.

I bring this up because a major objection to Liberation theology is its use/appropriation of secular political theories (like Marxism) and critics will use this to discredit Liberation thought. We need to be careful with that kind of easy dismissal. ?Liberation theology does have its drawbacks and limitations* – but simply having philosophical partnership is not one of them. In fact, there has never been a theological or ‘biblical’ expression that did not have philosophical underpinnings or explicit frameworks. Theology does not happen in a vacuum. All theology is contextual theology. This is not a problem. The only problem is when certain theologies don’t recognize their contextual nature with time and place and purport to being both universal and timeless. Liberation theology is not for everyone and it does not happen everywhere. While true that it is thoroughly political and radically ideological at points, it is also highly contextual and local – as all theology should be.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

  * some object to Liberation’s emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. 

Mormons: Still Made In America

I’m taking the opportunity on this holiday Monday to take care of a whole bunch of stuff I have been neglecting. I was looking back over my HomeBrewed blogs from the past little while and was enjoying seeing this post-election.

No – we don’t have our first Mormon president yet … but it might just be a matter of time.  OR  it could never happen because of the eccentric nature of the religion and how it might never be that mainstream …

As a proud and dedicated ‘contextual theologian’, I have never been quite sure what to with Mormonism.  As in any field, questions will always come up from concerned listeners about ‘what if we take this too far’ or ‘where do we draw the line’.

In  contextual theology – since it started as a movement within missiology – the thrust has generally been about appropriate translation and inculturation between different nations, languages, and cultures. The move toward contextualization makes perfect sense within a typical framework whether it is inter-cultural or not.

In fact, in recent decades the conversation within contextual theology has moved from the old colonial missions idea of bringing a potted plant and putting it in native soil, to bringing the seed of gospel and planting it in native soil, to a more post-contextual idea of learning from the native people ‘what grows there’ and then partnering with them to integrate and advance a new crop. [for more on this listen to the podcast with Randy Woodley]

But that is a conversation about foreign missions. What do you with those who are not inter-cultural but which arise from within your very culture?

What got me thinking about all of this was a very strange little sentence in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One.

In the middle of his chapter of Christianity he dedicates 3 pages to Mormonism. Among all the regular and expected material about their founder and their practices – which you can find almost anywhere – was this:

 Though long seen as dangerously un-American, Mormons are now widely viewed as quintessentially American.

He then goes on to detail the huge presence of mormons within pop culture (mostly TV).  This was, of course, before Mitt Romney becoming the presidential nominee.

The reason that comment caught my attention is that several years ago I had that exact conversation with a seminary professor. This professor was not a big fan of contextualization and said mormons were the most contextualized form of American christianity. I argued that no, they were actually a cult (as I had been taught this growing up) and he countered that this is what cults are – contextualization taken too far.

In the years since that encounter I have kept an eye on the ‘mormon thing’ and while I have evolved and adapted my views on so many things (including religious pluralism) I am still not quite sure what to do with the fact that Mormonism is truly the most American of religions.

I’m not talking about their unique beliefs or their novel practices – I am thinking more about their history and organization. It seems to me that whatever the conversation about missions and indigenous expressions that Mormonism remains that one group you have to hold out an exception for. They are exceptional in that sense. They don’t fit into neat categorization or wholly lie outside the issue either.

 Mormonism is an anomaly in this sense. They are just enough different than other groups that they can not be accounted for in predictable ways but they are similar enough that they can not be dismissed outright.

Lean-Tos and Creeds: temporary structures for the journey

I am a big fan of the early churches’ creeds. I appreciate them for their historical significance, for the trajectory that they provide, and for their value as snapshots in the formation of the tradition.

In fact, as a contextual theologian, I adore them as amazing time-capsules of expressions from a very particular time and a definite location. They tell us so much about what was going on, what was a stake, what was being combated and what was already established and settled.

I actually have no problem with the creeds. My problem comes from what certain folks want to do with ‘the Creeds’ and what they try to make them into. Let’s be clear about what they are not:

  • They are not timeless and universal expressions. They are very timely and remarkably located.
  • They are not litmus tests for modern orthodoxy. There is no sense in retreating into ecclesiastic silos, playing pre-modern word games, or burying our head in the historical sand. Too much has happened, too much has changed and there is too much on the line.
  • They are not houses to live in. They are lean-tos (temporary shelters) that were erected along the way. We are still to continue our journey and travel on in our day – in the world that is – and not set up camp in the imagined past.

This is my word picture. The Creeds are lean-tos. They are not museums designed to preserve nor are the cathedrals to be maintained. They are temporary shelters – built with the best materials that were available at the time and in that place. They aren’t blueprints of how every shelter needs to be constructed nor are they houses to be reinforced and guarded. They fulfilled their purpose and provided shelter on the journey.

Christian who get protective of or defensive about the creeds are like people who are hiking with their family, build lean-to out of love for the family and then get mad at the family when it is time to leave the lean-to and continue hiking.

Or like people who love watching birds so they knock out a wall in their house to install a whole side of windows and sky-lights for bird watching. But then they become so fixated on cleaning the glass then they stopped watching the birds and actually get annoyed at the birds for dropping what birds are prone to drop.

The creeds are great. I am so thankful them as historic documents, as developmental snapshots and as contextual expressions.
What I am not so thrilled about is people who get nasty about them, defensive or aggressive. I think it is so odd that they are about things like God’s love and divine relationship… but that they can make someone behave so unloving and take them out of relationship!

I like the creeds. I just don’t like what they do to people who take them too seriously. Like lean-tos, they served their purpose. They were great. Time to move on. We are still on a journey.
p.s.  I meant to include this in the post but forgot. I have since said it 3 comments – so I decided to add it.

“Like the book of Revelation and the Creeds –  we should attempt to do for our culture and day what they were attempting to do for their culture and day.”

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