Geoff Thomson has followed up his incisive Disturbing Much Disturbing Many with a slim volume on theological training in the Uniting Church (UCA). Whilst the book is aimed at specific issues in the UCA, it is relevant to priestly formation in the other mainstream churches and also touches on current social issues such as the post-truth age.
Thomson's central question about ministerial formation is about why we study theology. He comes to the conclusion that the production of scholarly men and women in ministry is not adequate training for ministry. On the one hand he dismisses an entirely utilitarian view in which training is focused on doing the job without any theoretical underpinning – and on the other hand producing the minister-as-scholar without adequate contact with congregations and the public at large. It is essential that theology is not reduced to scholarly theology but that theory and practice are held together to produce leaders whose practice has solid theological foundations.
He gives the following definition of theology:
"Theology is the church's ongoing historically-shaped, critical, imaginative and constructive reflection on the biblical witness to early Christianity's puzzling proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as Israel's Messiah and the world's reconciling Lord." (P10)
Thompson argues that theological education may easily be highjacked by the pressing concerns of the Church in post-Christendom and he proposes that it be oriented:
"not first to ministry, not first to mission, and not first to pedagogy, not first to hermeneutics, but first of all to the gospel – the novel message with which Christianity launched itself into the world…..A robust understanding of the theological task can be one means of keeping our propensity for platitudes and clichés in check. Positively, and this is the much more important point, they help keep the substance of the gospel before us." (P38-39)
Keeping the substance of the gospel before us is not an easy task in an age flooded with ideology, cultural warfare, rampant populism and political correctness. Thompson's emphasis on the "puzzling proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth" points to the strangeness of the gospel. It is not something we have invented, it comes to us from above, as it were. It is not strange only because it is revealed in events two thousand years ago, it was strange even then. This means that special training in theology is necessary as an advantage for the laity and a necessity for the ordained. This training, because it has to deal with this strangeness, requires methodology not found in other disciplines for whom "revelation" is an alien concept.
Failure to train the ordained adequately will subvert the proclamation of the gospel.
"A simplistically formulated faith, and a faith reflected on only simplistically, will betray its own substance." (P39)
Theology is important because it is critical of the many kinds of idolatry that plague both the churched and the secular spheres. For example, courtesy of Donald Trump and the Russian political class, we have now entered a "post truth" age in which "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." Rowan Williams suggests that the West is entering a "dark night" of intelligence. The Church has a unique view of what constitutes the truth. While it utilizes reason and objective facts it acknowledges that truth is not reduceable to them. Indeed, when attempts are made to base faith on objective facts it is evident that "it has probably crossed the line into idolatry." (P57)
Given that the faith is not our invention and cannot be established by reason alone, the Church talks about bearing witness. This does not mean that it is simply subject to emotion and self-interest but it does mean that the truth of the gospel transcends human intellectual means. Deep training in theology will equip us to discern the truth of the gospel from those forces that would use religion for its own ends and thus suffocate its demands upon us.
The Church has the task to resist overly rational and overly experiential explanations of faith and to point to "another mode of truth telling that involves both confidence and intellectual humility." (P 59) Whereas the secular world may operate from the dualisms of fact and fiction or reason and unreason that produces sterility and doubt, the Church has a more sophisticated understanding that is capable of nurturing the human being in its fragility and destiny in death. Perhaps "post truth" is the end result of the insufficiency of rationalism and empiricism to produce a meaningful synthesis?
The Church has been tempted to align itself to secular emphasis on universal rights and values and Thompson comments that this is a perfect description of the liberal Church that no longer hears the voice of its head. It is here that theology exposes the superficiality of such schemes in which there is no narrative of the human, no practice that produces character and there is the naïve anthropology that proclaims that all we need is a set of morals to reform ourselves and the world.
In this little book Geoff Thompson has employed the Basis of Union of the UCA and his own sophisticated theological insight to comment on an area which is currently dogging the mainline churches; how to form men and women to bear witness to the gospel in a post Christian age. As the voice of the Church fades from the public square and as theological institutions find fewer and fewer candidates for ministry we need to think deeply about what a genuinely theological Church would look like.
Geoff Thompson's A Genuinely Theological Church (88 pages, $19.95) may be ordered from Morning Star Publications.
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