I am excited to be able to write that the Ford Foundation has just awarded us $100,000 for a major program aimed at renewing theological reflection in the mainline churches and seminaries. Marjorie Suchocki and I will be co-running the grant. The exact title is “Rekindling Theological Reflection: Transformative Thought for Progressive Action.” Among other activities, the grant involves three major conferences, all to take place in Claremont during 2009:
• a meeting of leading theologians from around the country March 12th-14th;
• a meeting of leading executives from all the mainline denominations May 18th-20th;
• a meeting of seminary and divinity school presidents and academic deans from across the U.S. September 24th-26th.
Our goal over the coming three years is ambitious. We are seeking to form a broad alliance between theologians, seminary administrators, and church leaders and to rekindle the sense of a shared religious vision. Of course there are theological movements, and significant work is being done. But this work has not yet translated into a passionate sense of shared mission in the mainline churches comparable to what one finds among conservative Christians today.
The kind of theological reflection that once motivated transformative action in the more liberal churches is now in crisis. Studies show that religious believers still feel that they “ought to do something.” But the organic connection between theology and action, between seminary and pew, has been lost. The forms of reflection that once produced this kind of thought have fallen into disuse. The progressive movement within American religion needs to have theoretical underpinning; it needs vision. But — for reasons that we hope the grant will uncover — the ideologies and habits of mind that once produced a powerful sense of unity have been obscured.
Theology in the liberal wing of American religion is fundamentally pluralistic. Here one is accustomed to using multiple models and telling multiple religious stories, utilizing sociological and cultural critiques as well as historical sources in formulating faith as the ground of action. We are optimistic that a well-structured program can rekindle the kind of theology models that reach beyond seminary classrooms and that express the shared convictions of Christians who don’t consider themselves evangelical.
We are fortunate to be working with a Steering Committee of brilliant theologians and religious leaders. Working with Marjorie and me are:
• Victor Anderson (Vanderbilt)
• Joseph Bracken (Xavier)
• Ignacio Castuera (Trinity United MethodistChurch in Pomona)
• Gary Dorrien (Union in New York)
• Dwight Hopkins (University of Chicago)
• Catherine Keller (Drew)
• Ted Vial (Iliff)
In addition to the research and publications that the grant will sponsor, we will also organize three major consultations in 2009:
(a) March 12th-14th: a meeting of leading theologians from across the U.S. to discuss the crisis in theology and how to rekindle forms of reflection that motivate transformative action. We plan to discuss the symptoms of the crisis, its causes (historical, intellectual, social and political), and the potential solutions — the steps we can take to do something about it;
(b) May 18th-20th: a summit meeting of the leaders of the major mainline denominations to discuss the crisis in theological education and how to effectively relaunch such programs both for clergy and for laypersons. Each denomination will send 4-6 of its top executives and the leaders of its programs in theological education;
(c) September 24th-26th: following the summit meeting, a major consultation to disseminate the results, to which the presidents and academic deans from all the major seminaries and divinity schools in the United States will be invited. Here we will present the results to the people who actually have the power to put them into practice. Our goal is to inspire them to action.
In the past, progressive religion in America was able to move fluidly from theological models to transformative action, and from praxis in the world to new and richer theological models. We believe it is possible again to rekindle the organic interplay of religious thought and action. Renewing the sense of shared identity and mission should also have significant impact on local congregations, denominations, and a variety of progressive Christian networks.