Theology For Liberal Presbyterians–Post #2

Theology for Presbyterians

Theology for Presbyterians

Ottati’s call is to offer a liberal theological vision that explains how and why certain spiritual practices and theological positions constitute a faithful and current witness to the living God. The Confession of 1967 adopted by the United Presbyterian Church helped exegete the culture of the 1960’s (race relations, Vietnam War), and Ottati believes liberal Presbyterians must help exegete the culture of the early 21st century (civil liberties, poverty, terrorism, capital punishment) in order to provide a liberal theological vision that is relevant to these issues and that speaks meaningfully of a God who is active in and through them.

In other words, we must be “interpreters of circumstance” as Ottati said today at the first Transforming Theology conference. Tony and Tripp have been liveblogging the conference, and Ottati’s quest for a relevant and liberal theological vision for our time was echoed in the blog blurbs today. Now more than ever, our world needs to hear impassioned reflections from liberal Christians as to why they are liberal Christians and what that means practically for the big issues of our time.

But even Ottati says this is difficult, because there are many ways to be a liberal Christian. There are many voices and viewpoints that compose liberal Protestantism, unlike the Christian right with more uniform theological characteristics and social concerns.

To bring together the multiple theological heritages that reflect liberal Protestantism (social gospel, process, liberation, feminist, and black theologies for instance) will take more talk about the person who inspired them—Jesus not as a topic of academic discussion but as the person we seek to be formed by morally and spiritually.
Seems part of this would involve liberal Christians saying why Jesus matters and what about his life ought to make a difference in our own—personally and socially. We need some faithful talk about Jesus as part of any liberal theological vision that is compelling enough to transform our society and our churches.

Apart from my Christian caveat here, Ottati outlines several marks liberal (Presbyterian) theologies will have.

1. Liberal Prebyterian Theologies (LPT’s) Will Be Reformed and Ecumenical
• Prebyterian liberals will confess that their confessions and creeds and liturgies are fallible
• Prebyterian liberals will recognize many ways of being both Reformed and Christian

2. LPT’s Will Be Theocentric and Worldly
• They will point to God and seek to be responsive to God
• God in Christ is a worldly God who is in the midst of all of life—no strict boundaries between sacred and profane

3. LPT’s Will Be Christ Shaped and Generous
• The God who redeems creates and the God who creates redeems
• Human beings are redeemed by God’s grace alone
• Jesus shapes the LPT’s view of God but it is not an exclusive view—instead of asking, “Who can be saved,” the concern becomes confessing something more important: God who comes to the world in Christ redeems by grace alone—this is a rejection of a narrow understanding of redemption in relationship to Jesus

4. LPT’s Will Be Realistic and Hopeful
• Sin is a universal corruption of what human beings are equipped and made to be
• Grace abounds—in the face of terrorist attacks, starvation, economic upheaval, liberal Presbyterians cling to hope

5. LPT’s Will Be Ecologically Inclined and Humane
• Human beings are enmeshed in God’s creation and are part of the web of relationships with all creatures
• Because of this, human beings aren’t meant to use nature as raw material to produce and consume

While it might be easier to simply give up on denominational relevance and vitality in this post-denominational world, Ottati believes there is wisdom worth communicating inside his own tradition. He realizes some people will think this is boring and beside the point. That he can acknowledge this openly indicates perhaps he, too, could have been close to searching for wisdom for the world elsewhere.

But he calls on liberal Presbyterians everywhere to criticize the status quo of his denomination in order to resurrect the dynamic theology that can transform our society and our churches. He calls on his own denomination to make disciplined theological reflection a priority in every area—sermons, study groups, session meetings, presbytery meetings, seminaries, ect. He wants theological reflection to be a lifestyle for his fellow liberals. So that 38 years from now, people will be able to say that liberal Presbyterians helped create a re-vitalized and relevant witness to the living God; that they committed to saying how and why their deepest beliefs and best actions made a difference to people in making sense of their lives and times in a complex world.

Theology for Liberal Presbyterians (And Other Endangered Species)

Theology for Liberal Presbyterians

Theology for Liberal Presbyterians

Introduction

Above is the title of a book I’m blogging in conjunction with the Transforming Theology Project. The author is Douglas F. Ottati, an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, VA.

One may wonder about the author’s bother to write a theological book with a specifically liberal Presbyterian audience in mind. Like liberal Protestants generally, liberal Presbyterians are part of the “mainline decline” seen among Episcopalians, United Methodists, and the United Church of Christ over the last 40 years. Membership losses have dropped steadily and some critics of the mainline Protestant churches might even say the death rattle is soon to be heard. Professor Ottati offers a simple answer:

“…I want to support an alternative to ascendant evangelical and conservative pieties… ”

Despite the swell of popularity for evangelical, conservative and fundamentalist brands of Christianity in recent American memory (Southern Baptists, Pat Robertson, and the Christian right for instance), Ottati insists unashamedly that liberal voices will positively influence the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He wants to say boldly, “Liberal Protestantism isn’t quite dead yet.”

He writes to liberal Presbyterians for three reasons:

  • He is one
  • He believes liberal Presbyterians (and liberal Protestants) represent a unique way of being faithful
  • Liberal Christians have important contributions to make in this increasingly complex and pluralistic world

So what makes a liberal Presbyterian liberal exactly?

Ottati says that liberals at their best seek

“to retrieve, restate, rethink, and revise traditional theologies and beliefs in the face of contemporary knowledge and realities.” (viii).

This is what makes them liberal.

If liberal Presbyterians and Protestants are going to be relevant in the contemporary world, Ottati asserts passionately that this is what they must continue to do: to reflect critically and theologically in a liberal style.

Yet to Ottati, this crisis of relevance is not for the sake of church growth. He is not simply offering a last-ditch plea to “save the family farm.” If either were the case, there would be no good reason to read any further.

His is a summons to marshal the rich liberal legacy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to provide an intellectually critical and spiritually faithful Christian witness in a constantly changing world desperate for moral and theological imagination. Ottati believes this is reason enough to write the book.

As a Baptimergent with a free ecumenical spirit (and as one who flirted with the Presbyterians during Divinity school), I am stirred by Ottati’s optimism in the prophetic wisdom of his liberal Presbyterian tradition. While his call is made to the people he knows best, liberal Presbyterians, liberal Christians of all stripes can be responsive to his treatment of evangelism, the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, and preemptive war. Issues that are anything but endangered.