The Emerging Relational Theology #1

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Modernist liberal Christianity entailed a move towards expressing truth in generalized pluralistic empirical terms in order to relate Christianity to our modern lives. While this project has enjoyed prominence in liberal theology for a good part of the 20th century (and is still advocated by such popular theologians as Marcus Borg), it has come under considerable criticism from many mainline theologians in the light of postmodern critique.

These growing critiques reflect a move away from modernist assumptions from both the left and right, each respectively critiquing their own traditions. As a result Christians on both sides of the theological fence are finding commonality and space for conversation rooted in a new shared relational approach to theology.

These “post-liberal” and “post-conservative” voices are found under many banners (narrative theology, postmodern theology, radical orthodoxy, ancient-future faith, neo-evangelicals, the emergent church) and a host of names - Hans Frei, Gerorge Lindbeck, Stanley Grenz, John Millbank, James K.A. Smith, Robert Webber, Stanley Hauerwas, and Nancy Murphy just to name a few.

What all of these names and movements have in common is a relational way of seeing themselves and their world. In contrast to a modernist tendency (found among both liberals and conservatives) to break from the past and tradition, this approach is characterized by(1) a deep appreciation for history, (2) a recognition that there is no neutral ground and that we all speak out of a cultural context, and that (3) faith is not an individual intellectual project, but rather is formed in a communal context: Spiritual formation comes through relationship and discipleship. It is always incarnational: a faith lived out in relationship that cannot be detached from this communal context. As social beings we cannot live in the general, but are always situated within a specific world and history that shapes us.

Relational faith entails a specific faith contextually rooted in the unique narrative of Scripture and the Christian community that forms a person in Christ – an identity rooted in social context to God, community, and history.

One can see in this emerging theology a positive and constructive proposal for the shape of a postmodern faith (or better said: faithfulness to the Gospel in our postmodern context), as opposed to the typical emergent penchant to simply be against everything but not really for anything (other than being ultra-hip and cynical, which tend to be synonymous). For that reason I am really excited to find people who are proposing some solutions - turning on the lights, rather than just grumbling about the darkness. Actually having some ideas about how to fix a problem instead of just complaining is a rare and wonderful thing. As one sage put it, "How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world"

With this post introducing the broad "20,000 foot perspective" of a relational faith emerging on several fronts, over the next few blog posts I will be reviewing these different voices and their proposals for the shape of our faith in the postmodern and post-secular world we inhabit. In the next post we will take a look at the beginnings of this movement in narrative theology.

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