Transforming Christian Theology
Philip Clayton

Reproduced by special permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

transformingSoon after my conversion I was asked to be a “counselor” at a Billy Graham Crusade. I served in this role many times, which I suppose means that I have “won many people for Christ.” The biggest crusade I participated in took place in a large sports stadium. When the evangelist called for people to convert to Christ and the organ started to play “Just as I Am, without One Plea,” counselors like me would gradually stand up all over the stadium and make our way to the altar that had been set up in front. (They never told us this, but obviously this huge group of people that was popping up all over and walking to the altar would give the audience the impression that about a third of the people who had come to the meeting were converting to Christ. You’d almost feel left out if you didn’t go forward!) We could all recognize each other by a particular sign, so we could tell who had actually come forward to get converted, and we each picked a convert to counsel by standing on his or her right side. After we explained Billy Graham’s Four Spiritual Laws to our convert-candidates, we prayed the Sinner’s Prayer with them, and they were saved. We had to make sure that they were safe from any doubts that Satan might bring to them the next day (like, “Was that for real?”). So we would have them memorize a simple jingle to help them hold out against the devil’s temptations. It went: “God says it in His Word. I believe it in my heart. That settles it forever.”

The trouble is, not only for new converts but also for a very large num­ber of committed Christians and seekers, that doesn’t settle it forever. Each of us encounters some doctrines, or some points in our lives, where believ­ing is not quite so easy, where the doubts refuse to depart. Some questions and concerns are relatively trivial, and some remain amorphous, but a few are much more serious and much more precise. As an example of the first, relatively trivial kind, I well remember being a teenager and thinking, “I know every word in the Bible is supposed to be true. But somehow I just have trouble believing that women should have to cover their heads in church ‘because of the angels’” (1 Cor. 11:10). Apparently (according to some scholars) Paul thought that if the women in church left their heads uncovered and the angels saw their long hair, it would cause the angels to lust, that is, feel sexual attraction toward them. “Are angels really the kind of beings that struggle with lust when they see a woman’s long hair in church?” I wondered. Paul’s main reason was different: “A man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man” (v. 7). I didn’t find this reason convincing either. I discov­ered, however, that my conservative friends and pastors didn’t appreciate questions like these.

Other doubts reflect more fundamental concerns. Some of these are profound, such as the lifelong struggle with the problem of evil and suffer­ing. A few years ago a woman sat in my office and described how her sister had slowly and painfully died of bone cancer. She had big doubts: “Let’s suppose that God can and does answer our little prayers, like helping us find a date or a parking spot. If God is able to do supernatural things like that at any time, then why did he do nothing while my sister slowly died? He must have had some particular reason to make her suffer and die like this. But what could that reason have been? Was she somehow more wicked than the people who don’t die of cancer?” In the end, she told me, “After watching what my sister went through, I just can’t believe in this God anymore.”


Return to a Thinking Faith

Often, the way the debate is set up confronts thinking Christians (and non-Christians also) with an impossible choice. Those on our right seem to be saying, “Believe, or shut up,” while those on our left argue, “All religious believing is absurd. Humans just can’t know anything about matters of ulti­mate reality or ultimate value.” According to them, religious belief only leads to dissent, to distraction, and ultimately to religious wars and fundamental­ism. It’s better simply to trash the whole thing, or at best, allow religion to add a little warm, pastel coloring to the admittedly rather cold and indif­ferent universe that science offers us. “Still,” they add, “it’s fine if you want to send your kids to Sunday school (or have them bar or bat mitzvahed, if you’re Jewish), since a little exposure to religion might help make them more moral people. Just don’t let them take the stuff too seriously.” Many in our society today experience this dichotomy as a complete stalemate. Both sides are unattractive, we feel. And yet we wonder whether there can even be a third option.

I believe that this dichotomy is simply false. There is a third option. In fact, a whole rich world of options lies between scientific reductionism on the one hand and an uncompromising belief-without-doubts on the other. Two relatively minor adjustments open up this space for postmodern believing. One of them involves reordering believing and belonging; I return to it in the next section. The other involves giving up the assumption that doubts should be viewed as sin. Having questions about inherited beliefs is not a sign of a willful spirit, spiritual immaturity, or moral turpitude. It is simply the way that mature human minds work as they struggle to integrate the various facets of their experience into a coherent whole.

This is such a simple step, and yet it is at the same time immensely lib­erating. Many of us have unconsciously imbibed the principle that doubt­ing always means sinning, without ever realizing what we have swallowed. I remember gradually recognizing this fact after reading Gary Gutting’s book, Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism. There Gutting affirms that religious belief requires “a total commitment to its implications for action that is incompatible with continuing reflection on its truth” (Gutting 107). According to Gutting, it is “simply foolish” to “[give] up everything for a belief that I think requires further discussion and evaluation” (108). But I’m just not con­vinced that the commitment needed for action is incompatible with con­tinuing reflection. Why can’t I continue to be a disciple of Jesus in my actions, while sometimes encountering doubts in my thought? Can’t I be faithful to Jesus’ Way even while I am struggling with many of the doctrinal claims from within the theological tradition? Here I would prefer to fol­low Søren Kierkegaard, who in Concluding Unscientific Postscript quotes Lessing:

Thesis 4: Lessing said: If God were holding complete truth in his right hand and in his left a singular and always restless striving after truth, a striving in which I would err for ever and a day, and if he directed me to choose between them, I would humbly ask for his left hand and say, Father, grant me this, for pure truth belongs to you alone. (in Chamberlain and Rée 248)

The amazing thing about allowing ourselves to acknowledge doubts, I have found, is that over the long haul it does not increase doubting but actu­ally helps to decrease its frequency and severity. It’s like other areas in life: when we attempt to sweep things under the table or hide them in the closet, they somehow start festering; their influence increases and gradually they begin to dominate in a very negative fashion. They just won’t stay hidden. By contrast, when we bring our fears out into the open and examine them by the light of day, we often find that they are rather less intractable. After all, during the light of day we can consult with friends, teachers, and pastors; we can read books on the subject; and we can bring the whole powers of our own mature reflection to bear on the problems. When we’re in the closet, we just can’t see clearly enough to do these things!

If we are allowed to bring the full range of our adult problem-solving capacities to bear on our doubts, we can often find some constructive ways through our difficulties. After all, many of the questions that people ask us, and that we ask ourselves, involve serious issues that deserve careful atten­tion. The net result is often that we can distinguish then what lies at the heart of our own religious life from the issues that lie more at the periphery, with the result that the doubting becomes less destructive that we had thought. One result of responding in this way is that we become much more able to listen to the doubts of others and to respond intelligently to their questions than we would have before.


Belonging, Behaving, Believing

That brings me to the second major feature of postmodern believing. I first learned this from Phyllis Tickle’s fantastic book, The Great Emergence (Baker 2008), but it is now so widely cited on the Web that most people have forgotten where it comes from. Like many other people, I was taught that the only route to being a disciple of Jesus—and indeed, the only route to any serious Christian identity—was believe, behave, belong. Many of us have been told from the very beginning to build our lives around the verse, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9, NIV). So we first sit down and try to believe the Christian propositions that people tell us we should believe. (In more conservative Christian circles, this means that you have to believe that Scripture is the inerrant Word of God. Once you believe that, you are committed to believing a very large number of propositions indeed!) Then we try to behave in line with all these proposi­tions. Generally we are told that obedience is always “by the grace of God.” Still, we know that if we mess up, it sure isn’t God’s fault! Finally, only when things are going well with the believing and behaving can we really belong, that is, be a member of the Christian community in good standing. When things aren’t going that well, we feel that we really shouldn’t be there.

Like many others, I have found these marching orders to be the cause of rather continuous guilt. We know that we want to live the “Spirit-filled life”; we want to “live by grace” and to enjoy a “victorious Christian walk with God.” But then we encounter some rather steep demands among the items on the list of what we’re supposed to believe and do. I, for one, kept stumbling over the phrase in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, there­fore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). You’ve got to admit that sets a pretty high standard for the believe, behave, belong game. When, for whatever reason, we begin to worry that we aren’t quite living up to the standard, we start to ask whether we really belong in the body of God’s Cho­sen. If they let us in at all, we’d better seat ourselves in the very back row of the church, preserving the forward rows for the holier members of the congregation. (Indeed, some of us fear that the Moral Patrol may show up at any instant to remove us from the sanctuary, since we don’t really belong-there in the first place!)

A postmodern understanding of religious believing in general, and of Christian discipleship in particular, reverses the order. I don’t perfectly understand all the details of Jesus’ Way, and I know that I don’t perfectly fol­low what I do understand. But for cultural, historical, and personal reasons, it is the way that I have seen God. There is no other way that is a live option for me, and dispensing with the attempt to seek and to know God through Christ is somehow just not a live option. As Simon Peter said to Jesus at one point, more in perplexity than as a resounding statement of faith, “Lord, to whom [else] can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). One can even repeat those words in times of despair. As Martin Luther said, perhaps also with more perplexity than bravado, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen!” (Rae 276).

And here is the liberating insight: in that I find myself on this Way, I already belong. I may not be certain about many of the beliefs, and I may find myself continually falling short. I may have troubles with the institutional church. But I can’t help belonging to that group of people who are associ­ated with this Way, just as I belong to the One who somehow first found me. The life given through grace by One who transcends me is not driven by the motor of my believing; its fuel is not the quality of my behaving. Nor is it primarily about the particular denominational membership that I may use to identify myself. With all our warts and uncertainties, some of us just find ourselves with an attraction to this figure Jesus, or with powerful religious experiences associated with him, or with moral and political convictions in which his teachings play an irreducible role. That belonging comes first. We want to be his disciples. It doesn’t matter that we doubt, wander, wonder, and frequently knit our brows in confusion and despair. We are where we are. Perhaps we, like Mar­tin Luther, can “do no other.”

Years ago, a wise Presbyterian pastor named Blair Moffett tried to con­vince me of this point. I was a graduate student in religion and philosophy at Yale University and struggling with doubts. I told him I wasn’t sure I could become a member of his church, because I wasn’t sure that I could really affirm all the sentences new members were supposed to say out loud when they joined. It makes me smile to think of it now, but I even wrote out detailed philosophical critiques of those few short sentences in the Presby­terian hymnal. Blair tried to convince me that it wasn’t about getting all the details right up front. We join others who find themselves on the Way, and then, as we walk together, we struggle to clarify our beliefs and to get clearer on our calling and on the nature of the One who calls us. In the end, as it turned out, Blair was right.


Always Already on the Way

I don’t think this point really sunk in for me until some years later, when I found myself standing in front of a large group of young Muslim students in Yogyakarta. I had traveled to Indonesia to speak to an interfaith conference. On the second afternoon I was to be “the Christian speaker” who, along with two Muslims and a Jew, would address the topic of the nature of the human person. As one would expect from any good young theology professor, I had carefully researched my topic and had prepared a brainy and rather abstract talk on the major tenets of Christian theological anthropology. But as I looked out over the faces of the three hundred eager and intelligent Muslim students, it finally dawned on me. Whatever doubts and worries I might have about my own believing and behaving (and I had many), however problematic “Christian identity” might seem to me, in their young eyes I was indisputably a representative of Christianity. Suddenly I realized that the niceties didn’t really matter. They knew me as one of the followers of Jesus, whom people call “Christians,” and they would judge me in that light. I also knew that I wanted to be numbered among his followers. It would be downright dishon­est to duck out of this role into some safe place of neutrality and agnosticism in order to nurse my philosophical worries.

At that moment I finally got it: the belonging, the identification with Jesus’ Way, comes first, not last. Many of us realize that we are somehow already there as soon as we stop to think about it. “Here I am; I can do no other.” We know the behaving matters, but it doesn’t come first; it’s not the precondition for belonging. I belong because of grace. Grace is immer schon da, as the German theologians say—it’s “always already there.”

The concern with behaving always comes second. I knew I had to try to act in a Jesus-like way with this group of impressionable young students; the details of my believing would have to sort themselves out later. (Or not.) For the moment, my task was to offer a more positive portrait of a Jesus-follower than they had encountered before. My Christian predecessors had done hor­rendous things to Muslims over centuries and centuries of our common his­tory. The first step of behaving, I suddenly knew, was to admit how wrong these crusades were from the standpoint of the Jesus-Way. I threw away my prepared text and stepped up to the microphone to express my sorrow over what we Christian believers had done, and continue to do, to Muslim believ­ers. As one identified with this Way, I had to start my talk on human nature by acknowledging our wrongs and expressing my sorrow about them.

That, in short, is the lesson of postmodern Jesus-discipleship: belong, behave, believe. It’s not as neat and pretty as the account I was taught when young: “get your beliefs right, then get your life in order, and then you can join us.” But then again, human existence is rarely as black and white, as neat and pretty, as we were taught when we were young.



Philip Clayton is Professor of Religion and Theology in the School of Religion of Claremont Graduate University.  This essay is a selection from his recent book Transforming Christian Theology published by Augsburg Fortress (www.augsburgfortress.org).


Works Cited

Gutting, Gary. Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

Chamberlain, Jane and Jonathan Rée, eds. The Kierkegaard Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Rae, John.  Martin Luther: Student, Monk, Reformer. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896.

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