Choosing your theologians

The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, buy UK - £7.04, USA - $11.20. Take a look inside. ---------- Many of us have been rediscovering theology. That theology isn't static, and it is the task of many christians as their context and culture changes to re-contextualise their theology to that context. Theology isn't static, defined once and for all.

Whilst some statements and beliefs of orthodoxy about Christ, and God, maybe fairly constant over the last 2,000 years between most denominations, what those beliefs mean and how we explain and communicate them change greatly. Many of us have found that our theologies need re-thinking or that the ones we held were not helpful any more.

And when we do that re-thinking and re-contextualising, we often look back, as I think we should in time, to find other christians, and how they did their theology, in situations similar to ours, or applicable to ours. By doing this we are rediscovering many people that for some of us, our traditions excluded until now, and are finding them life giving.

We are finding out more about the theologies that our tribes/streams/denominations came out of, gaining a deeper appreciation for them. Then we look forward, maybe suggesting and using some new theologies, some of which we will have to lay down, or let others lay down in the future, as they too need to be changed.

Whilst many people move away from the theologies of modernity in some way, we need people to preserve them, so that others in the future can re-discover them, just as we are re-discovering theologies from people who have continued to live out beliefs and practices that the modern church abandoned.

This all brings me to 'The Death of Adam' by Marilynne Robinson (I mentioned earlier on my blog a fiction book Called 'Gilead' by Marilynne Robinson. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was I think a way for Marilynne to take her academic research, and theology and encapsulate it in a mesmerizing story).

I have finally managed to get hold of a paperback version of one of 'The Death of Adam" which is filled with her research in the form of short essays. The subtitle for the book is 'Essays on Modern Thought'. In particular it is a critique of modernity from an unusual perspective, at least for me for several reasons, that I will try to explain.

Now over the past few years of my research I have rediscovered the reformers, in particular, Martin Luther through the writings of Douglas Hall. When I was at seminary/college the reformers seemed to get harmonized and condensed into something bland and uniform. I guess that's as much to do with time constraints and my lack of really looking deeper as a 19 year old at seminary.

So now I read Luther, and find in his Theologia Crucis, something profound for the issues of power, post-colonialism, post-revivalism, and the nature of spiritual formation in a post-modern context (see my dissertation when it is finished). Yet in that process of discovery I became increasingly cold towards Calvin.

In Calvinism there is the idea of a doctrine of God, where God is intrinsically angry, and deliberately damns people to hell, with that strand seen in the revivalism of Jonathan Edwards (see his famous sermon 'Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God', where Edward's writes 'The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire;... you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours;...yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment... Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.) I'm not saying Calvin would approve of this application of his theology, but I find it distasteful.

We can see this in the revivalism of much of the modern church, and increasingly in the theology of people reacting conservatively to post-modernity. There also seems to also be a call to preach the Gospel, essentially through the filter of Calvin's TULIP. As a result I think the focus on a platonic, de-humanising, gospel message, has been something I have found personally hard to stomach, and something I think our emerging culture largely rejects.

I'm sure I misunderstand Calvin very much in that presentation, but I read and hear enough to know some of it is not just a stereotype (as an aside I think Calvinism is going to be used increasingly by many conservative sections of the church reacting against post-modernity).

So back to 'The Death of Adam', and low and behold Marlynne Robinson bases most of her essays and research on the idea that the modern church has indeed misunderstood Calvin, and that in fact Calvin is someone we need to re-read to find responses to the questions of post-modernity be they authority, women, darwinism etc that are vital for us today.

I'm sure many Calvinists will dislike her reading of Calvin, but the book has made me think, I need to go back now and read some more Calvin for myself.