What is Public Theology?

A Note Before Starting

The phrase “public theology” is often used in a general way to refer to an intersection where theological and religious reflection bump up against public issues. Sometimes it means making academic theology more accessible to non-academic theologians. It is also the case, though, that it is an established discipline with its own journal, professional organization, and academic specializations. While the stuff below applies to a certain degree to “public theology” in the general sense, I intend for it to primarily be a response to the academic discipline, especially as it is done in the Christian context.

The Stuff You Want

As with many areas of theological study, exactly what it is that “public theology” means varies from scholar to scholar. One factor that contributes to its various usages is the reality that many scholars come to academic public theology from another discipline like social ethics, pastoral theology, or practical theology. Others do not come to academic public theology at all, using the word to refer to a kind of faith-based logic and rhetoric for social action and policy change. Some insist that even academic public theology must necessarily also be non-academic.

For example, The Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) is a research center based in the theology department at the University of Edinburgh. Founded by Duncan Forrester, the Centre is clear that “public theology is best done in collaboration with people outside the academy” and that “theology itself is developed through engagement with the issues being addressed and in conversation with those who have experience of the issues.” That is, “[Public theology] is not worked out in the academy and then disseminated to a waiting public. The public itself is sought out and constructed by this process.”1 Forrester’s vision of public theology is one which builds and supports community as well as policy change.

This version of public theology does not just involve work among research subjects in an attempt to get at their lived experience, it entails conferences, planning sessions, and group discussions wherein stakeholders are brought together for extended periods of time — often more than once — to authorize, develop, vet, and critique public theology.

In these discourses, the theologian is the host, and this means that the participants have permission to talk about matters of deep emotion. One of Duncan Forrester’s favourite stories comes from the working group on crime and punishment that brought together representatives of prison governors,  ex-offenders, advocates, prison visitors, criminologists and policemen. He refers to the moment when the participants realized that there was no place for dealing with guilt and extending forgiveness in the criminal justice system. People involved in policy development often fight, shy of talking about passions, fears and hopes, yet these are the core of the stories people want to tell. Public theology can construct a space in which these emotions can be properly addressed.2

Responding to what he saw as a possible threat to government support brought about by the Thatcher-led government in Britain, Forrester founded the CPTI and was clear about how important is was to relate theology and policy. Specifically, he proposed two queries as standards to assess the Church’s voice and influence:

First, does the work “ talk behind the backs of the powerless ” or give a voice to the excluded?

Second, does the work help us “see things through others’ eyes and lead to a more adequate and rounded understanding of the situation?”3 

Though any given congregation or organization is entitled to host conversations which bring multiple constituencies to the table, Forrester argues that in every instance, these questions must be held up as norms to truly support a public theology. This community-gathering style of public theology is not often used in the American context, which leads to another factor that contributes to the diversity of definitions: location.

Sebastian Kim, editor of the International Journal of Public Theology, notes that since 2000, there has been a marked difference between US scholarship on the topic and work being done elsewhere. Writing in 2011 he noted that, “in the last decade, there have been relatively fewer writings published in the USA on public theology and instead initiatives have been coming from Europe, South Africa and Australia particularly. Unlike the US situation where individual scholars are leading discussions on the topic,  elsewhere centres for public theology have been established within universities and denominations.”4 Institutional support and varying academic climates have contributed to the variance of definition. That being said, some of the contours, especially historical referents, are widely shared.


Martin Marty is often pointed to as the progenitor of the phrase “public theology,” developing it in conversation with Robert Bellah’s ideas about “civil religion” which emerged in the late 1960s. In early writings Marty framed “public theology” as the action of the “public church,” defining that as

“A family of apostolic churches with Jesus Christ at the center… that are especially sensitive to the res publica, the public order that surrounds us and includes people of faith.” Public theology, then, was “an effort to interpret the life of a people in the light of a transcendent reference.”5

Marty’s work with Bellah was such that Bellah too began to use the term “public theology” in his continuing scholarship on civil religion. Identifying civil religion as “the recognition that religious influence often becomes institutionalized in general sets of cultural convictions of the people, reinforcing patriotic values,”6 Bellah differentiated public theology from it as the intentional reflection on the interaction between social systems and faith. In short order, though, the term was picked up far beyond Bellah and Marty.

By 1976, Christian ethicist David Hollenbach was drawing on the work of John Courtney Murray to champion “the formulation of a public theology which attempts to illuminate the urgent moral questions of our time through explicit use of the great symbols and doctrines of the Christian faith,”7 and by 1981 David Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination brought the publicness of theology into the forefront, discussing the ways in which all theology is accountable to the three publics of the academy, church, and society.8. This accountability is an especially important dimension of current public theology discourse in that much attention has been given to the ways in which Christianity has been publicly yoked into the service of imperialism, patriarchy, and racism.9

Issues Today

Present public theology scholars are particularly self-aware of the ways in which Christian theology can be claimed as an authoritarian source of legitimacy for oppressive systems and are wary of such claims not only because they want to resist oppressive structures, but also because, methodologically, strong, doctrinally-based arguments which only self-legitimate do not support the broad sense of the pluralistic public most public theologians want to address. That being said, care is usually given that “public theology” is not merely a stand in for “theology reflections on the particularities of oppression.”

The notion of ‘public’ in public theology should arguably not be reduced to simply meaning the opposite of ‘private’. Nor ought it merely become synonymous with ‘social’. There is a fundamental sense of public theology lost when it receives these kinds of reductionisms, as being nothing mo to do with ‘public’ being used interchangeably with ‘contextual’. Public theology is indeed concerned with relationality, with sociality, and with contextuality – but it need not be reduced to any of these aspects, as important as they are concerning the nature and role of public theology. Perhaps a fourth reductionist issue relates to public theology being viewed as ‘particularistic’ in the same way liberation, political, black, feminist, womanist, African, minjung, dalit, and other so-called particularistic theologies are stereotypically regarded with particularity in mind.10

I agree, and… there is a danger with this line of “non-particularistic” thinking. Positions like Le Bruyns’ above can easily veer towards a kind of late-Modern universalism in which there can be (a) claims that broad strokes of support for some imagined public good trickle down and eventually make life more full of flourishing for actual, particular communities all the while (b) individuals in those communities continue to lack any notes of change. Indeed, policing the boundaries of what it is that counts as public and a public good is an area under intense scrutiny, especially by feminist and womanist scholars addressing public theology.

The Definition I Use

Thus, while acknowledging that there are other framings of the term that have their own justification, I understand public theology similar to pastoral theologian Duane Bidwell, whose definition11 is the basis of mine as follows:

Public Theology:

Consists of critical and constructive theological reflection on culture, policies, and discourses pertaining to ideas of the common good, society, media, and economics;

Promotes the public good, with a goal to concretely support efforts that alleviate suffering and disclose misuses of power that restrict justice, reconciliation, and abundant life, especially for those most affected by oppressive systems;

Draws on disciplines from a number of fields — especially those that examine social and political dynamics — while emphasizing spiritual and religious resources including texts, traditions, and practices;

Communicates to communities that are diverse, intending to generate informed understandings of the theological and religious dimensions of public issues and develop analysis and critique in ways that are accessible and conceivably persuasive across disciplines and faith-traditions;

Resists confessional and authoritarian forms of reasoning and argumentation to be accessible and compelling to people in and beyond religious communities.

The Dance of Decolonizing Theopoetics

A guest post by Patrick Reyes who I’m grateful to for reviewing my recent book, Way to Water as part of the Homebrewed Christianity Blogger Book Tour.

What happens when the Way to Water serves as more than just a metaphor? What if it should actually lead to water? Self-ionization may in fact be the right metaphor for how Theopoetics as a field is emerging and that is shown through L. Callid Keefe-Perry’s work. Water is always in a status of transition, and similarly God, as articulated through Theopoetics, is always in flux. However, what about Theopoetics itself? Should that not also always be in flux?

Keefe-Perry’s work demonstrates that when operating on the boundary lines of several distinct fields – constructive theology, process theology, practical theology, hermeneutics, science, art, etc. – one finds that Theopoetics and the definition of “it,” if there is even an “it” to define, follows several distinct historical and theoretical lineages. This plurality is to be celebrated. To have a discipline such as Theopoetics, which is owned and operated by so many different practitioners, that in and of itself is the way to water.

Nevertheless, like all ownership and means of production, Keefe-Perry’s masterful work shows the limitation of the owners and operators to really question why they own, and where their fluidity and freedom originates. While Keefe-Perry is clear to point to new directions, new texts, new ways of reading, gesturing towards these bibliographies, this barely scratches the surface of how coloniality operates throughout the text. There is an allure to Theopoetics, or what he calls, seduction: “Via MacKendrick, Theopoetics can be seen as a way to mark and embody our desire to draw closer to God” (122). For those whose bodies were moved, not simply by seduction but by force, the relationship between Theopoetics and those suffering under coloniality stretches all metaphors too thin. Perhaps it is too much to ask for a text to speak beyond its own boundaries, to include those voices who might not readily make it into the accepted bibliography, to reflect what Octavio Paz had to say about writing on these boundary lines in his 1990 Nobel lecture:

The search for poetic modernity was a Quest, in the allegorical and chivalric sense … I did not find any Grail although I did cross several waste lands visiting castles of mirrors and camping among ghostly tribes. But I did discover the modern tradition. For modernity is not a poetic school but a lineage, a family dispersed over several continents and which for two centuries has survived many sudden changes and misfortunes: public indifference, isolation, and tribunals in the name of religious, political, academic and sexual orthodoxy.

This work traces a particular lineage bathed in modernity that is surviving sudden changes like what is noted by Paz. Keefe-Perry is searching for the way to water in this desert of indifference and tribunals of the divine. For a decolonial practical theologian, searching or finding God through this discourse that resists the temptation to be dogmatic and bathed in prose is exciting. However, to build a decolonial Theopoetics, Keefe-Perry would have to expand the bibliography to include other voices: the lost, silenced, and marginalized. Keefe-Perry welcomes those other voices; in fact, he invites them to dance with him, to seduce us into new being. Those voices though, under the weight of coloniality – the residue and psychological scar tissue of colonialism – subjugates and silences many of those voices he is calling to dance with him.

I hear Keefe-Perry’s call. I desperately want to dance with him. But my feet are tied to the lost cultures and ways of speaking about and to the divine. The world does not allow me to stand. Keefe-Perry’s feet are tied to his own colonial inheritance; so are mine. When we try to dance together with his text, it is awkward and disjointed: both attempting to dance, to express, but always within the limits of coloniality.

He says,

Theopoetics seduces us, leading us away from what is certain … we will be brought back again to where were before we began, required to confront the reality that there are experiences that simply refuse to comply with our vision and hope for the world. Whether through their abject horror and atrocity, through their category-shattering beauty and awe, or the sudden profundity of the mundane, there are experiences that lead us away from what we thought was sure and we must reassess. (127-128)

It is time to reassess. Why are our feet tied? Why can’t we dance freely? For those that can dance, I say – of course, Roland Faber likens Theopoetics to Process Theology; of course, Amos Wilder gyrates towards a new Theopoetic method; of course, there are embodied Theopoetic discourses in practical theology! Of course! These texts and authors were already dancing, free to move about to the music in the way they please. They are simply showing us a new way of dancing.

If we are to take Keefe-Perry’s challenge seriously and bring those experiences that foster our ability to dance freely because of their beauty and awe, then we need to look to those texts, communities, and experiences that escape the colonial grasp.

The Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer is the way to a particular Theopoetics. The water may be different, but at the mouth of the river are the same theological, philosophical, artistic, and mathematic texts that one would find elsewhere – albeit never on the same dance floor. I believe Keefe-Perry is going to decolonize the Way to Water. Following Alves, who decolonized the bibliography of Theopoetics or Melanie May who enfleshes it, or MacKendrick who seduces us out of our colonial rut, Keefe-Perry suggests in a celebration of Alves, “I have lifted up Rubem Alves as an author who willfully and explicitly subverted the norms of formal theological method so as to create literary spaces that honor fleshly experience” (177). My fleshly experience tells me that The Way to Water is preparing the way for a decolonial Theopoetics, a new Way to Water. The Way to Water gestures towards those lost, subjugated, and colonized narratives by showing that there are multiple ways to water, multiple ways to dance with the divine texts of our hearts and experiences. I look forward to his follow up work where he seeks out those watersheds and sources of life that have been rendered invisible by colonialism and coloniality. I look forward to dancing with him in this new space, freer than before.

For more reviews of Way to Water, visit the Homebrewed Christianity Blogger Book Tour.


PT This is a mixed post: part pride and part relevant.

My brother, Declan Keefe, is the director of a environmentally-focused Architecture firm in (Placetailor) Boston. His firm was recently featured in what I am told is The Architecture magazine in the U.S. and I wanted to both give him some press (seriously, folks who read this blog will also likely be people interested in Placetailor) and reflect on the fact that his vision for architecture is almost exactly parallel to mine in regards to theology.  


…Placetailor was started in 2008 by Simon Hare, Assoc. AIA, a designer and builder passionate about developing new models of design and construction that challenge industry standards. Placetailor’s first project was the Hare family’s home, Pratt House, which garnered attention for its energy-efficient renovation and small physical and environmental footprint. Hare recruited a team of young designers and builders turned off by design-firm hierarchies and an industry they see as pitting architects against contractors. The company has had an evolving cast of characters, united by the conviction that designing and building should be joined together as a cooperative enterprise.

Declan Keefe, who has been with Placetailor from the beginning, took over as director when Hare went back to Israel….

“Design needs to include input from the entire community,” Keefe says, “rather than being imposed by architects from above.”

Whenever a profession or field of study becomes too distanced from those for whom it is supposed to work… well… things get wonky. At best.

I'm excited whenever there is a vision in which education isn't held up as a tool for elitism but rather as a means by which to more fully connect and serve.  That my brother shares this vision is sweet. 

Good stuff.


Check out Placetailor (they've got a great site) and there's a copy of the article from Architect Magazine below:

Me and the Fishes


Yesterday I got an email from someone who had particular questions related to some of my views about theology and God as mentioned in the video below.

They were interesting to me and so I'm replying publicly here for you all as well.

How do these answers sit with you? Are they things you'd say of yourself as well? Am I a loon?

I think that your imagery of us being fish and God being the water we are in lines up with what Paul spoke about on Mars Hill. "In Him we live and move and have our being." The analogy of the fish not being able to see the water (or itself) clearly in the mirror also lines up with Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. "For now we see through a mirror, dimly." Does that work for you?
Exactly. In fact, in an earlier iteration of explanation I had included Paul's Mars Hill note as well as Meister Eckhardt's “I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” 

It seems you think Theology is man made. True?
Yup. Though the truths that they refer/point towards are simply the way things are ordered under God, our models for that ordering are only that, models, and those models are indeed made by humanity. Inspired at times, sure, but crafted by limited by human minds. 

It seems that you think that in our current state of existence we are incapable of "really" knowing God. True?
Yeesh… A lot hangs on "really" doesn't it? Hmmmm… I think I would say that it is not possible to know God in God's fullness. I'm thinking here of things like Isa 55:6-9, especially, the balance between "… he may be found; call on him while he is near…" and  "'my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." That is, of course there is a nearness and a knowledge of God. Praises! 

In there very least we have scripture by which God's work is recorded, and I believe that we still have the gift of the Spirit which Jesus said he would send from the Father.  And/but…  I believe we commit a sin of hubris when we claim to know God or God's will in its complete fullness. That is, God's Goodness, Beauty, Love, Being etc. is so profound that our words will never be sufficient to capture the essence or the nature of our reliance upon that Holy power.

It seems that you think that God does not "reach out" to communicate with the "fish" living inside of Him. True?
Disagree entirely. It's just that sometime we don't get the message well, or don't slow down enough to listen.

You seem to come from a "liberal", "man-centered" approach to Christianity and theology. True?
Since you seem to be a fair-minded person, and this question (to me) seems very much the same as the first one, I'll assume that there is something to it other than that which I already hit on. I think that "Liberal" as a categorical term is fitting regarding my approach to Biblical Scholarship, yes. Here what I'm thinking of (via the handy-dandy wikipedia) is something like:
"Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings. Liberal Christianity does not claim to be a belief structure, and as such is not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal statements. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, it has no unified set of propositional beliefs."

In terms of being "man-centered"… well, that bears some thinking… 

I do tend to think that there is something particular about humanity that is different that the rest of Creation, so I tend to be humano-centric in the sense that I don't think we are just the same as rocks or water, but I doubt that was what you were suggesting… Perhaps you can explain more what you mean about that and I can better answer you.

The Future of Quakerism: A Credo


This winter I was asked to consider writing a piece "Envisioning the Future within our Quaker faith." The article was to be published in SPARK, the newsletter of New York Yearly Meeting (composed of 90ish congregations), and would have gone out in the spring. Well, it came at a great time for me as I was considering lots of things related, and so I wrote a piece in response. Turns out though, that folks did not publish it for one reason or another, only referencing it in the newsletter and putting it up online. Anywho, I felt like there was some power in it, and continue to feel this way, and so I've reposted it here in hopes that Friends find some use of it. Please re-post, reference, and comment as you please.



Where Are We Now?


I have been been sitting for weeks with the question posed to me in the request to write for this issue: How do I envision the future of the faith of the Religious Society of Friends?  Over and over, in trying to sit with the future I have been driven back towards the present. How are we to get there – wherever “there” might be – if we don't know where here is?  What is our tradition about? What is at its core? Why do we worship? I found myself scarcely able to imagine the future given that I had a hard time even grasping the present. 

It is not that I haven't considered these questions. Far from it. It is that I am unclear that my responses to them would be anywhere near to normative. And that is when it Opened: the way forward is not in there being some “normative” response to those questions, but in having some response. In our Meetings and homes we ought to be really asking these questions and expecting responses. Why do we come to Worship? Do we really believe in Discernment? Do we even believe in God? What do we even mean by “God”? Can we unite with our Faith and Practice? If not, then what? We are all doing each other a great diservice by not having these conversations out in the open. 

Contemporarily, we Liberal Friends tend to resist articulating our beliefs. “All are welcome,” we say, and “none are turned away.” With this I unite. But what happens when someone comes through our door because she wants to know what we believe? What happens when someone believes something and isn't sure they are welcome to believe it for lack of conversation? My hope for the future of our tradition is not one in which all agree, but one in which we are impelled into the transformation of inner and outer lives, concieved, nurtured, and pruned in discerning worship, the result of which ripens into Justice and the fruits of the Spirit. My hope for the future of our tradition is that we might then be empowered and encouraged to speak – regularly and profoundly – of our experiences of the Divine. Towards that broader vision I offer my perspective in hopes that you will offer yours. This is how Truth prospers with me.

I am agree with Friend Patrick Nugent as he writes that “whenever goodness radiates and transforms the heart, whenever the conscience rises up and stands in the revealing and liberating light of goodness, there, whether named or not, is the Bread of Life which never fades away, the redeeming presence of the risen and living Christ.” I stand with him and our forebears in the belief that practice of a full and authentic Christianity is grounded in experiences of Real Presence, mediated via the gift of the Holy Spirit and actually discernible in worship. My faith's power is not in a mere ethic of compassion, an eternity of heavenly compensation at some later time, or the warm glow of community life in the present. My work is to practice coming into that Light, Life, and Power which takes away the occasion of all war, that Presence of God in which we are perfected – if only for a moment – and in which we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The path is to live lives that more and more readily resemble those moments revealed in prophetic ministry: to realize that we need not “build up” the Kingdom because it is already here among us, if only we would enter it.

I believe that much of contemporary progressive Christianity – including our own Religious Society – has become too close a bedfellow to generic liberal social concern and has turned too often to rationalism and modernity for its identity, becoming habituated to a pattern of accepting a series of “second bests” instead of waiting on the liberating power of God which insists upon justice in the present. I know that much of the history and narrative of the Christian tradition is dubious and – to be frank – hard to swallow. I know this and yet I know that there is no nourishment in the desert of doubt. I believe Paul Ricoeur was correct when he wrote that we are called beyond the desert of criticism to a Second Naïveté. Yes, there are times when it is best we not eat, for there is sickness to be purged, but we must acknowledge that hunger cannot be fed with starvation: eventually there comes a time when we are to take up the knowledge and precision gained through the wielding of our hermeneutic of suspicion and step with it out beyond doub'ts edge back into a place of surrendering belief. Not as naïve children, but as people of faith working on the basis of the substance of things hoped for but as yet unseen, trusting that in our faithfulness we will be led towards justice, granted compassion, and met with community.  By virtue of our baptism in the Spirit we are called to this: belief.

And so… I believe in the resurrection of the Body: as people of God we are called into a new life, into a new way of living on earth, while still in the flesh and with our feet yet made of clay.  I believe that the story and hope of this new birth were with Jesus in his life and death and I believe that in his refusal to submit to the Powers and Principalities he offered even them the opportunity for redemption. We are called to do no less. I believe these things because they are what seem most right in the moments when I have been held under the Holy Power of God's Spirit poured out.  And yet, even as I am held in this power I feel called to resist the temptation to allow my sense of certainty to reign above my hospitality; to resist placing my sense of the truth over and above others. I feel called to proclaim my testimony as exactly that: a concrete witness to the experience of God's transforming capacity my life and flesh and not some idealized and absolute external theology or creed. 

I believe that the Living Water is yet live and that we are each invited to drink at that place of nourishment there beyond the desert, wherein we might also partake of the Bread and enter the Kingdom, for it is already here among us. If only we would enter. Enter and share the story of the land beyond.

We gain so much from hearing one another speak from hallowed places. Let your life speak. 

Sexism and Being a Patriot: To American Christians on July 4th, 2012


While I was at the Wild Goose Festival in NC a week or so back, Deborah Arca of Patheos' Progressive Christianity Portal asked me and a few other folks (Brian McLaren, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Roger Wolsey)  – apropos of an impending July 4th – if we would speak on video for a wee little bit about our understanding of patriotism and how it played with out Christianity. My response is above and here, and though I'm not 100% on my subject-verb agreement and my diction leaves more than a speck to be desired, I feel pretty good about what I said on the whole. By all means, please go ahead and check it out, AND make sure to read the paragraph that follows this one for the thing that gets me going.


What is bizzarre / sad / unfortunately-predictible-upon-cultural-assessment is the sheer number of objectify-ingly disrobed women that popped up when – doing my normal Google image search for some nice little graphic to plug into my blog post – I entered the search term "Patriotism."  To put this another way… when Google (which is really nothing more than an easily accessible repository for the traces of America's projections) was asked to show me patriotism, MORE THAN 1 IN 10 OF THE IMAGES PROVIDED AS AN ANSWER WERE BLATENTLY misogynistic. If you want to see in greater detail what I am talking about, turn off "safety search" (if you have it enabled) to ensure no ratings-based censorship that happens, then check this search out

Maybe it is the late time of night or the heat getting to me, but SWEET JIMMY! does this make me wonder / bothered / sad. 

Now I'm certainly no sexless prude, but here's my two cents at the moment: if you didn't already know that the Principalities and Powers where at work idolatrously conflating our political nation with our spiritual salvation, then look no further than the way we heavily employ sexism to visually conceive of the notion of patriotism.


May this too find redemption. 

Why Theology? (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a short piece I used as a pre-semester reading when I was co-teaching a seminary theology 101 course. Part 1 is here, and next are three pieces on creeds.


For Christians that understand God to have been enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, there exists a clarion call not only to discipleship, but to a model of God that is grounded in the spiritual and physical realities of this world. A world that is not philosophically divided into spirit and matter, but that is both in simultaneity. God's expression is – and has been – in the particulars of situations, communities, and collective sorrows and joy. And does articulating God by means of our human experience bring about its own challenges?

Absolutely. But what other choice is there? It is only through our brokenness and human sense that we experience anything. The acknowledgement that, in fact, our experience heavily influences discussions on the nature of God, opens up the possibilities of theological discourse. When this is accepted, theology moves from a scientistic discipline of proof and proposition towards a passionate exploration of how God is seen to be ever-renewing all that is, in our lives, our homes, communities, and all across this wounded world. In other words, a God out of context is not much God at all: it is a poor sort of articulation of God that is so far removed from life that it does not have bearing upon human actions and understanding. If our explication of the nature of the Divine somehow places God fully beyond human access, then God becomes available only beyond life. If, conversely, it is the case that God's presence is at least somewhat experiential, then our models and articulations of the Divine ought to provide for this to be the case.

What we know of God is contextual, personal, and ever capable of change. As we study theology we immerse ourselves in a living stream of interpretive tradition. I agree with Tripp Fuller that, "in an unfinished universe it is unreasonable to think a theology is finished." We study not a series of facts about God, but a series of interpretations and articulations developed by certain people at certain times in certain places. Human notions of God are ever-changing, even if God is not. So how then are we to understand our role as theologians? What is our task if we know that we too are grounded in our own context and can't get out of it to articulate God fully and factually complete? I have an answer that I'll offer via analogy, of all things, to chemistry.

Asked what H2O is, most people will answer water. They are correct, and there is more to the story than their response. Formed the other way around, "H2O" as an answer to the question "What is water?" is not wholly correct.

Imagine two molecules of water, each with two atoms of hydrogen associated to a larger atom of oxygen. What we have discovered is that even in a container of "pure" water, the reality is that a collection of H2O molecules do not remain simply a collection of H2Os. Instead, they begin to interact with one another, resulting in one of the two oxygen atoms taking a hydrogen atom from the other, an event which chemists notate as 2 H2O <–-> H3O+ + OH− and refer to as the "self-ionization" of water. Essentially, even though water is H2O, that is, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, water does not ever actually exist in a pure H2O form. Water is constantly in a state of resonance, transition, and relation, an oscillation in process between H3O+ and OH−. So too is God: somewhere between transcendent and immanent; personal and eternal; and any number of other seeming contradictions. By extension then, our task as theologians is not to name God as a fixed God that is and always will be, but to describe God in a such a way that captures some of the Divine nature as it is in the process of becoming something other than what we have named it.

This is not to say that God is becoming something ungodlike any more than it is to say that water is not water-like simply because we always thought it was “just H2O.” The function of our theology is to provide a sketch of how it is that God is at some middle point of becoming something more than we thought it was, but not so far afield that it is unrecognizable. Two molecules of water do not self-ionize into wombats: they stay water-related, just further from the idea of “pure” water than we first thought. There is a sense of continuity between H3O+ and OH− such that it makes sense to call a mixture of those things H2O, even though what we have discovered challenges our sense of what exactly that wet stuff is. The study of theology should do this as well: push us beyond that which we had previously contemplated, enabling us to better name God in our context for our people in our place and time.

Understanding and/or relating to some aspect of the Divine does not entail understanding and/or relating to the entirety of God. If you ask my wife if she knows me, she is sure to say yes, and you would think nothing of it. Of course she knows me. And yet there are thoughts I think, things I see, and stories I have heard that she has no knowledge of. That doesn't mean she does not know me: it means than I am more than that which she knows. I see no reason why this should not be the case with God as well. We articulate God's qualities – and thought about sin, redemption, end-times, the function of the church, etc – not to limit or ascribe finitude to that which we know is profound and immense, but as an offering and invitation to others that they might respond in kind, lending their voices to a conversation which is both the echo of ancient words and the renewal of current hope.

As we scientifically name water as H2O because that is the state in between its two poles of existence, so too can we conceive of God. It's just that while water "self-ionizes" into two distinct parts, each of which is qualitatively identifiable, quantifiable, and fixed, God seems to be formed of more parts than we can name. Yes Father, yes Son, yes Holy Spirit, and yes also Alpha and Omega; Love and Light; and Living Water and Word. Yes, yes, and infinite-becoming yes.

Why theology? Because as people of faith and Christian leaders, part of our work entails leading, and while we may have some vision of what we want to end up with, knowing how to get there – and how people have tried to get there before – certainly helps that effort. Put another way, a map isn't useful for getting you from “here” to “there” if you don't know where “here” is. Theology is the study of human reflection on God and it is our “here.” How we go forward will be up to us.

Wild Goose Festival Reflection

This post is part of the july synchroblog – an eclectic bunch of bloggers writing on the same topic.  This month is centered on the wild goose festival, a justice-arts-spirituality festival held the last week of june in North Carolina.  This synchroblog will include stories from the gathering as well as from those who couldn’t go, centered on what the wild goose (the celtic image of the Holy Spirit) is stirring up for us.  The links so far are at the bottom of this post, with more to come as they get posted. 



My family recently came back from the first ever Wild Goose Festival in NC and I've got some thoughts about it. Rather than type them all out, I'll deep link to each topic of my reflection. If you don't have the time or care to watch the whole thing, clicking any of the below will open up the specific point. And if you are only going to listen to one, I guess it would be number five, on gatekeeping. That, or listen to Kristina in the second one.

First Topic: Thanks to Shay, The Anarchist Reverend, for his faithful (and tough) work to call us to acknowledge the lack of holistic inclusion of trans* and Queer folk at The Festival.

Second Topic: Families, nursing moms, and babies

Third Topic: Speakers vs. Workshops; Heirarchies; and Celebrity-less, Ground-Up design.

Fourth Topic: Time for reflection, silence, contemplation, and prayer

Fifth Topic: Gatekeeping

Sixth Topic: My intense gratitude for the Festival and all who were a part, in any way, shape, or form.



Thanks goes out to Kathy Escobar, a fellow Synchro Blogger, from whom I copied this list: 


The Religious Society of Friends, Minutes of Travel, and Me



If you are just interested in reading the Minute of Travel, click right here, otherwise, here goes:


This post serves a kind of two-fold purpose, the latter of which is more significant:


1) to share with my extended community the Minute of Travel I now carry, and 2) to explain my sense of what a Minute of Travel is, i.e. to articulate my understanding of ministry and carrying a concern within the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).


The former I want to share because there are those with whom I have connection that might want to see the document, that latter because I think it might be worth sharing another perspective on ministry and travel as Friend. I'm bothering to type up all this so that Google can find it and so that it is in the Cloud in the event others might want access to text. There is not a whole lot written on this topic and I thought it might be of use/interest to someone out there.

For the purposes of trying to make this accessible to those who might not know Quakerese, I'll try to articulate things in such a way that they avoid jargon unless it has explanation.


[Note: I am part of a local Meeting congregation that is in the unprogrammed tradition of the RSoF, what is often referred to as Liberal Quakerism and is associated with two of the four sub-sects of of the RSoF. Through New York Yearly Meeting (which is something akin to a Conference in other denominations) I am connected to Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. The other two forms of the RSoF are the small numbers of Conservative Friends and the Evangelical Friends Church International] For more info about these sub-types of The Religious Society of Friends, check out this video around minute 2:03.


If that was enough, and now you're just interested in reading the Minute of Travel, it is still right here, otherwise, here is the rest: 


Short Version

A Travel Minute is a document issued when someone feels called to Ministry outside of his/her local congregation. It states the nature of the ministry to which the indivual is called and bears the endorsement of at least the local congregation. Depending on the extent/breadth of the work the person anticipates, sometimes it will have endorsements from Quarterly Meetings (composed of multiple local Meetings) and/or Yearly Meetings (composed of many Quarterly Meetings). My minute was issued and endorsed by Rochester Monthly Meeting on April 18, 2010, endorsed by Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting on May 23, and endorsed by New York Yearly Meeting on November 13. More-or-less, the Minute is documentation of a gathered congregational body's clearness that the contents of the Minute are right and true by their discernment.

Long Version

Often times people (sometimes Friends themselves) are under the impression that The Religious Society of Friends (RSoF) has no ministers. This is wrong on at least two counts.

First, two of the four (Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International) strands of the RSoF regularly do appoint or "raise up" pastors to assist congregations with their growth and life in the Spirit. These congegations are often referred to as Pastoral or Programmed Meetings and sometimes as Friends Churches.


Second, and more theologically significant, even aside from the pastoral tradition, the RSoF has always had ministers: it is not that ministers were done away with, it is that the notion of laity was abolished. All were/are called to ministry and if some are called to it more than others it is not because of any special merit, marking, or reward. We are all one in the Body of Christ.


My own service falls within the second category in something referred to as Traveling in the Ministry, meaning that while I continually return to, and am grounded and held accountable by, community there, the work I do is primarily outside of my congregation.

Often times when a person Travels in the Ministry they do so under a particular "Concern," that is, a certain topic to which they feel called to support and/or bear witness. Most famously, 18th century Friend John Woolman travelled in the Ministry with a concern for the abolition of slavery, moving from congregation to congregation worshipping and praying with people as he shared his sense that God was calling them all to live in greater integrity, freeing all slaves. Contemporarily there are Friends traveling under a concern for the right care of the earth, for the end of torture, and for the full extension of rights to the GLBTQ community, among other things. Historically, these travelling Friends would have often been "Released," or financially assisted so that their worldly economic obligations did not hold them back from service. This rarely occurrs today outside of travel stipends that Meetings can provide for the person to help them get from place to place.

My own "Concern" is somewhat less bound than the ones mentioned above: I sometimes will go to a place without knowing exactly what I am to do there other than listen faithfully and respond as I might. This means I am not always sure what content will be present if I am asked to preach, what precisely will happen at a retreat if I am facilitating, and/or if I will even give vocal ministry when I travel to be present somewhere. Traditionally, this was called Travelling in the Gospel Ministry, and I understand a significant amount of the work I do to be some mix between this calling and an awareness that I am sometimes of use to people by means of offering fresh articulation or a new persepective. Some folks have begun to use the phrase "a Concern for Deepening Faithfulness," and I feel this is accurate as well. Whatever the category, I understand my Vocation to be about listening, being present, and offering whatever I can as needed.

When I head out for some place with a sense that I am travelling there under a sense of this concern, I bring a copy of the minute with me and when I am finished there, someone will take the copy and mail it back to my Meeting in Rochester, attaching an accompanying "endorsement" note sharing their experience of worshipping with me. The note ranges in length from a few sentences to several paragraphs, and serves to keep the congregation apprised as to my work in the world. Traditionally Friends traveled in pairs as per Acts, so there is often someone else with me while I am serving, but that person is not usually from the community to which I am going, so it is useful to9 hear form them directly. When it comes time to consider whether or not it is appropriate to issue a new minute of travel sometime in the future, congregations will sit in discernment with their own sense of the Friend as well as all the endorsements (some of which may be critical) that have been received since the last minute was issued.

Central to all of this, and one of the primary reasons that Friends originally did away with paid clergy, is the idea that the ministy I do isn't mine, and that the spiritual gifts that I employ are not actually in my possesion. That is, I am a steward of gifts that have their origins as charisms of the Spirit for as long those gifts reside in me and since we cannot know the mysterious mechanism(s) by which such gifts show up in the first place, we ought not pretend to know when they might depart. The regular return to worshipping bodies to consider the minutes of those travelling is a matter of routine discernment: Is there a new Concern? Does the person still carry the gifts that were noted in the last minute? Have they left? Deepened? Been replaced by others? The idea is that travel in the ministry should be grounded in a congregational body that looks after the personal and spiritual welfare of the individual, nurturing and pruning as need be so that the work they are engaged in is the work to which they are called, not just a doing of things out of some sense of ego-pleasure, obligation, or personal momentum.

That about does it in terms of the general other than to note that most of the time once a Meeting has become clear that someone's leading to travel in the ministry is rightly ordered, the Meeting appoints a committee of three to five people to routinely worship with the traveler and assist in discernment, support, and grounding. These committees go by different names depending on the practices of the Meeting, but usually are named one of the following: Anchor, Support, Nurture, or Oversight Committees.

Having said all that in the abstract, I would just point folks still interested to the minute itself, which I feel is pretty much resonant with my my own sense of things as pertains to how it is that God is opening in my life. [Nerd Note: I am particularly pumped about the inclusion of the word "catalyst," in the minute as the chemist in me is aware that the catalyst in a reaction is what allows the change to take place, it isn't the actual means of reaction or the end product. I don't want to ever forget that I am not the message: I am the messenger and I bear witness to a great Good News beyond me.] As I continue to rejoice and find fellowship and service beyond just the Religious Society of Friends it may be that the Anchor Committee appointed to discern with me may have to grapple with language that reflects this broader denominational sense of leading, but we shall see. For the moment I think it is a dang fine reflection of what I aspire to. I'm hardly there every day, but at least I know it is there on the edges calling me. I am grateful for that and the community that supports me in that work.


If folks have questions or comments, I'd love to see them below.   

On the Road Theopoetics

Lots of things in this one…

The QUIP Quaker Writers conference was held to coincide with the release of this book (which I have a few things in).

The Center for Process Studies at Claremont hosted the Theopoetics and the Divine Manifold conference , at which, most academically noteable for me (at this moment), were Catherine Keller, Vince Colapietro, and Mat Lopresti.  

While there I gave a presentation in conjunction with the paper I delivered working with my ideas about a Heraldic Gospel.

Then I spent time at Whittier First Friends Church.

TAG Reflections

First, I'm sorry for such poor (and poorly aimed) video quality.  If it helps, just ignore the visual and listen like a podcast.  That will fix the problem and you won't have to be exposed to my ridiculously expressive eyebrows.


I have a more formal, written reflection about the event, here, on a spot that the Emergent Village folk asked me to do.

Bob Cornwall's TAG thoughts are here on his blog, Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Ken Silva's thoughts on my presentation are here, on his blog Apprising Ministires.


Jonathan Brink's post referenced is here.

Joshua Case's (of the Nick and Josh Podcast) reflections, though not identical to his closing remarks, are here.

And Brian Shope wrote about Missio Dei after TAG in a way that was clarifying for me here, at his blog, Pacing the Cage.


And yes, I am aware that all these links go to work by men.  And yes, that makes me sad.