It’s not that the thirst for theology is missing from the mainline churches. Far from it: church members are as eager as ever to learn about their theological traditions. If anything, the thirst for theological depth has only increased in recent years.
Unfortunately, the same forces that have constituted the core identity of most mainline churches have also led to a movement away from theological preaching and education:
- Mainline churches usually have a lower doctrine of scripture than evangelical churches. This tends to make liberal less inclined to exegete Christian scriptures and more inclined to draw on other sources. The indirect result is often reduced attention to theological themes.
- The authority of the inherited theological traditions is also lower. The creeds and the history of theological reflection tend to play a smaller role. This means that pastors are often less concerned with going back to the “old” traditions in order to mine them for what they may still have to offer.
- Mainline churches have tended to focus on ethical, social, and political issues. In general, the importance of these issues is presented in such a way that they draw attention away from theological matters.
Ironically, the same forces that have turned the attention of mainline pastors away from theology actually create a greater need for theological reflection:
- If the words of the Old and New Testaments are not taken literally, then one needs a more complex hermeneutics — more complex ways of relating the origins of Christianity to its present — in order to establish the continuing relevance of these scriptures to today’s situation. Helping people understand the complex ways that scriptures might speak to today’s world is a theological task.
- If the history of theology were directly authoritative for mainline believers today in its original form, little theological work would need to be done in order to appropriate the tradition. But most mainline Christians today believe that serious revisions are necessary in order for the tradition to remain relevant in the contemporary world. Dialogue with science, with philosophy, with other religions, and with other spiritual practices is also important. All these inputs can only be tied together if one engages in constructive theological reflection. In other words, the very willingness to make revisions, which defines most mainline churches, also makes the theological task indispensable.
- There is no need for social and political concerns to replace theological reflection. Christian activism for justice and against oppression is strengthened, not weakened, by arguments that ground this activism in the nature of God and created reality. Here again, theological reflection is an indispensable part of succeeding.
Mainline Christians who bemoan the loss of theological content from the pulpit and in adult education programs are right. Mainline churches exist in a heritage of the Reformation traditions, which lived under the motto, semper reformata, semper reformans: “always reformed, always reforming.” Constructive theology seeks to make inherited Christian belief relevant to the modern world. But it can only do that if it can translate the tradition into today’s vocabulary and belief systems. And one can only do that if one knows what the tradition has maintained!
Thus the task for mainline pastors today — and the theological seminaries and divinity schools that support them — is a double one: both to recognize what is of value in the historical Christian tradition, and to reformulate it in ways that are relevant to today’s world. Without any connection with our inherited past, what will hold us together as churches today?