Faith, Theology — April 8, 2013 11:57 am

Tony Jones, Postmodern Theology, And The Future Of The Church

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This past weekend (April 5-6) theologians, pastors, clergy, and anyone else interested in the future of the church descended upon Drury University in Sprigfield, Missouri for the Subverting the Norm conference tackling the big question: “Can Postmodern Theology live in the Churches?”

From the website:

Can the actually existing churches speak meaningfully and persuasively to those who aren’t so sure about the supernatural or the magical or the metaphysical, which includes the fastest growing religious demographic in North America, the “nones,” those with no formal religious affiliation?

Can the church retain a viable role in a world where God is often viewed as a relic of the past, or as a grand Santa Claus in the sky, or perhaps even as a narcotic or neurosis that we’d do well to get rid of?

And if the churches are to be faithful to the revolutionary event that gave birth to Christianity, or if they are to recover their theological voice in a compelling and transformative way, is it possible to do so by listening to voices on the margins of the church, or outside of the church, including even those who might rightly pass for atheists? And perhaps more to the point, why are voices on the fringes of the church, or outside of the church, becoming more influential on church leaders and practitioners than the traditionally “orthodox” voices inside the churches?

A friend once told me that Theology that doesn’t hit the ground is useless. Now, that might be taking that argument to it’s limit, but there is certainly truth to it. If our theology doesn’t shape some part of our worldview then what is it for?

Tony Jones (Phd Princeton Theological Seminary) is one of the leaders of the emerging church movement and well versed in Postmodern Theology. He has written what I find an extremely helpful reflection on the topic of the entire conference: “Can Postmodern Theology live in the Churches?”

1. There are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t. I‘m interested in the work of the radical theologians who wantthere to be a God, even if they’re not willing to affirm that there is a God. There are 7 billion people on this planet, and the vast majority of them want there to be a God.

2. Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.

3. Put less words in scare quotes. Just answer the goddamn question. In his talk, Caputo went through the entire question, ”Can postmodern theology live in our churches?” He put each word in quotes, and deconstructed it. ”Can” “postmodern” “theology” “live” “in” “our” “churches.” That’s a fun exercise at an academic conference, to be sure. But it rarely works in pastoral ministry. Postmodern theologians and the churchmen and women that are inspired by them — including the emerging church movement — have become adept at eternal deferral. People ask real question, the questions that they want answers for, and we respond by deconstructing the question, telling them, “That’s not the right question,” or saying, “That question doesn’t interest me.” I’ve grown tired of this posture. I’d like us to answer some questions, and to do so forthrightly.

4. Let’s double down on epistemic humility. One of the benefits of deconstruction is that it imbues all of our intellectual activity with the reminder that even our most strongly held beliefs are, ultimately, deconstructible. You might be wrong about there not being a God, and I might be wrong about there being a God.

5. Be loyal to this tribe. We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today. If our version of the gospel is to stand a chance, particularly among the “nones,” then we’ve got to stick together in spite of our doctrinal/theological/philosophical differences.

6. Indefatigably produce original content. Again, if we’re going to change the conversation about what is Christianity, then we have to fill the world with content about this version of the gospel.

7. We must maintain our sense of humor. Like #4 above, postmodernism demands that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, because we might be wrong. Like #5 above, if we can maintain our senses of humor, it will be a more attractive alternative to the earnest, overly serious, even hateful versions of the faith that many people see today.

8. My next book will disappoint you: but I’m not writing it for you. I have a different vocation than a university philosopher like Caputo, or a subversive free-range philosopher like Peter Rollins. My vocation is to think and write through the issues that vex modern-day Christianity. Your vocation is something else — to preach or write poems or blog or something. Don’t try to be Caputo or Rollins. Be yourself.

9. I have never read a word of Žižek. You can’t do it all. You can’t read every book and blog; you can’t listen to every podcast. Find what you want to read and know, and embrace that, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t read it all.

10. Beware of the allure of the word “atheist.” I’ve lived through the waxing and waning popularity of terms like “postmodern” and “emergent.” The term “Christian atheist” is currently waxing. It, too, will wane.

11. People aren’t talking about God. They’re talking about Jesus, the bible, angels, heaven. This conference, at least on day one, was consumed with talk of God. That’s fine. But in my experience, people outside these walls are asking less about God than they are about other volumes in the theological encyclopedia.

12. Don’t get so far out ahead of your army that they mistake you for the enemy and shoot you. That’s a danger after a conference like this, that you’ll go home and preach a sermon on the death of God. Chances are, your congregation isn’t ready for that.

13. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh of Ex 3:14 means “I will be that who I have yet to become.”It doesn’t mean “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” It is much more eschatological than that. In fact, Jewish Bibles leave this passage untranslated. That commitment to untranslatability should stand in critique of all of our talk about God.

I think these conversations are important. I don’t think their is anything wrong with rigorous intellectual engagement in Theology, but when these leaders in the church return home to their communities how does this new and fresh perspective actually make sense in the lives of most people who do not have a degree in Theology, have not read Žižek, but still care deeply about God?

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  • ‘When these leaders in the church return home to their communities how does this new and fresh perspective actually make sense in the lives of most people who do not have a degree in Theology, have not read Žižek, but still care deeply about God?’

    Erm… in pretty major and practical, pastoral ways. It was an excellent conference, and actually Tony’s piece here was problematic – he’d arrived late, missed most of the sessions, was Tweeting throughout Caputo’s talk that he was meant to be responding to… It came across pretty poorly to be honest, and the polite rebuttals that came in response to his response were very good.

    It might seem like a totally abstract affair from afar, but it was far far from it. Just think it’s worth pushing back and saying that, in case people just dismissed what was a brilliant and practical few days.

    • Let me clarify. Perhaps my wording was off. I still stand by much of what Tony said, but I also agree with you that in major and practical ways WHAT we believe about God greatly shapes how that is played out. The challenge is knowing how to translate theological discussions like these to (I cringe to use this type of lingo) practical application.

      Sounds like some good answers were given.

      Thanks for the feedback.

  • To characterize the reception of my remarks as poor is quite off the mark. Some disliked what I had to say. But throughout the remaining days of the conference, I was repeatedly thanked by attendees who liked what I had to say.

    And I’m sorry to hear that you, FB, are not able to tweet and listen at the same time. Also, I’ve read Caputo’s forthcoming book, so I was well-versed with his content.

    • I think FB is saying that your actions (being late, tweeting through Caputo’s talk) came across poorly (at least that’s how I’m reading it). Your response here is a bit combative.

  • It is not possible to tweet and listen at the same time, Dr. Jones, unless your brain is somehow not a human brain. This is like the 80% of drivers who think that they are “better than the average driver” and can “text while driving” without an issue. You might consider asking those you converse with how they experience your tweeting while they are talking; the answer will be “disconnected” and quite possibly “rude.”

  • Perhaps a better question is “What kind of theology will live in postmodern churches?”

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