I’m starting out the theological year by reading Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology.1 This book has sat reproachfully on the “read me” shelf almost since it came out in 2016, while other preoccupations kept pushing it aside, so I’m getting to it at last with a mixture of relief and excitement.
Although it’s subtitled “An Introduction to Theology,” Awake to the Moment is authored by members of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology, and is explicitly “… an opening and an invitation to constructive Christian theology” (18). So it’s not just any old systematic theology text.
The introduction lays out some of the background assumptions and commitments that inform the constructive theology project. Sources for theological reflection include the “threads” of the Christian story: Jesus, the creator and incarnate God, the omnipresent spirit, the ever-present consciousness of poverty and of promise. But they also include everyday life in the contemporary world, the human experience into which the story speaks and which frames …
… the work of Christian theology – the effort to understand and put into practice the meaning of Christian teachings, stories, and ideas in order to bring God better into focus for the needs of this time, this moment, this age. (2)
Specifically, it seems, constructive theologians pay special attention to those areas of everyday life that pose challenges of one kind or another: “social struggles, new technologies, changing landscapes,” (3) nagging or urgent human problems, the places and events that move people to ask questions about the meaning and relevance of what they’ve been taught, or have believed up until now. The “embodied, compassion-oriented Jesus” (4) moves them to emphasize the concerns of human life in this world, and the work of constructive theology proceeds conversationally and collaboratively, in community, or so it seems, rather than in splendid solitude.
The authors explicitly address “those who say religion is the problem” (6-8). Religion is and has been a problem in the world, undeniably; it has been associated with and has promoted violence and oppression in varied contexts across a long span of history. But religion also is and has been a motive force for good. Religion has contributed and continues to contribute the ideals and visions and practices that move human lives and communities towards justice and peace. Religion’s positive possibilities make working with religious ideas and commitments, rather than simply rejecting them, imperative. The kind of “truth telling” that points out where and how religion has done harm, or evil, and that engages in protest as a practice “essential to good theology” because the “hope and the spirit of change embodied in protest can also become a basis for new understandings and practices that actually begin to heal the world” (9), seems to be an integral feature of constructive theology. The constructive theology tool kit includes “all that the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences offer” (12), and is brought to bear on a project that sees Christian theology both critically – as something that has contributed to human ills down through history – and hopefully – as something that can help us understand where we are now, help us envision the kind of lives and world we want to live in, and help us do the work of building those lives and world.
[Part of the advantage of constructive theology, it seems to me, over non-theological projects that share its concern with life in this world, would be its ability to inform projects for envisioning the kind of lives and world we want, and doing the work of building those lives and world, with the awareness that “the crooked timber of humanity” invariably has specific difficulties with that kind of thing. When we set out to make things better, I believe it’s helpful to have a keen appreciation of the reality of sin, and the ways it messes up our otherwise good plans and intentions. Constructive theology, I’m inferring, has this.]
The authors lay out three main elements of Christian theology (which form the structure of the larger work that follows): epistemology, tradition, and practice. Epistemology, what we know and how we know it, is an element that requires explicit consideration because of the way “situated knowledges” – who and where we are when we know things – influence what does and doesn’t get into our theologies. Constructive theologians have an explicit commitment to pay attention to this aspect of theology. An historical example here would be James H. Cone’s unmasking of the way theologizing Jesus as “white” corrupted Christian commitments to justice in the post-slavery United States.
Similarly, tradition, from the constructive theology perspective, is a vast resource. It includes mainstream and familiar resources, and it also includes the insights and responses of individuals and groups literally all over the world, literally throughout history, in a wide array of human circumstances. Engaging this polyphonic understanding of the “great tradition” seems to be another characteristic feature of constructive theology.
Finally, the “practices” that constitute an element of constructive theology indicate that constructive theology is not an exclusively textual endeavor, but involves what people do as well as what people think and write. The practical element of constructive theology seems to turn the project away from being “stuck in mere opposition” (13), so that constructive theologians instead encourage “solidarity and justice” and “call attention and bear witness to the resilience and palpable holiness of life” (17).
The overall tone of constructive theology, as introduced in Awake to the Moment, is invigorating. Like an alarm clock, maybe.
1 Laurel C. Schneider and Stephen G. Ray, Jr., eds. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) 18.