Faith and Theology as Liturgy: The Work of the People in Faith-Formation

09/20/2010 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Too often friends in the pulpit complain about the so-called pulpit-pew gap in the church. This is the gap where the clergy member -- educated at great expense in biblical studies, contemporary theology and biblical languages -- and the laity are on different pages theologically. Often a clergy member with a very liberal theology will find employment in congregations with strong conservative theological bents. No matter of feminist, queer, or liberation theologies can find root in congregations with a default setting from their Sunday school days. The situation is even worse in the mainline church, where people are often not only theologically conservative but also liturgically conservative.

In my book Towards a Theopoetic of the Cross from the Progressive Christian Alliance Press, I try and suggest a way forward. To begin with, I say we should look at theology as a poetic created in a context to give voice to our contextual spiritual and theological longings. Less a final and true defense of the faith, I position theology as a human response to the mystery of now and a need to articulate our way of being.

The suggestion I make for this may help pave a way forward to closing the pulpit-pew gap. Building on an idea in a book by Marianne Sawicki, I say that theology should happen at the meeting of four tables -- the academy, the pew/worshiping community, the hungers and desires of the poor, and (this is my addition to Sawicki's work) the poetic/mystical. This suggestion decentralizes the act of theology-making from denominational committees and seminary research libraries and, while placing value on their contribution, moves the real work of theology to the people and makes it liturgical.

Theology as Liturgy (as opposed to Liturgical Theology) insists that theology always emerges in a context and a conversation. It also insists that the insights of our academies are not the only ones worth paying attention to; so are the realities of our worshiping communities and the voices of those who do not fit in our community. Now, I should stress that I am not suggesting a program by which the questions and doubts of the wider community are accommodated to the extent that we can reinforce our theologies and status quo statements. Instead I am suggesting a liturgical act of theology-making -- theology as a work of the people -- in order to ask questions and come to positions that may be dangerous on one hand and important to discuss on the other.

The discerning reader may have already noticed an important aspect of this method of theology: multiplicity and plurality! If theology is an act of community-wide conversation and engagement, then it is predicated on the community never coming to a final resting place but instead a place of opening and discovery. This method of theology is an ongoing work that insists that we hold together diverse voices, intentions and conversations.

Tim Condor talks about this method a bit -- or of a task similar to it -- in his book Free for All, in which he discusses a way of reading and exploring biblical text in community. His method insists on a plurality of voices held together in the tension by a mutual respect for the narrative and a love for one's fellow travelers. This method does not allow for moral superiority -- gay Christians and Christians who do not support LGBT lifestyles are expected to worship, serve and commune together. In fact, they are expected to lead a congregation together, as well.

A commitment to a narrative-in-community allows for a congregation to hold together under the strain of multiple theologies. Returning to the crisis of the pulpit-pew gap, what we come to is not a commitment to a better educated laity or a less educated clergy. What we come to is a commitment to being in conversation honestly about who we are and why we are.

Of course, part of the task is to create a space where laity can ask questions, explore their clergy's theology honestly, and be educated in the latest theological insights. Likewise, though, we are opening up a place where the questions of the last two tables -- the hungers/desires of the poor and the insights of the poet/mystic -- can bring us new and unexpected insights and revelations. It's about letting the danger of the outsider into the conversation of what it means to be church.

This theopoetic method is not, of course, the savior of the Christian congregation. But I hope it is a space or opening by which we can begin to ask about the how and why by which we do theology and begin to decentralize and dismantle the structure that keeps theology up there (belonging to an educated, priestly class), instead placing it as a multi-layered conversation that dares to envision our future as being multi-voiced.

Or, maybe I can say this: I hope it begins a process by which we turn to poetry as our means and method of theological engagement: on the one hand, the task of theology-as-poetry, and on the other, a serious engagement of poetic methods (art, poetry, song, dance, film, music) as forms of theological expression.

I will end with a quotation from my book:

[The Theopoetic is] a hospitality on the street where we invite narrative, story, wonder and passion not just shouting answers at any who may listen. It is hospitality of ritual and worship where we invite each other to deepen our experiences, deepen our knowledge of our self, of the divine world and the other.