What Are The ‘Grand Challenges’ for Theology for the 21st Century?

200802201824Wired reported a couple of days ago on the conclusions of Google co-founder Larry Page’s working group on improving life on earth, and the list of ‘14 Grand Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century‘. They included things like making solar energy affordable, reverse-engineering the brain and providing energy from fusion. Energy, quality of life, quantity of life, in summary.

This got me thinking: what might a list of the grand theological challenges of the next 100 years look like? Well, I’m no Larry Page, but I mailed out a bunch of people in my address book, texted and called a few others, and had lunch with one, asking them, very simply, what they thought should be on the list.

Actually, not that simply. Because I also asked if they thought whether such a list could even be created. Page’s list is more simple: science – our knowledge of our physical world – does progress. We have better materials and technologies than we used to. But has our understanding of God actually moved forward? Or do people simply dig ever-deeper into their rutted positions?

So what did people say? You can find the unexpurgated version here, but, edited down a little:

Brian Maclaren (writer) Grappling with Jesus’ good news of the kingdom of God, realizing how it differs from the popular Western gospel of “how to go to heaven after you die and be happy and successful until then.

Nic Hughes (designer) I wish that someone, some group, something, somewhere would develop a theological project that captured the imagination. All the good ideas are elsewhere. Cross-discipline theological labs please?

Vanessa Elston (teacher) In very basic terms how do we move from a reformation/protestant/enlightenment emphasis on the salvation of the individual to one of communal participation in salvation.

Peter Rollins (writer) The task of developing concrete faith collectives which are freed from foundationalism and evidentialism – collectives which are founded on something other than shared doctrinal belief.

Greg Russinger (church leader) The ongoing challenge of communal theology among cultural difference or indifference.

Becky Garrison (writer / satirist) The challenge is finding ways to communicate theological change without becoming yet another crass Christian marketing machine.

Richard Sudworth (PhD student)
A theology of political engagement that speaks into every area of the public sphere without resorting to domination and privilege.

Naz Georgis (alt.worship legend) A theology of synthesis.

Don Brewin (Anglican Vicar and top dad) I think the key issue for theology in the next generation is the theology of religion. What is our attitude to people of other faiths?

David Townsend (member of emergent group) A GayLesbianBiTransexual theology (as opposed to the polarised entrenchments that exist currently).

Sue Wallace (Visions, York) There is a sense in which the biggest theological challenges will always be the ones of cultural communication, and the frustrating thing is that as soon as we have sussed out how to speak one language, the world has moved on, and we have to learn

another if we are to engage in serious dialogue, and offer true hope rather than incomprehensible poetry.

Luke Bretherton (lecturer) Same as ever – ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ And we have to ask it in relation to various contexts perhaps most importantly, relations with Islam, the environmental crises and the implications of peak oil for social and political life, genetic engineering and lastly the upholding of human flourishing against processes of commodification, instrumentalisation and totalising forms of modern power, whether economic, political, religious or technological.

Jonny Baker (Grace) Good idea but I am on a few days off so unlikely to contribute – sorry!

So are there any common themes there we might identify?

I think there are. It may simply be a function of the constituency, but I think there’s an over-riding sense of wanting theology – talk about God – to speak to us. We want God to speak into our culture, our politics, our identity, our world. The implication is that people are perhaps feeling that theology is not doing that. So what’s at fault? Are the ‘professional theologians’ hiding in ivory towers not doing enough? Are sermons not good enough? Are churches simply not engaged enough?

The other strong theme, I feel, is that of a serious theology of ‘the other’. Other religions. Other sexual orientations. Other cultures. The world is becoming a melting pot, and people are struggling to work out both who they are within that, and how to relate to these ‘others’ who they now come into contact with. From ASBOs to Islamism, the problem of ‘the other’ is over-arching.

However, finally, the question is whether any of this is any different to any other time in history. If these are the grand questions now, have they ever been any different? And if not, are we failing in our theological practice, or simply evolving to cope with a changing world?


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21 responses to “What Are The ‘Grand Challenges’ for Theology for the 21st Century?”

  1. (a variation on something I wrote four weeks ago which addresses future issues)
    1. Old social systems die hard. The impact of peer-to-peer and ubi-peer networks is still in its infancy. The global ecclesia will see profound displacement resulting from emerging, unfiltered, direct forms of interpersonal communication. Inherited models of religious “hierarchy and authority” will begin to fall away. We will need creative thinking in myriad forms of lay eldership and servantship – the paradox of God’s strength being perfected in human weakness (2Cor12).
    2. Energy politics – virtually everything we do is made possible by access to affordable energy. As our population increases (9 billion by 2050) and energy becomes increasingly more expensive, life will change dramatically. Big-box megaklesia will be in decline due partially to its numerous energy and proximity inefficiencies, and partially due to a growing desire for more intimate, inclusive, simple gatherings.
    3. Social philosophy will be increasingly driven by the engines of existentialism / relativism / postmodernism / uncertainty-as-virtue … pushing against the engines of meaning / absolutes / authority / uncertainty-as-weakness. Paraphrasing what Peter said, we need to learn how to gather from a deeper center that asks more (and better) questions.
    4. Population and water politics: closely related to (#2). Diverse areas of “sustainability” will all come into focus, showing the interconnectedness of all things and the fragility of the global system we’ve created, including unsustainable inherited religious systems. Organic life forms (plankton, plants) control our atmosphere – the air we breathe. In just 100 years, we’ve greatly exceeded all historical Methane, CO2, and N2O concentrations, and that imbalance is growing fast – severely impacting the very life forms that give us breath. By 2100, many of today’s social values could revert from technical-complex to agrarian-simple. If we (as the church) don’t take a leading moral role in these necessary world-saving shifts, Xnty may be seen as a dispensable anachronism. Sadly, much of the church today seems mesmerized by a notion of mass annihilation – a position that breeds apathy towards protecting our future. Somewhat rephrasing Brian here, the collective vision of a perpetual “shared tomorrow” must replace religious “pie in the sky” as our guiding ethos.
    5. Consciousness and sentience will be increasingly seen in ways that transcend rational argument. When “self-watching, cognitive machines” mimic (and eventually exceed) human abilities to parse and argue philosophy and theology (any theology), the nature of faith will (must) change and adapt to something far more visceral than text and logic (again paralleling Peter R). Religion must become less about inherited doctrine, and more about spiritual attributes which distinguish us from “sentient machines.” Aspirations for transcendent, unifying, personal and ecclesial experience (per 2Cor12, Jn17, etc.) will partially displace logic / reason / argument in religious priority. The person of Jesus must emerge in stark contrast to the written word.
    6. Lay-led organic / simple / local ecclesia, with Berean-like reliance on the resources of a global-virtual community, must be embraced with passionate abandon. Others without religious freedom, such as Chinese Christians (along with Falun Gong, etc.), will remain simple by default, but may not have access to the virtual-ecclesia due to censorship.
    7. By 2100, advances in gene science, nanotechnology, metamaterials, regenerative cell medicine, and life-as-code, will conspire to vastly reduce birth defects and inherited diseases, provide for organ growth and regeneration (including eyes, inner ears, and most internal organs), and extend the average life span well beyond 100 years, among many other “miraculous” advances in human biology. These changes (among many others) will trigger profound reinterpretation of religious- and humanist-based ethics and social norms – at levels of complexity that will baffle both faithful and agnostic. Those of faith must be willing to wrestle with the rapid changes and present a moral compass that shepherds and protects creation from economic and “egonomic” exploitation.
    8. By 2100 (or much sooner), these same advances in gene science and nanotechnology (#7) will be applied towards military applications, leading to weaponization that could dwarf atomic warfare in its killing effectiveness. Terror groups will continue to find new ways of disrupting diplomacy and will eventually gain access to such bio-warfare. Bio-terrorism, and perhaps nuclear terrorism, will see increasing reach and effectiveness, leading to more frequent and larger populations of human casualties. Global governance and basic human freedoms may be radically altered by a confluence of efficient terrorism, resource scarcity, environmental blight, and prolonged economic disruption. Where will faith and Spirit be in this mix? I suspect that our lives will need to increasingly embody simple, proactive acts of peacemaking and loving towards those who hate us.

  2. Kester
    An email because my reply may be stupid and if it is please feel free to ignore it. But in my experience the stupid questions are sometimes the best ones…
    I’m a forester not a theologian (and so the issue may be communication not knowledge or understanding amongst academics) but it seems to me that for the person in the street (or the forest) theology has answered very few questions. I wonder if the reason for this is the way that theologians/philosophers work together?
    Sorry if these are simplistic – just reflecting questions people ask.
    So, why does God allow bad stuff to happen (problem of evil)?
    Why did Jesus die?
    Why does the God of the OT appear to support ethnic cleansing?
    Why is there a fight in the church about homosexuality?
    Why should I pray? and when I do why do I feel like God doesn’t answer?
    Why does God do loads of miracles in the Bible but none now?
    Why doesn’t God do more to reveal himself if he wants us to know him?
    Why do some christians preach poverty and others riches?
    Why do Christians preach no sex before marriage, yet pretty much everyone does it?
    Is the Christian God the same as Allah?
    Love your blog – very stimulating. Will get to the book soon.
    Grace and peace

  3. I see six themes that are predictable areas for emphasis over the next hundred years.
    1. The end of the hegemony of the institutionalism, with specific reference to the church, less so with Roman Catholicism and much more so the Reformation/Protestant model that was a product of a specific time and place.
    with its counterpart,
    2. The spread and failure of ideology to bring peace, lasting change or progress.
    And their counterpoint,
    3. The rise of the freedom of the individual to determine every aspect of their life and philosophy, with the consequence of the further proliferation of diverse theologies, and their communities that are marginalized in their own self-selected narcissistic personal worldview.
    As a result there is now and will be a greater need for,
    4. The development of leaders of character who are able to unify people across sociological,cultural and philosophical/religious boundaries, around values that are transformative in tangible ways, personally, locally and globally.
    Ultimately, this means,
    5. The total transformation of what we know as Christianity. Will it be a rejection of the past 1800 years? Quite possibly. The forces that are pushing these changes are beyond anyone person’s, church’s or nation’s control. They are organic changes brought on by the rise of global affluence, personal freedom and the shrinking of the global community by technology.
    which leads to the question,
    6. Is the church in the West prepared to lead these changes? No. We are followers, not innovators. We are more mimics of transformation, than practitioners of it. Can that change? Not at the institutional or communal level. The change can only begin at the personal level and then be led by building commitment to change at a deeper level than the church has ever addressed.
    The reason why Larry Page and the technology/scientist class seem so forward in their thinking is because they are trained to look at the systems that underlie the things the rest of us in the social sciences see as random phenomena.
    The church will lead when it can develop an equally compelling understanding, both philosophically and practically, of the systemic relationship that exists through all life.

  4. Some really good ideas.
    Having had a ‘religion’ debate with the Sixth Form I teach in last night, I wonder if the greatest challenge for theology is actually theology itself. People are very keen to talk, but simply have so few tools or knowledge with which to express themselves.
    That, and serious work to separate religion and power/violence. It’s probably the largest issue for people – the historic (and current) damage done to people who ‘preach peace’ but come with guns and bombs.

  5. Anthony Bachman

    Last century it was the vertical implications of John 3:16, God man relationship. This century it is the horizontal relationships of 1John 3:16. Community can not be properly defined until we know what it means “to lay down your life for your brethren”. That radical theology of relationship among man, dissecting the relationship of man with his God will define the theology of the cross for this century and transform each one of us who is willing to be called a follower of Jesus Christ as well as His Church.

  6. Here’s my response I posted over at my blog:
    The task of theology will be to empower the church of the people (not professionals for the people) to imaginatively follow Christ while living in the world thus not creating a separate culture but a community of hope and love that grapples with the real problems of the world, ie: poverty, environmentalism, nuclear weapons, war, genocide, open relationships to the “other” [for example] looking to the future hope of new creation, resurrection.

  7. Personally, I don’t think this is necessarily a matter of direct application. How we respond comes out of something deeper, namely how we view God. The challenges have always been how to best represent Christ in any given cultural setting. But this isn’t a “Grand” challenge, which I see as being more widely applicable to many contexts, first and third world, which helps bring a renewal of depth and breadth to Christianity and which gives future generations something we didn’t have. Meaning, it isn’t just about particular application. If we meet a grand challenge Christianity itself should find a new step forward. In the past, I think such grand challenges led to the refinement of the Trinity doctrine, the development of a Christology, Luther’s emphasis on salvation by Faith, Wesley’s passionate emphasis on sanctification among all those who call themselves Christian.
    For me it is worth looking at what has been pretty well covered in theology. And these previous grand solutions have been. We really do have an understanding of the Father, and we are fairly settled on the Son. However, there’s really no consensus on the Spirit. The Pentecostal movement sparked a new conversation, though not a new one necessarily, and this conversation still continues. What should we expect from the Holy Spirit? And what does this then mean for our churches. To put a fancy name on it I think the grand theological challenge of the 21st century is to understand and develop a truly pneumatological ecclesiology, letting the understood doctrine of the Holy Spirit really come to define our gathered communities. This could, I think, revolutionize the face of the church more than anything since Luther’s time, and maybe earlier.
    We also have to come to terms with an understanding of eschatology. This has either been dismissed or given over to the Left Behind folks, who have distorted an understanding in such a way as to almost completely turn around what a proper eschatology means.
    Now these sound terribly impractical with the polysyllable words. But, how we view the Spirit and how we view the direction we’re going and why are absolutely, utterly, influences on how we respond to others in and outside the church.
    We think to address symptoms without addressing the underlying theological deficiencies, and these deficiencies remain the grand challenges of the church.

  8. it strikes me that much of theology in the last 60 years in the West has focussed on something to push off of – secular myth, cultural battles, bogeymen (or women)
    what happens when the nexus of theology shifts to the former developing world – Africa, Southern Asia – as they come out of colonialism and economic boundaries

  9. Paul Roberts

    Developing a theology of incarnation-enabled soteriology which does justice to the New Testament foundations but which can, potentially,embrace the possibility of there being sentient life forms elsewhere in this, or other, universes.

  10. So not so much ‘post evangelical’ as ‘alien evangelicalism’?

  11. dont know, kester, but i will think on it. that john la grou wrote a bloody BOOK in the first comment, didnt he?

  12. I don’t know about in the UK, but I think one of the theological challenges for the 21st century in the US would be to grow past foundational theological statements that are grounded not in historical Christianity, but in the reformation (the calvinsim battle, eschatology, etc…)

  13. Phil.nd.green

    1. The challenge surrounding whether we are being programme to exist in an empire when we should be released to serve in a Kingdom.
    2. This is partly from an Anglican perspective -To tackle the problem of the lack of envisioned and courageous leadership in some quarters.
    3. Challenges around effective leadership. To ask the question as to whether some of our leaders really want to transition from maintenance to mission. Do they understand the difference or even are they willing to confront the extent of the problem? Where is the evidence? I think some do, but are too afraid to take the decisions and begin the process. I think many are happy to be remain in maintenance mode and just drift along. What will it take to convince people that many “churches” are not growing or advancing,, but at best are in neutral and in many cases in reverse? When the realistaion come that if action is not taken it won’t be at all long before the trends slowly become irreversible.
    4. The immense challenge of changing fixed mindsets. How to convince people that emerging church activities are not an add-on, something which remains dependent on the “church” (ie meaning Sunday folk, but are organic communities in their own right.) The church I currently help lead has a Sunday congregation, two Fresh Expressions and a group for over 50s which is on the way to being a Fresh Expression. The Sunday congregation is declining and has been for months…the weekday activities are growing…the over 50s group has doubled in size in just over 12 months, solely through conversations, relationship building and behind the scenes pastoral work/preayer.
    4. When will people see that its not the size of the leadership teams that counts but the qualities/giftings of the leaders? In the leadership team of our church Clergy/Readers/Wardens/Shared Ministry Team there are, in total 15 leaders. How large do you think our Sunday congregation is? It currently averages about 50 and as more leaders have been added, the Sunday congregation has continued to decline…and not just numerically, but spirtually too. The community that is growing the most has seven on the leadership/planning team (and I am not one of them)and has a membership approaching 60. It is a fantastic place to be.
    5. The challenge of helping people to really understand that the leadership of some established churches that Emerging Church initiatives are not a convenient means of growing your Sunday congregation and neither should they be?
    6. What is the best way of ensuring that the transfer of resources needs to change from hollow, empty promises to delivery mode.
    These are jsut a few. I’ll stop now before I get a headache or lose the will to live!!

  14. Things used to change so slowly that the older generation and the younger generation were not really all that different in the ways that they thought and viewed the world. In the last 30 years everything has changed. It has all been turned upside done. The generational gap is ever growing. Those in leadership usually don’t have a clue how to understand life from a young person’s perspective and the young people don’t have a clue how to see life from an older person’s perspective because those perspectives are so vastly dissimilar.
    We have to help the older, more mature Christians reach out to the younger people, teach to them, preach to them, relate with them, fellowship them, practice love and mutual submission toward them…even though it may seem to older members, ministers, etc that the young people have the whole theology thing wrong.
    We have to help the younger, less mature Christians reach out to the older people, listen to them, respect them, relate with them, even teach them something as well.
    The grandest challenge of theology in the coming years is going to be preaching and teaching the same God to young and old in ways that are meaningful to both and that captures the heart of both. We have to learn how to reach people through the head and through the heart, through logic and experience. Our theology is going to have be more than a set of doctrines or conceptions about God and start embracing more experience.
    God has much to offer old and young. We have to get them connected.

  15. I’d like to see more theology done around how we really can and must
    live in a plural society – especially one in which religion seems more
    surprisingly and radically forefronted in the so-called developed
    world than it was for much of the twentieth century. I’d like the
    postliberal theological project build and expand on the idea that it
    is our ‘duty’ as people of faith to encourage Jews to be ‘better’
    Jews, Muslims to be ‘better’ Muslims and Christians to be ‘better’
    Christians; to see some inspirational and expansive theology around
    that testing notion. Not theology that sounds like the paranoia of the
    neurotic neo-con. But theology which is really about celebrating
    difference and plurality in a dangerously fractured and religiously
    radicalised world. (And, in using that word ‘radicalised’: I’d like to
    see a theological recovery of the word ‘radical’, too! It’s a great
    and important word and it’s been lost to the news agenda more recently.)

  16. Stupid www lost my long winded post…
    Very thought provoking. I think that these responses highlight the need to engage our ever changing times with the God of Truth who was before and will be after. This isn’t a new need as I am sure any of the members of the early church will tell you – times they are a changing. We need to reconcile the two into a cohesive theology rather than breaking into ever increasingly small factions.
    Dialogue – the ‘Grand Challenge’of the 21st century.

  17. Personally I suspect one of the big challenges will be to articulate a way of dealing with plural religious experiences in a society where we know a lot more about the way the brain works. Neurotheology meets experiential pluralism. I suspect we will struggle with plausibility structures in wider society that will favour Buddhist-style takes on mind and spirituality -impersonal ultimate reality, modular mind and ‘fictional’ self etc.

  18. If the current hot-topics are ecclesiology and christology (just as the Doctrine of God as a bigger deal in the modern period) I believe that Pneumatology will consume coming decades. Why?
    * The 2/3 world is much more pentecostal than the West. And we have to get over our pentecosaphobia and give them the keys to Christendom for a while.
    * Pluralism forces us to rethink the way in which we understand religion. And we want to have meaningful conversation with other religions, we need to have some understanding of how the Spirit is at work in those religions. I think Amos Yong has done some work on this.
    * As the West loses its dominance, we won’t be able to use things like “marketing” and “advertising” and “fundraising” etc to the same effect. In other words, those things that we’ve used to replace the Spirit will be less effective and we’ll need to rediscover the nature and role of the Spirit in our midst.

  19. Surely it is that the rest of the world is starting to use words like “marketing”, “advertising” and “fundraising”. This was certainly my experience in Africa.
    How annoying that I haven’t uploaded any of the billboard pics or church advertising pics to the internet and I am not at home…

  20. I wonder, first, what would be considered the grand theological issues addressed in the 20th century? That aside, a critical issue I do not see being discussed ANYWHERE is one of soteriology; how do we change? How do we “grow spiritually”?
    Modern Christianity equates spiritual growth with an accumulation of doctrinal and scriptural data. It is information based. If the end 20th century marks the end of the “information age” and the 21st century marks the beginning of an age of connectivity, or “relationality”, than spiritual growth may rightly or wrongly be equated with the quality (or quantity) of our relational network. We see this on Facebook (friend counting) and blogging. This is neither good nor bad inherently. However, instead of trying to super-size everything we see peacemaking, reconciliation, and new monastic communities – positive “signs”.
    We have learned so much and still know so little about how people really change. How do we break free from addictions, racism, and mental illness? How do we combine the wisdom of monasticism and theosis, Frued’s psycholanalysis, and Dean Ornish’s work?

  21. Here is what may happen:
    we’ll nail down some of the “grand challenges” and then a group of people will begin engaging the world with those challenges, and by the time they get really well versed in the whole thing, we’ll have a new set of challenges. and those that have addressed the first grand challenges.
    a big problem with the church is that we seem to group into larger and larger pods and render ourselves inflexible and irrelevant.
    If the church developed some sort of “principle of smallness,” i think there would be a lot more effectiveness, relevance, and accuracy between theology and praxis.
    just a thought…