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Thursday, April 02, 2009
Claremont Graduate University professor Philip Clayton is actively involved in a movement, “Transforming Theology.” It’s a program which is organizing discussions and research centered around an emerging transformation of religion in America.
According to Clayton, what we are witnessing in America is a collapse of the divisions that marked American religious history for most of the 20th century. Three factors are feeding the shift: The continuing decline in membership in the mainline Protestant churches, an increased interest among evangelicals in progressive social causes, and a growing interest in spirituality across American society.
Clayton says what he and others are witnessing is an emerging group, which now takes pieces from all three groups and binds them together. The transformation is having a major impact on the practice and politics of American evangelicals. But it is also bringing new life to traditional mainline churches such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others. The net effect is to undercut the old split between “spiritual” and “religious.”
“Some in this emerging group are dropping out of churches and meeting in homes. They are building alliances that break through traditional lines.Younger church leaders are hosting discussions and posting the videos on YouTube, sometimes speaking with a Bible in one hand and a beer in another,” Clayton says. “They are hip, and technically savvy. There is an entire group of Gen X and Gen Y folks, many of them evangelical by heritage, who simply don’t buy into the firm doctrinal lines of their parents. They are re-writing what it means to be evangelical today.”
“It isn’t a coincidence that President Obama won the election partially with the help of this powerful political and social force which is pragmatic in nature.”
Although these new church leaders are influenced by the progressive social agenda of the mainline churches, it’s not yet clear that they’ll settle there. At the same time, the traditional social causes of evangelicals are also losing their grip on these “pragmatic idealists.” Gun control, homosexuality, and abortion are no longer the defining features of these emerging religious identities; poverty and the environmental crisis now play the bigger role. Adding to that is the warming of relations between religion and science. The trend is now toward a kinder, gentler reading of scripture.
“These Progressive Christians are able to draw from sciences and from their faith traditions,” he says. “They are more open-minded. They don’t believe that the Bible has to be utterly without error in order to help form one’s religious identity. Reason, popular music and films, even other religious traditions can play a role as well.”
Clayton says religion in America has seen periodic revivals throughout our history, noting we were still a pretty conservative nation until the 1960s. “The kind of ‘coming together’ we’re seeing now is without parallel since the social transformations of the Sixties. Perhaps we’re heading into a period of ‘big tent Christianity’ that will blend Christian identity with new forms of social and political activism.”
Claremont is actively taking a role in identifying and helping to facilitate understand this movement. Several professors at the School of Religion specialize in the emerging religious identities in America. Clayton and emerita professor Marjorie Suchocki recently received a major grant from the Ford Foundation with the title, “Rekindling Theological Imagination: Transformative Thought for Progressive Action.” They recently hosted a major research conference of progressive theologians from across the country to discuss the changes and to predict their social consequences.
In late May, Claremont will host a denominational summit, involving progressive church leaders across the entire spectrum from evangelicals to Unitarians and Quakers. The hypothesis of a new “big tent Christianity” will be debated, and church leaders will answer questions from the media at a major press conference on May 28. Then in late September, deans and presidents of seminaries and divinity schools from across the country will convene in Claremont. The goal will be to talk about reshaping theological education so that it remains relevant to the new religious realities that are transforming American culture in the 21st century.
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