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Theology according to Snoopy

I tend toward skepticism when I read titles like "Theology and the Church After Google: How This New Age Will Change Christianity." How could one product (like Google) affect the church? Is theological reflection really that much different today than it was in 1990, before the advent of the Internet? 

Yet this article, which originally appeared in the Princeton Theological Review, is well researched and provocative, and author Philip Clayton offers some insights that may be helpful to theological school boards.

Clayton sees a problem: While some church leaders are addressing the spiritual needs of people who live in a world that has been transformed by the Internet, most are not -- they're still trying to reach people in timeworn ways. 

Clayton says that's because academic theological studies haven't changed as fast as the culture has. Theology in the Internet age must be more "beta," more hesitant, he says. In the age of Google, people see "bugs" or problems as opportunities to learn rather than as embarrassing mistakes. Everyone assumes that people have unlimited access to information. Authority figures are suspect. 

It's not that we don't "need" theologians in the Internet age -- the author continues to believe we do! But if theologians and pastors don't connect with people using the methods of spiritual reflection and inquiry that they have come to expect, then he thinks we'll see more and more theologians talking mostly to one another.

The article is a long one but well worth reading. Fortunately, the author offers a summary of his main points:

  1. Theology is not something you consume, but something you produce. In the age of Google, theology is what you do when you're responding to blogs, contributing to a Wiki doc or Google doc online (or on your own computer), participating in worship, inventing new forms of ministry, or talking about God with your friends in a pub.
  2. No institutions, and very few persons, function as authorities for theology after Google. Most of us who still speak from pulpits today are having to rethink our relationship with the audiences we address, since most people today shrug their shoulders at those who claim to be authorities in religious matters.
  3. Theology after Google is not centralized and localized.
  4. Similarly, theology after Google does not divide up the world between the "sacred" and the "secular," as past theologies so often did. All thought and experience bears on it, and all of one's life manifests it. Thus the distinction between one's "ministry" and one's "ordinary life" is bogus.
  5. The new Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses settled truths, wise words, and the sole path to salvation.
Clayton assumes that his readers are mainline Protestants, and it could be argued that Protestants have always harbored a suspicion of authority. Catholics and Orthodox (and even some Protestants, like Mennonites or those from "confessional" traditions) may want to argue that true authority lies outside the self and resides in the church's magisterium, or in the office of the bishop, or in a church council.

Clayton is not exactly dismissing the Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, or tradition-minded Protestants -- indeed, he appreciates their continual focus on the most important questions of life. Nevertheless, he says that the way Christian truth is presented must be different than it once was: "Today's religious leaders are those who say things that ring true to us, so that we say, 'Yeah, I think that person's got some important insights. I'm going to read the blog or find a way to talk with him (or her), and I'm going to recommend to my friends that they do the same.'" Though this language isn't elegant, I like that it invites people to engage with Christian theology -- to discuss and to share with others -- rather than simply to assent.

I'm not sure that I agree with everything that Clayton is saying, but I still think that the article is worth reading and grappling with. And that's precisely his point. In the Google age, "not agreeing" is perfectly acceptable, and "grappling with" is encouraged.

This article could make excellent fodder for discussion in a board meeting. Does your school needs to change in response to a new environment? Is your school altering the way it provides theological and spiritual formation for future theologians and pastors? What are the questions you should be asking of your students, your faculty, your denominational officials, and yourselves? Google does extend new worlds that will give people more information -- whatever they choose to learn. But how can a theological school convey truths that are wider and deeper than individual choice? That's the question, at least for many.

Philip Clayton is dean of Claremont School of Theology and provost of Claremont Lincoln University. This paper was based on ideas presented at a conference on "Theology After Google" that was held at the Claremont School of Theology in 2010. Other resources on this topic are available on the conference website.

Read the entire article here.

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