The problem of conflating bottom-up with top-down movements
“What we need now is an Old Church for a New World.” ~Dr. James Scott
The quote has stuck with me as it encapsulates the current trend towards reviving the Class Meeting in the United Methodist Church. I recently attended a retreat with Drs. Scott who together wrote Restoring Methodism and led the retreat’s content sessions and provided the above quote. We’ve discussed Restoring Methodism before but today I’d like to look closer at their central claim that is presented in their book and not adequately defended in their retreat program: other 20th century theological movements failed to change the decline of the church and the Class Meeting is completely different than these movements.
Please note I am not disputing the claim that the Class Meeting can turn the tide. Writers such as Kevin Watson write very well on making the CM relevant to the 21st century church. That’s a valid claim. What is not valid, in my view, is claiming superiority of the CM over supposed 20th century theological failures.
On page 14 of Restoring Methodism, the Scotts list a myriad of theological movements which have failed, including: Neo-orthodoxy, Liberal theology, post-liberalism, evangelical theology, Pentecostal/charismatic movements, Neo-Thomism, Process, existential, secular theology, “death of God” theology, historical theology, theology of Hope, theology of revolution (they mention James Cone but he’s Black theology…wow), liberation theology, and ecumenical theology. The Scotts conclude on page 16:
“The promises of each of these movements of renewal have failed to renew the Church.”
I doubt you could find a simple majority of scholars who would claim that these theological movements had “renewal” as their purpose. Process Theology had “renewal” as its purpose as it sought to incorporate a different philosophical worldview into theology? Liberation Theology had “renewal” as its purpose as it sought to give a good word to and from the South American poor? “Death of God” theology had “renewal” as its purpose? Really?
What about the movements which have been left out? Feminist theology, womanist theology? Has their inclusion of women’s voices and perspective failed to renew the church? Was “renewal” their purpose? Really?
In fact, I would claim few of the above theologies/critiques had renewal as their purpose. I’m further confounded that they omitted dedicated “renewal” movements in the UMC over the past 30 years: the Good News and Confessing movements clearly articulate that they are “renewal” movements…and apparently they have failed as well.
The primary mistake is conflating top-down renewal efforts with bottom-up contextual theology. Clearly Neo-Orthodoxy brought meaning to Christianity for a particular group of people and continues to. Tillich’s Existential theology has enough staying power to bring meaning to Christianity through today. Womanist theology brings theological perspective from African women.
From the bottom-up these theologies have not failed to bring meaning to the Church. From the top-down, they have failed to convert the church to their point of view. But it is doubtful that even the most rabid of the theological devotees would think it would ever have changed the entire church to their viewpoint. Rather, each one addressed a shortfall in Christianity and built either a critique or practice into their viewpoint as a lens to better view Christianity (in their view).
So why are we comparing theological critiques and contextual theologies to renewal movements? It seems to me that theological movements aren’t primarily to renew the Church: they are to renew or revolutionize a particular area of the church. Theological movements are about filling a hole not replacing the whole.
The Scotts are charitable to at least recognize that they are comparing apples and oranges. From page 16:
“…certainly some of these movements brought a measure of reform or pointed out changes needed in the Church. One positive example was the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, which was championed by The United Methodist Church. Overall, however, renewal was not achieved.”
My faith has been renewed by some of these movements. Whenever I feel like God isn’t listening or to be found in a tragedy, I rely heavily on Process Thought. When I need to ensure I have a preferential option for the poor in my writings, I rely on Liberation Theology. When I want a different perspective that sheds centuries of patriarchy, I rely on Feminist Theology. Even with theological viewpoints that I have very little in common with, my faith is renewed from engaging them.
Will they renew the whole church? Will I? I don’t know. But to judge these critiques and perspectives as failures for not achieving something that isn’t their goal is ridiculous.
Thoughts? Are the above movements “renewal” movements that have failed to change the church significantly? Are they critiques that haven’t gained traction and are thus failures?