The Problem of Private Theology

I’ve been pondering an idea from process theologian Monica A. Coleman. In the preface to her book Making a Way Out of No Way: a womanist theology, she writes:

“Theology, while personal cannot be private. It must be something that can apply to someone other than the theologian. It should be something you would recommend to others. It should be something you would be willing to preach.”

Liberal theology is very personal. In fact, in my denomination we insist that there is officially no official theology. We are non credal and non dogmatic. We insist on this to the point of extremes. We watch folks like Rob Bell and Philip Gulley preach universalism in best sellers but don’t want to say anything officially that makes it look like we endorse the idea. We have seven principles that are not a creed, but are printed on more items that “WWJD? ” ever was. One of our most popular adult religious education programs is called Building Your Own Theology.” So, I repeat and emphasize that we like personalized theology.

This emphasis on the personal however pushes into the realm of privatizing theology. We have personalized theology so much, that there are no common stories upon which to ground theological reflection. The use of religious language has become suspect. Terms such as covenant, spirit, or even the word faith itself spur so much debate about definitions that nothing beyond the meta work is ever done.

A personal theology is self differentiated. It stands on its own two legs, knows its theological positions and is able understand other theological positions in relation to itself. A personal theology enjoys other personal theologies and sees them as friends and neighbors, in a open source web of interconnected ways of grace.

A privatized theology sees all other theologies as suspect competitors in the marketplace of religious ideas. The other theologies must be exposed as inferior products, defeated as substandard ideas, or conquered by forces of volume if necessary.

Privatized theology leads to narrow, reactive, paradoxically rigid communities. Personal theology loves to learn, expand, develop, consider. A personal theology may or may not change based upon encounter with other theologies, but a privatized theology can not change. To change a private theology is too painful, and it seems betrayal of identity or even personhood to do so.

Are religious liberals willing to give up our private theologies in the quest for finding the commonalities we hold in our personal theologies? If we are we might find that our personal theologies have much in common with larger theological conversations taking place in the community around us.

To be sure, fundamentalisms of any kind are privatized theologies. If our congregations are to thrive, we need to avoid the fundamentalists that becoming a community of people with privatized theologies produce. The relevant religious community of the coming century will be a place where personal theology meets personal theology and engages the needs of the world.

One thought on “The Problem of Private Theology

  1. I heard Rev Scott Giles give a sermon in the 80s shortly after the Jonestown mass suicide about the dangers of Religion practiced alone or without much structure. Religion reflects a powerful impulse in people and it’s an impulse that should be checked and channeled in Religious Institutions. I think that’s true, and it’s why I’ve never been a big fan of personal-theology efforts. I think they’re false. Luther rid us of priests as intermediaries between ourselves and God, but I don’t think that quite leads to personal theology. Liberalism rid us of authorities and creeds to judge and dictate our theologies, but substituted the power of reason and rationality to ferret out the truth. While we may not be able to know the whole truth, we can reason our way towards it and part of that reasoning requires the give-and-take argument with others about the nature of creation. So if your church has turned Liberal Religion into Personal Theologies, I’d say they’re wrong, and ought reconsider. What they’ve only affirmed is no one is in authority to command belief. That doesn’t mean we can’t still get it wrong. It doesn’t mean others should refrain from telling you your wrong. You won’t make spiritual progress alone without some hammering away.

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