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Does Our Divisive Time Need Theology of Community?

The long history of Christian theology has had many seasons.

Its early generations focused on creedal formulations in an effort to establish a foundational expression of belief to guide interpretations and applications of a shared faith experience.

Pivotal figures like Augustine began a process of organizing those interpretations in the direction of rather massive “systems,” such as we find in Aquinas, who did for theology in the Middle Ages what Aristotle did for philosophy in Greece’s Golden Age.

In the Protestant branch of the Christian family, “systematizers” like Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, Brunner, Tillich and many others following their lead made theology a rigorous discipline with complex content and connections with both the developed tradition and with other disciplines.

These systematic theologies were an “everything you need to know about the Christian faith” effort.

Becoming oriented to one or more of these systems of theological reflection was a basic component of theological education in the experience of many of us, much as “Gray’s Anatomy” was for medical students.

As good, helpful and well intended as these systematic theologies were, they naturally reflected the context and perspective of the developer and (his, exclusively) perspective.

Occasionally, a voice would call attention to some feature of the gospel that was neglected in the complexity of the system.

One such voice was that of Walter Rauschenbusch, whose “A Theology for the Social Gospel” pointed to the corporate nature of sin and salvation, against the tendency of the time to personalize and privatize both.

By the middle of the 20th century, what we might call “identity” or “special purpose” theologies began to appear in response to arenas of human experience that tended to be overshadowed by the voices of a dominant majority perspective.

Black theology, liberation theology, feminist theology and political theology began to fill those gaps by emphasizing the unique features of parts of the human experience that were easily obscured by generalized reflection.

These voices served to remind us that the essential agenda of Christian faith is a transforming power that enables us to live toward wholeness in a world too easily beset by brokenness.

Now, no one is surprised by a call for a theology of the vulnerable, or a theology of justice or a theology of the environment.

Doctrinal theology in its systematic form is a significant and helpful way to organize the complexities of religious thought as it has developed over time. It keeps us from having to reinvent the theological wheel in every new generation.

But it is always possible, perhaps even likely, that each generation faces challenges that require a “special emphasis” kind of theology to address more specific implications of the faith in the face of pressing needs.

I wonder if we might in our time need a new theology of community.

I don’t remember in my adult life of more than a half-century a time when a general commitment to a common good was more threatened by divisiveness, on a local and national level, than it is now.

Unfortunately, many who claim the mantle of theological leadership have contributed to this lack of community and have fostered alliances that continue to exacerbate the problem.

A theology of community would reach back to the prophets who admonished Israel to turn from idolatry and injustice and to re-embrace the liberating and redemptive promise of community with God and each other.

It would reach back to the prayer John’s gospel provides us (John 17) where Jesus implores on his followers’ behalf that “they be one” as he and the Father are one.

It would reach back to Paul’s “ethic of community” (1 Corinthians 8), where particular beliefs were less important than how people nurtured each other in the faith pilgrimage.

Ecumenical work and interfaith efforts are a good beginning point, I think, for such a theology of community to grow and thrive.

There are encouraging signs that such expansions of community are leading participants from an exclusivistic “members only” understanding of the faith to a new level of theological hospitality.

Maybe the theological question for our time is not, “Is this doctrinally sound?” but “Does this promote healthy community within God’s human family?”

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.