There are enough attention-grabbing diversions out there by entertaining writers. It behooves all of us if I keep this brief and substantive (John Calvin always swore by brevitas–at great length!). I’ve left my job as the sole professor of religion at a small, liberal arts college to relocate to Massachusetts where my wife landed a stellar teaching job. As her opportunity came into view, and as I became a bit jaded with teaching and the wranglings of being faculty president, I began to dream of a pastorate.
I was feeling stifled by the routine of encouraging my intro classes to “think for themselves,” and the mostly redundant splash of this empty bucket as it sounded from the bottom of their frankly shallow theological wells (“God always has a plan,” etc.). When I did share the best of my thoughts with a marvelous cadre of upperclass religion majors, eyes seemed to brighten, like Jonathan tasting honey. Meanwhile, my frustrations with the mainline church (which I love deeply) had simmered to the “if you don’t like it, do it yourself” point. Over a few years’ time, I had already preached a series of restless sermons pushing against the boundaries of conventional wisdom theology, if I may call it that. And I had just published a kind of conceptual odyssey through John Calvin’s theology (apologies) that ended up elevating practical and active theology as the necessary complement to theoretical and academic theology. I rode a bouncing Hegelian Aufhebung until it seemed to dump me, dizzied, into the pulpit.
And so here I am, in lovely, woodsy Massachusetts, about the preach my first sermon to a welcoming UCC congregation, followed by a congregational vote to approve me. I’m looking forward to serving them through life’s joys and sorrows, but I also want to shake out the mainline pall that has, with some notable exceptions, robbed the church of God’s power and the Bible of its intrigue. Diagnosing the problem takes care. Every time I try to simplify my critique of mainline Christianity to one dead ringer, I’m reminded of how false such attempts are, and how tempted we are to do so by the media machine. In lieu the more careful thoughts that are to follow, let me catch your attention with an example: I think “God’s love” is smothering us to death. I am happy that the treatment for our malady will involve not only writing and teaching, which I’ve done plenty of, but at least as importantly, liturgical renewal.
I’ve taken this part-time pastorate so I can continue my other vocation as a theologian for the whole church–a vocation as fragmented, naturally, as that whole church is. I want to work on a second book, the systematic theology that I’ve been conceiving since my early doctorate days in the mid-90s. But with this pastoral turn, I will be skipping the deadly status quaestionis and beginning with a lively theology for the contemporary mainline parish. (To be honest and blunt, the typically white and middle-class parish is my target. Churches of peoples in the struggle should be the inspiration for us all, but we need to address the forces and dynamics that prevent the liberating spirit from transforming the churches in the comfortable world.) From this practical introit, I want to go behind the curtain and examine the historical, theological, and ontological rationale for my practical choices. All of that will be done in detailed discussion with contemporary theology and at some philosophical depth–for me, that always includes Hegel.
Meanwhile, I hope my theology for the parish stands, accessibly, on its own and is usefully challenging to my mainline friends and colleagues. We all know that we are in trouble and need to do something different. Here’s my attempt. I look forward to learning from my parishioners and from any other readers who happen to tag along.
Ok, I’ll begin the brevitas next time.