What’s trending in contemporary theology
So what went on this year at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia (November 21-24)? Since too much goes on at these massive conferences across the spectrum of many theological and religious traditions, I would like to offer a few reflections from a Lutheran angle with a view towards two issues that seemed to receive lots of attention in Atlanta. Let us begin with one of the biggest issues in people’s minds nowadays: race and race relations in America.
In view of Ferguson, MO., Charleston, S.C., and more recently Chicago and Mizzou, many scholars questioned the myth or illusion—popularized in some circles after the election of President Obama—of a so-called post-racial U.S. church and society. Even many years after the gains of the Civil Rights movement, some still claimed with Martin Luther King Jr. that Sunday morning worship continues to be the most segregated hour in America. Along these lines, a session was dedicated to discussing Professor Willie Jennings’s The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale, 2011), for which he received the 2015 Grawemeyer Award in Religion presented jointly by the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Jennings argues that the invention of race in the West, and its negative social expressions such as slavery, colonialism, and segregation, has its roots in a skewed and impoverished Christian imagination that disembodies the Christian gospel from people’s lands, places, and bodies. He calls for a renewal of the Christian imagination for the sake of healing our human divisions. While Jennings is not opposed to the language of racial reconciliation to meet that goal, he suggests the metaphor of intimacy as another way to foster a stronger response and vision.
Whatever one’s political position is on the topic of race relations in the U.S., this dialogue continues to raise many questions for me as a Lutheran theologian. Why do Lutherans continue to be one of the whitest demographic groups in U.S. Christianity? How does this demographic reality shape our approach to folks of different races and racial relations in our communities? How does Lutheran theology deal with the individual and institutional dimensions of sins that divide us from one another? Admittedly, all these questions assume race as a given. But if race is really a Western construct of an impoverished Christian imagination, how do we deal with the consequences of race thinking without denying its powerful influence in our ways of talking and living in the world? If justification before God is by grace—and not by race, or any other human construct or product—how does that fundamental article of our Lutheran confession shape our ecclesiology not only in terms of what the church is but also how she lives out her justifying faith in an often racially divided nation and world?
Let us move to one more issue that received much attention in Atlanta: the rise of global Christianity and its implications for the church in the U.S. A pre-meeting workshop by authors of a collection of essays entitled Teaching Global Theologies (Baylor, 2015) discussed how theology can be taught collaboratively in transnational and international contexts beyond tokenism, namely, in such a way that theological voices from the global South are heard, engaged in one’s research, and incorporated into one’s teaching and theological reflection. In connection with this move towards global theological collaboration, it is interesting to note that the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) has been increasing its inclusion of international journals from the majority world in its database. Also noteworthy is the growing number of young Lutheran graduate students—many of them present at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis’ reception in Atlanta—working on topics such as African biblical hermeneutics and the intersection of Islam and global South cultures.
Speaking of acknowledging global South voices in North America, La Comunidad of Hispanic Scholars of Religions in conjunction with the Latina/o Religion, Culture, and Society Group of the AAR co-sponsored a session to honor historian Dr. Justo Gonzalez for his prolific contributions to Hispanic Christian thought. Many U.S. students of theology know Dr. Gonzalez from reading his Story of Christianity or History of Christian Thought volumes, often used in church history survey courses across the United States. Scholars discussed the impact of his work on biblical hermeneutics, systematic theology, mission histories, and the formation of Hispanic organizations such as the Hispanic Summer Program (HSP), the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), and the Association for Hispanic Theological Education (AETH). At the end of the session, Dr. González was awarded the 2015 La Comunidad Lifetime Achievement Award in Scholarship.
A number of colleagues from this network of Hispanic scholars recently published a collection of essays entitled Immigrant Neighbors among Us: Immigration across Theological Traditions (Wipf & Stock/Pickwick, 2015), which I had the privilege of co-editing with Dr. Danny Carroll. The influence of González’s argument that U.S. Hispanic theological reflection must do justice to the biblical theme of exile and the situation of people on the move is evident in this collection. At a time when North Americans continue to discuss topics such as comprehensive immigration reform, and more recently, the situation of Syrian and other refugees in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, Christian and Lutheran perspectives on social issues such as migration that move beyond merely political platitudes are sorely needed.
On a global scale, many Lutherans in North America may still be surprised to know that the largest Lutheran university in the world is in Brazil and the fastest-growing Lutheran churches are in Africa. As North American Lutherans continue to work towards global engagement with global South Lutherans, there are some questions to ponder to move beyond tokenism. How much of our engagement is one-sided, that is, focused only or primarily on our theological contributions to our brothers and sisters overseas? By contrast, how much of our engagement is focused on what we can learn from their theological reflections, mission practices, and ministries of mercy and justice? In other words, how do we move from cross-cultural to inter-cultural engagement, that is, from crossing into another’s culture with our toolbox of gifts towards collaborating with people of other cultures in joint projects that foster mutual learning and incorporation of non-Western contributions to Lutheranism into our sermons, Bible studies, syllabi, and scholarship? In short, how do we fulfill and live out the promise of Lutheranism as a truly global, catholic church in the world for the sake of the world?