How Free is the God of Constructive Theology?

How Free is the God of Constructive Theology?

Schneider, Laurel C. and Ray, Stephen G., Jr., editors. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology. Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

My recent reading and reflecting on The Freedom of God and Human Liberation prompted me to revisit and reconsider Awake to the Moment, an introduction to constructive theology. Would that text look different when seen from a perspective informed by Alexander J. McKelway’s concern about ideological prior commitments and theological blind spots where God’s freedom is concerned? I wondered, in part, because most people would, I think, discern a relationship between the use of the “constructive theology” label and the adoption of “liberal” positions on many specific questions.

the cover of the book Awake to the Moment
An introduction to constructive theology

The term “constructive theology” seems to have come into use around 1975, with the organization of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology. The Workgroup includes around fifty or so scholar members, many of whom work in seminaries and other educational institutions, but who represent other areas of practical and pastoral theology and action as well. The project of constructive theology seems to include working to integrate theological reflection with practical action, and to challenge the often reflexive assumption that theology is an ivory tower or armchair enterprise, one that doesn’t have much impact on the world, for good or ill.

So, we might want to think of “constructive theology” as contrasting with a view of theology as remote or “out of touch.” From this perspective, constructive theology takes an active part in “constructing” the world in which it participates, hopefully for the better.

Alternatively, we might want to think of constructive theology as contrasting with “systematic theology.” If we think of it that way, constructive theology aims to remedy the problem of trying to force this or that doctrinal area to fit inside the lines of the “system” the theologian has devised for understanding the mysteries of the faith. From that perspective, a constructive theologian may be more willing to acknowledge weak spots, gaps, as-yet-unresolved conceptual difficulties, even when outlining their thinking in an area of greater confidence.

Either way, constructive theology seems to be a label adopted by theologians who are trying to take theology into places it hasn’t gone before – at least, not consciously or intentionally. Sometimes, it seems, constructive theologians are actively pursuing new forms for expressing theological insights (poetry, say, or storytelling). Generally, constructive theologians seem to share what most people would perceive as “liberal” or “progressive” convictions – religiously, politically, and socially – although any given constructive theologian might contest that claim. For example, the constructive theologian authors of Awake to the Moment speak positively about “feminist insights,” “inclusion of LGBTQ persons,” learning from the wisdom of other religious traditions, and so on.

But would these constitute “prior ideological commitments” of the kind McKelway challenges throughout his reflections on divine freedom and human liberation? McKelway indeed targets both “conservative” and “liberal” theological positions in the course of his discussion. He certainly takes issue with the conclusions and positions of some well-known theologians who have called themselves constructive theologians or associated themselves with the project of constructive theology (e.g., Gordon Kaufman, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza).

But the central question seems to be what position a theologian takes on matters related to the freedom of God. These would be likely to show up in the way a theologian identifies criteria or norms for theological reflection or discernment. McKelway is particularly reticent about identifying formal criteria for an adequate understanding of liberation, though he clearly has something in mind when he talks about obedience to Christ the Lord, or “freedom under the governance of God’s grace” (101). That kind of statement only makes sense to the person making it if they have some idea about what the governance of God’s grace includes and excludes. So the central question is, does this kind of constructive theology seem to tie God’s hands in advance to any particular way of God’s being “for us”?

Awake to the Moment ends with a summary discussion that would have made a handy introduction to the rest of the text. It outlines clearly, directly, and succinctly the organizational scheme used in the book. The introduction begins with considerations of epistemology, how people come to know what they know. It continues with a reflection on tradition, incorporating reflections on the role of scripture and the role of other traditioned texts, as well as practices, institutions, ways of interpreting text, and so on that influence the life of the church and the thinking of theologians. Finally, it offers extended reflections on various practices of “world making” – prophetic witness, lament, contemplation, and connection – conceptual connections, and the concrete communal connections of church. The notion of “world making” sheds some further light on the meaning of the label “constructive theology,” which makes special sense among people who need no convincing that people make the worlds they live in with their discourse, their thinking about it, their social arrangements, and in every way actively “construct” themselves and their worlds as they go along. All of these reflections, then, contribute to the kinds of things constructive theologians say about God, and the way they say them.

It seems possible that some individual constructive theologians will fall afoul of McKelway’s rejection of a priori criteria for the construction of theology. But upon review and reflection, McKelway would perhaps be open to this statement of criteria:

What are the norms that guide our thought as constructive theologians? … We believe that the Christian story must be grounded in the radical egalitarian love disclosed in the life and work of Jesus and his community of followers – love for neighbor, stranger, the poor, the dispossessed, and even the enemy. We pray for the courage and power to resist the forces of violence, racism, terror, and oppression – even unto the cross. We are claimed by an erotic love for the world as God’s beautiful creation and so yearn to save it from ecological degradation. These are norms of love, justice, and flourishing. … Yet figuring what flourishing, justice, and love should look like in our diverse contexts is a work of discernment and creativity. Christian life is never one thing. We are always learning to be Christian in various times and places. This is partly why we call ourselves constructive theologians (81).

In other words, the enterprise of constructive theology seems to rely on norms that are flexible enough to respect God’s freedom of action. The “love, justice and flourishing” criteria embody the expectation that God may do a new thing in a new circumstance, surprising human expectations – that is, what they look like in the moment may differ from what they’ve looked like in the past. This insight would comport well with McKelway’s emphasis on the freedom of God from God’s way of being for us. The complex discernment this requires of Christians in practice draws on Scripture, the institutionalized experience of tradition, the instructive experience of Christians in community, and reason. [Some of us will probably recognize the Methodist quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, experience and reason in that fairly confident statement about discernment.]

These constructive theologians conclude their reflections on God by pointing out that the various aspects of their presentation are circular or “self-reflexive” in various ways: that as we remember and find ourselves belonging to Christian tradition, as we act in the world and become the people we become – hopefully, the ones we are being called to be, as we attend to what we know, in the specific ways that we know it, which we know affect the content of what we know, “the question of discernment shifts from institutional authority to effects” (180). Without ignoring where Christians have located institutional authority in the past, constructive theologians pay renewed attention to what effects these institutional forms of authority, or this or that formulation of an idea, have had and can be expected to have in the world in which it is becoming part of the construction work.

“[D]octrines of God, whether they admit it or not, are creatures of the here and now” (185). Constructive theology as articulated in Awake to the Moment is an effort to “construct” theological responses to the moment in which constructive theologians find themselves, suspended between what has been and what is becoming, and recognizing that their own theological practice itself will have to bear some responsibility for that becoming. So, instead of trying to lay down a theological law that will endure for “all time,” these constructive theologians endeavor to see what they can of the ineffable divine from the vantage point of the present, recognizing that it will differ in some ways from, and in other ways carry forward, what has been discerned of God in the past.

Part of the message of the larger text of Awake to the Moment seems to be that “eternal” truths are always couched in humanly specific forms. Those forms, then, always deserve to be subject to some critical evaluation. We, ourselves, are products of our traditions and our pasts and our knowledge-laden exeriences. As such, we, too, require critical evaluation. In other words, there seems to be a lot of questioning of assumptions taking place in constructive theology. A lot of recognition that God may be calling people to new practices, new ideas or new formulations of old ideas, new forms of faithfulness and obedience, new awareness that practices that we have “been OK with” for years or decades or centuries are now – or perhaps always have been – less compatible with the flourishing, justice and love seen in Jesus Christ than we had thought.

In other words, in constructive theology, it seems, very little is assumed to be set in stone, although plenty remains valuable for Christian reflection, understanding, and practice. We don’t know everything, but we know something: we know that we want to pursue the God we know in Jesus Christ, and we honestly do seem to know something about what that has looked like in the past, and probably looks like now.

We clearly do not know everything about God. But even so, we know a lot more than nothing about what it means to follow Jesus here and now in faithfulness to the God who we understand to be the first and ultimate maker of all the worlds, seen and unseen, so freely shared with this world in the person of Jesus Christ.

“Like human hearts, theology is always undergoing improvement so long as it remains open. This means, we can say now in conclusion, that theology is a work of individuals and communities, and it is both real and awake when it attends to real lives and lived consequences” (188).

Upon review and reflection, then, the theology appropriate to a free God who is the adequate ground of human liberation probably, as it turns out, looks a lot like the kind of constructive theology introduced in Awake to the Moment.

I didn’t see statements of the kind of prior ideological commitment that concerned McKelway in this text. The criteria or “norms” of love, justice and flourishing that the authors identified for theological and practical discernment seemed less ideological and more traditional and scriptural to me.

Even so, this limited review probably shouldn’t convince any particular reader that prior ideological commitments haven’t been at work producing that discernible relationship between the conclusions of constructive theology and the discernibly sympathetic treatment of “left” or “liberal” positions on various questions. Perhaps those prior ideological commitments have been operating in the background, unstated, steering the authors toward their tendency to see inclusive communities or ecologically careful behavior, say, rather than holy, disciplined communities or trusting unconcern about the environment, as most consistent with love, or justice, or shalom in this historical moment.

On the other hand, this review does raise the question for me of whether the relationship between theology and political commitment might not work the other way. Maybe people with particular theological convictions tend to be drawn to certain forms of political expression and commitment rather than, or at least more than, others?

From the perspective that sees theology as constructive – of the self, of community, of its world – that would make a whole lot of sense.


McKelway, Alexander J. The Freedom of God and Human Liberation. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Schneider, Laurel C. and Ray, Stephen G., Jr., editors. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology. Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

[Earlier reflections on Awake to the Moment are linked here.]

curved bookcase in Stockholm Public Library seen from below

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