Can process theology be Christian?

This isn’t directly related to the “classical theism vs. theistic personalism” debate, but it touches on some similar issues: evangelical theologian Roger Olson ruffled some feathers recently by declaring that process theology can’t be an authentically Christian theology. This garnered a response from Bo Sanders at Homebrewed Christianity and from theologian Philip Clayton.

Olson’s main contention is that process theology, to the extent that it’s consistent with its own premises, denies central tenets of orthodox Christianity like creation ex nihilo, the deity of Christ, and a realist eschatology.

I’ll let readers judge how well the defenders of process theology rebut Olson’s claims. Personally, I’m a lot less interested in process theology as such than I once was. But it does try to address some of the same issues I’ve been blogging about here recently. Issues like: What does it mean for God to be genuinely related to creation? What does it mean for God to be “personal”? And so on.

I generally find the more “orthodox” (in terms of their fidelity to Whitehead) process theologians less helpful than the ones who use process-type concepts as flexible metaphors to illuminate Christian faith. In this group I’d include, among others, Clark Williamson and Marjorie Suchocki. Both of these theologians describe God in “process-relational” terms, but they are generally more orthodox in their theological perspective than traditional Whiteheadians and less tethered to the letter of a particular metaphysical system. For instance, Williamson defends creation ex nihilo, and both Williamson and Suchocki argue for “subjective immortality.”

I see these as efforts to overcome, or at least mitigate, what I regard as the most glaring deficiency of traditional process theology: its reduction of God’s ultimacy. Whether this approach is fully successful, of course, is another matter.

“Negative” theology is not enough

Experience with seminary students over several decades indicates that they turn surprisingly agnostic when the time comes to think about God, declaring that “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite,” so any ideas one might have about God are just as good as any others. Such agnosticism has its roots either in intellectual laziness or in a theological despair at ever getting things right. In either case, it is sorely mistaken. Our task is not to overcome what Bernard Meland called the “fallibility” of all our forms and symbols for God. It is to come up with ways of talking about God that are appropriate to the revelation of God attested to in the biblical witness. All ways of talking about God are arguably inadequate. Yet, some are more clearly inadequate than others. There are ways of talking about God that are more appropriate to the norms of the Christian faith than others and that are also more helpful in the face of the challenges that confront us in the death-dealing times in which we live. (Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, p. 103).

I can understand why people emerging from religious traditions that suffer from an excess of certainty might be tempted to retreat into a purely “negative” (or “apophatic”) theology. But Williamson is right here that some “ways of talking about God . . . are more appropriate to the norms of the Christian faith than others.” For Christianity, it is more appropriate to speak of God as loving than as hateful, wise rather than ignorant, personal rather than impersonal, etc. The central belief of Christianity– that Jesus is God expressed in a human life–entails that God has a particular nature and character. In other words, the cure for bad theology isn’t no theology, it’s better theology.

Sure, there have been great saints and mystics throughout the history of the church who have stressed the unknowability of God virtually to the point of recommending utter silence. And their writings provide an indispensable reminder of the limitations of all our language about the divine.

But this apophatic reticence has always been balanced by the “kataphatic” tradition of affirming the appropriateness of at least some language about God. This tradition is particularly important in prayer and liturgy, not to mention the Bible itself. And as Williamson suggests, only if we can speak intelligibly about God can we say that certain “death-dealing” ways are contrary to God’s will or nature.

Was Jesus married? Does it matter?

It looks like there’s some skepticism among scholars about the authenticity of the already much-discussed “Jesus’ wife” papyrus–said to be a fragment from a non-canonical Coptic gospel that has Jesus referring to “my wife” and saying that she will be a “disciple.” Much of yesterday’s breathless reporting on the papyrus centered around its potential to “shake up” debates about women’s role in the church. So if the fragment is spurious, does that mean no such re-thinking is necessary?

To start with, we should be clear that, even if it’s authentic, all the papyrus would seem to show–at most–is that there was an early tradition that Jesus was married. (Curiously, few people seem to have considered the possibility that the wife “Jesus” refers to might be the church–an image that goes back to the NT itself.) It wouldn’t, as even the professor who discovered it acknowledges, show that Jesus was in fact married.

Second, even though Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried and celibate, it’s not clear to me that anything of theological significance stands or falls on this. How would the central Christological doctrines–the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.–be affected by the discovery that Jesus was married? It’s true, as one Twitter-friend pointed out, that it may call into question the reliability of the gospels since you’d think they might mention such a significant fact about Jesus. But against this we should remember (1) the gospels don’t provide “biography” in our modern sense; they are theological-confessional documents intended to witness to faith in Christ, and (2) historical criticism has already called the reliability of the gospels into question in many respects, and yet they still function as the Word of God for people in the church.

All of this aside, I think it’s wrong to suggest that we need certain facts about the historical Jesus to be true in order to authorize things like the full equality of women in the church. As theologian Clark Williamson has written,

The problem with feminist theology is that in its constitutive assertions it is right. Women are fully human, clearly the equal of men, and need liberation from sexist oppression. But if the only way to warrant being a Christian feminist is by appeal to the empirical-historical Jesus as a norm, then Jesus will turn out to have been a feminist. . . . [But i]f Jesus was not a feminist, am I still not free to be one? Is it the role of Jesus . . . to authorize our conformity to him or to author our freedom and creativity, our right to reform the church? Dare we allow the historical Jesus to be himself, a first-century Jew, different from us, or must he reflect our concerns and ideals back to us? If so, how can he ever correct us? (Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 190).

Williamson is concerned to correct the tendency in some feminist theology to portray Jesus as the egalitarian, feminist liberator from an oppressive, patriarchal Judaism, an opposition that in effect “de-Judaizes” Jesus and reinforces the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. But his point has broader application, I think. If modern Christians want to be feminists (and they should!), they don’t need to justify it by appealing to a shaky historical reconstruction of a “feminist Jesus.” Many churches, drawing on the resources of the canonical scriptures and Christian tradition, have come to see sexual equality as a gospel issue–and that provides a much stronger foundation. Christians shouldn’t be threatened by historical research, but neither should they build their faith on it.

Structural sin and the ways of death-dealing

Christianity Today ran a rather silly article trying to undercut the claims of the Occupy Wall Street protesters:

Occupy Wall Street protest signs seek to ignite a revolution of the 99 percent against the (richest) 1 percent, who are responsible for our troubles. Christians of course are forbidden from supporting this kind of worldview. The dissipation that exists in our country, unfortunately, has not been confined to 1 percent of the population. Christianity teaches us that all of us stand as imperfect, self-absorbed, broken people, each of us a contributor to the problems of the world in our own, creative way.

Political action has often served in our country as a lazy shortcut around the harder work of evangelization. If we are unconvincing in changing people’s thinking, we attempt to control their behavior through the political process.

What this misses, of course, is what both Catholic and Protestant theology refer to as “structural” or “social” sin. That is, there are institutional structures–economic, political, etc.–that create and reinforce unjust social arrangements. Simply calling people to individual conversion is insufficient to deal with these larger social forces.

Clark Williamson has a useful discussion of social sin and what he calls “the ways of death-dealing” in his systematic theology Way of Blessing, Way of Life:

A premise of all theologies that stand in the tradition of the social gospel, of the contemporary liberation theologies and of recent Roman Catholic social teaching is that existing forms of government, economy, and society “are neither divinely ordained nor naturally given but are historical products of the decisions of men and women in times past as to how their lives should be governed.” What human beings have created, human beings can change.

[…]

As long as we understand sin in ways that privatize it, hold to a view of salvation that reduces it to an individualistic or otherworldly matter (ultimate or “otherworldly” salvation should undergird and empower Christians in their this-worldly tasks), and regard social transformation as occurring in some miraculous manner, thinking that if only individuals change, the social context will take care of itself, the church will fail to address “the weightier matters of the law” (Mt. 23:23) in our time. (p. 38)

Williamson goes on to provide concrete examples of these unjust or sinful structures, or death-dealing ways: the unjust exploitation of nature, the unjust distribution of goods and services, sexism, racism, and militarism.

The point is that these sins are not exclusively the result of individuals making bad choices. They are the outworking of social structures functioning according to the way they’ve been set up. And the only way to remedy them is by changing or reforming those structures, which requires, yes, political action. This isn’t a substitute for individual conversion, but a necessary complement.

God of Israel and Christian Theology: Wrap up

Soulen is, in my view, largely persuasive in recasting of the scriptual meta-narrative as one of blessing and consummation, wherein sin and redemption plays a subordinate, though still important, role. Further, I think he’s right to avoid a certain kind of “Christocentric” reading of the Bible. If the churches are serious about overcoming supersessionism, then something like Soulen’s project seems to be necessary. He has demonstrated, to my satisfaction, that supersessionism isn’t simply an appendage that can easily be lopped off the main body of Christian tradition, but is more like a structural flaw in the foundation of the mainstream theological tradition. Of course, I’d already been largely convinced of that by Clark Williamson and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Soulen’s perspective also seems consistent with other recent trends in theology that have tried to emphasize God’s work as consummator of all creation and only secondarily God’s redemptive work. (I’m thinking of eco-theologies and some feminist theology.)

Supersessionist readings of the Bible are deeply entrenched in the church, though, even among those who consciously reject supersessionism. It will take a good bit of detailed exegetical work, I think, to flesh this alternative narrative out and make it compelling. For instance, it requires a virtual paradigm shift in how churches have historically, and in many cases still do, read Paul on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. (Although, if I’m not mistaken, some of themes of the “new perspective” on Paul seem like they might provide support to this kind of project.)

More challengingly, perhaps, I wonder whether Soulen’s proposed reading of the canon is consistent with the church’s christological and trinitarian dogmas, at least as those have been classicly expressed. Does the canonical narrative as Soulen has presented it demand a “high” Christology in the way that the traditional sin-redemption schema seemed to? I gather that this may be addressed in his new book, but I think it presents a potentially thorny issue for any Christian theology that seeks to be “post-supersessionist.” In what sense is Jesus unique and uniquely indispensable to God’s economy of blessing? Can Christians affirm Jesus’ unique role in God’s plan of consummation-salvation without, implicitly at least, courting supersessionism and exclusivism?

This brings me to another point. I wonder if the theme of mutual blessing-in-difference is portrayed too one-sidedly here? Although Soulen emphasizes that the blessing between Israel and the nations is mutual, his narrative assigns the Gentiles to a distinctly secondary role, religiously speaking. They seem to be little more than second-hand beneficiaries of God’s revelation to and covenant with Israel. But if God really creates for mutual blessing, might gentile religious wisdom not also contribute to the faith of Israel? In fact, historically we know that wisdom from Greek and other cultures was assimilated into biblical religion. This opens the possibility of a greater appreciation of broader religious pluralism. (I’m thinking along the lines proposed by Marjorie Suchocki.) An appreciation of pluralism need not entail a naively “universalist” standpoint but can be rooted in an affirmation of particularity.

As far as church practice goes, it’s hard to imagine what a church that was open to Jews as Jews would look like in the 21st century. Even granting that most Jews will continue to decline the Christian invitation to join the church, how would church life be affected if we took seriously Soulen’s contention that Jews could (should?) continue to observe the tenets of Judaism as members of the church? There are “messianic” Jews who to do this, but this seems like something that would make most mainline churches deeply uncomfortable. And should churches require continued Torah-observance of prospective Jewish members or simply permit it? What would that look like? How might such a “mixed” congregation be reflected in worship? The concept of a truly mixed Gentile-Jewish congregation raises a host of interesting and potentially difficult issues, I think.

All that notwithstanding, Soulen has written a fascinating and important book. Hopefully more Christians will start to grapple with these issues.

Previous posts:

Redemption for the sake of blessing

Reading the Bible after supersessionism

Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

Supersessionism and the flight from history

Blessing and difference

The story so far

Jesus and the gospel of God’s coming reign

“There is neither Jew nor Greek…”

The logic of divine love

I was thinking a bit more about Clark Williamson’s question whether Jesus “constitutes” our reconciliation with God “such that we cannot be reconciled to God without him” or “disclose[s] to us that we have always been reconciled to God.” And I wonder whether there might not be some convergence of positions here, at least at the practical level. My reasoning has to do with the scope of Christ’s saving work. A question often asked of satisfaction-type theories where Jesus has to die in order for God to forgive us or to restore our relationship with God is: What happens to people who lived before Christ? Was God unwilling to forgive sins prior to the death of Jesus? And the best answer to this is that Christ’s work has effects that, in some way, apply to those who lived before this work was accomplished. Its scope is not bound by time or space. (If I recall correctly, Anselm makes a move like this with respect to Mary.)

But how, practically speaking, does this differ from saying that God was always willing to forgive and that the Incarnation is the decisive historical manifestation of that forgiving, reconciling love? In both cases, God’s steadfast love is the cause of the Incarnation, and its effects transcend its particular historical manifestation. Which is not to say that the history is unimportant or unnecessary: how would we know what God was like unless it was revealed to us? But once you stop thinking that there was some time before which God wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive sin and that his forgiveness had to be secured by means of some transaction, the differences between the various atonement theories start to seem less significant.

Yet another perspective on atonement

This one’s from Clark Williamson, whose work I’m a fan of. The article is called “Atonement Theologies and the Cross.” Williamson surveys some of the main atonement theories and defends a semi-Abelardian view by way of Luther and with a tip of the hat to Girard and process theology. He emphasizes that the cross is the revelation of God’s unchangeable love for us and God’s identification with a suffering creation. Personally, I have always found this to be the most devotionally meaningful way of looking at the cross, even though I recognize intellectually that there’s something to be said for other perspectives.

I don’t agree with everything in the article, but he makes a strong case and identifies some important questions we need to ask when thinking about this. For example, does Jesus constitute our reconciliation with God “such that we cannot be reconciled to God without him,” or does he “disclose to us that we have always been reconciled to God?” And does our atonement theology “place a foundational act of violence at the center of Christian ideas of salvation”? Williamson maintains that our atonement theory will depend in large part on what we are willing or unwilling to affirm about God. Worth a read.

Divine determinism and divine sovereignty

Marvin argues that a doctrine of divine determinism–that everything that happens, even apparently horrible things like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, is an expression of God’s will–is actually a more comforting doctrine than people sometimes give it credit for:

If this sounds harsh, and as I said last week, I am against harshness as a test of orthodoxy, then assuring people that God had nothing to do with the tsunami may be equally harsh. For then we live in a world where evils befall us from outside God’s will. And that raises a disturbing question: Is God’s arm, in fact, too short to save? Are we in fact in a s**t happens world where God wishes us well but can’t be counted on to do anything about it?

My problem with this view (and I don’t know that Marvin is whole-heartedly endorsing it) is that it provokes an equally disturbing question: if nothing happens “outside” God’s will, then why does God visit us with so much (apparently) undeserved evil?

It’s not just death, or premature death that poses the problem. Acute, prolonged pain and suffering are just as much of a problem, if not more so. And the suffering that happens, in many cases, goes well beyond any reasonable reformatory or punitive purposes that theologians may offer as explanations. As Clark Williamson argues, one criteria for doing contemporary theology is that you shouldn’t say anything you couldn’t say “in the presence of the burning children” of the Nazi death camps. Could we tell them that their suffering was part of God’s will for them?

This isn’t to say that God’s arm is too short to save, but to offer a different understanding of divine sovereignty. Whatever else we know, we know that God doesn’t in fact save people from undeserved suffering or death (that is, unless you have such an intense doctrine of original sin that no amount of suffering would be undeserved). Instead, I’d propose that divine sovereignty is an eschatological concept: it means that God’s purposes will ultimately triumph, despite the best efforts of fragile and foolish human beings. That’s different from saying that God controls the outcome of every event. It means affirming with Paul that our present sufferings aren’t worth being compared with the future glory, or with the seer of Revelation that God will wipe away every tear. It means that, in God’s time and by God’s power, “all things will be well.”

UPDATE:

Doing a Google search, I came across this passage from evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz’s systematic theology:

Strictly speaking God’s sovereignty is an eschatological concept. It refers to the bringing to pass of the final goal God has for the world. This situation will emerge at the end of the historical process. When viewed from the vantage point of the eschatological end, therefore, God is fully and obviously sovereign.

When viewed from the perspective of present experience, however, it is not so obvious that God is sovereign. In fact, whether or not God is reigning over the world is presently an open question. In a sense, the present open-endedness of the divine sovereignty is implicit in the act of creation itself. The very existence of creation as a reality different from God raises the question of ultimate sovereignty: Is God sovereign over creation or is creation autonomous? (Theology for the Community of God, p. 106-7)

Citing Wolfhart Pannenberg, Grenz goes on to argue that, during the present age, God’s sovereignty is contested by the forces that work against God’s purpose. But God acts in history to establish his Kingdom. The eschaton is the point at which God’s sovereignty will be fully manifested. “In the strict sense, then, God is sovereign from the vantage point of the eschatological future” (p. 108).

I don’t know much about the context of Grenz’s overall theology (though I’m intrigued by this passage), but this sounds very similar to what I was trying to get at in this post.

UPDATE 2:

Marvin has a follow-up post here. Like him, I’m attracted both to classical theism and to more contemporary process- or narrative-oriented approaches. And I agree that the classical view has much more sophisticated and able exponents than the pop-Calvinists who dominate much of the theological debate among American Christians. (To Marvin’s list, I might add a more contemporary figure like Tillich, though I understand Marvin finds Tillich boring. :))

I also agree with Marvin that there are no problem-free positions out there. There are theologies (such as some forms of process theology) that do seem to qualify God’s sovereignty to the point of impotence, or that make a fetish out of divine suffering. That’s part of the reason I’m attracted to a “neo-process” perspective like Clark Williamson’s, which incorporates some of the key insights of process theology without abandoning its commitment to tenets of traditional theology like creation ex nihilo and a strong view of God’s eschatological triumph. (Others who might fall into this broad middle ground: Keith Ward, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke.) Of course, such a position is open to criticisms from both the “left” and the “right” for being an unstable hybrid.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for classical theism of the Augustinian variety, especially in its emphasis on the mystery and transcendence of God. The deity of some process and other contemporary theologies can seem a bit too personal and chummy. Theology needs to preserve a space for holy awe and that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom.

Maybe what tips the scales for me is that I just find it impossible, on a gut, existential level, to affirm that God directly wills some of the terrible events that happen in the world. But it could be that it’s possible to square the circle and affirm traditional notions of divine sovereignty without being forced to that conclusion.

A better hope

In continuing to circle around the question of eschatology and look at it from different angles, I went back to Clark Williamson’s Way of Blessing, Way of Life. I wrote a short post on his eschatology here, but I thought it might be worth looking at it more in-depth. This is partly because I think Williamson avoids some of the pitfalls that Borg (et al.) fall into.

Williamson begins his chapter by noting that, according to Jewish theology, there are two topics for eschatology:

1. “The Day of the Messiah” – This refers to “that future state of this world when God’s intent with God’s creatures shall have been realized, when redemption shall have been accomplished” (p. 297). In short, a this-worldly utopia characterized by perfect justice in which the needs of all are met.

2. “The world to come” – This refers to “our ultimate resurrected life in God beyond history” (p. 297).

For Williamson, the key to an adequate eschatology is to hold on to both of these poles.

In his teaching and ministry, Williamson says, Jesus exhibited a tension between the soon-to-come and the already-present basileia (kingdom or rule) of God. God’s rule entails blessings (for the poor, etc.) and has as its ethical corollary “an inclusive, egalitarian movement that featured free healing, free hospitality, free and open eating, and free welcome to the stranger” (p. 301).

The trouble that Christian theology ran into is that with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, this promise of the kingdom remained largely a future promise. The early Christians (some of them, at least) expected Jesus to return soon to usher in the Day of the Messiah. However, as the second coming continued to be delayed, the tendency of the church was to downplay or deny any this-worldly element to eschatology and push it off the historical stage entirely (to a heavenly realm after death and/or a “last judgment” at the end of history).

Williamson contends that Christianity needs to recover the this-worldly element of its eschatology, which is intimately connected to Christology. “We may never properly separate claims about Jesus Christ from talk of that future redemption that remains to be accomplished” (p. 304). Christ is a foretaste of God’s reign, but there is more of it to be realized in this world; it’s not something simply postponed until after death.

Nevertheless, a number of contemporary theologians have fallen into the opposite error of confining salvation to liberation from this-worldly oppression. Williamson suggests that this may be in part because modern people find it more difficult to make sense of ultimate salvation than our forbears. But he offers three reasons why this isn’t a viable path:

– If salvation is for this world only, then we have to say that all those who died before the promised utopia is created are not saved. “All those who die without being liberated are not saved, but damned” (p. 311).

– Salvation thought of in strictly this-worldly terms is likely never to be realized because “on any realistic assessment of human history, we will never arrive at a utopian state of total liberation” (p. 311).

– When salvation is detached from an ultimate hope beyond history, our efforts at pursuing justice are likely to meet with burnout and frustration.

Thus any adequate eschatology can be characterized in this “two-poled” fashion:

Political eschatology – This means trying “to make incremental gains in justice, reconciliation, equality, liberty, and sustainability” (p. 312). Part of the mission of the church is to be a model community that can demonstrate the possibilities for greater justice and liberation in its corporate life.

Ultimate salvation – This refers to our ultimate destiny with and in God. Williamson warns against over-literalizing symbolic language (heaven, hell, judgment, etc.) Instead, we should recognize that statements about our ultimate destiny are, in the final analysis, “statements about God and God’s love for us” (p. 311). They are existential-theological affirmations based on “radical trust” that God’s loving grace will have the last word.

Eternal life is the gift of the God who is eternal, and hence the only One who can bestow such a gift on mortal creatures. (p. 316)

Williamson concludes with a suggestion that salvation will be universal in scope. The alternatives, he says, deny the freely given grace of God because they are either based on a works-reward scheme of some sort or because they make God’s grace capricious and arbitrary, as in some schemes of double predestination.

What I like about Williamson’s position is that it includes much of what I find valuable in, say, Borg and Crossan’s thinking. For them, Jesus’ mission and message was about creating an inclusive, egalitarian community under God that posed an alternative to Caesar’s imperial rule by violence and coercion. Thus, Jesus shouldn’t be seen as a strictly other-worldly figure who wasn’t interested in justice in this world. Williamson affirms all this. But he goes further and points out that this-worldly liberation isn’t enough and that ultimate salvation is something that can be given only by God.

 

Five essential theology books

Michael Westmoreland-White, riffing on this Christian Century article, asks folks to list “five essential theological works” from the past 25 years. (Actually, I think there was a meme on a similar topic circulating the theo-blogosphere a few years back.)

Anyway, not being a theologian, or professional churchly type of any sort, I’m not really qualified to judge the “best,” or “most influential” works of theology. So instead I’ll list five theological works published in the last 25 years that have had a significant influence on me (in no particular order).

Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theology This was my first in-depth exposure to feminist theology. Depending on who you ask, Johnson is either a dangerous radical who wants to overturn Christian tradition or a timid reformist who can’t face up to the inherently patriarchal nature of Christianity. I think she’s written a convincing book about how gender shapes theological language that at the same time breaks open new space for seeing God in ways that are less beholden to dead metaphors.

Clark Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology As I wrote in my summary post about this book, it forced me to look closely at the issue of anti-Judaism in Christian theology. Supercessionist thinking is still embedded in much Christian theology and practice, left, right, and center. This book convinced me that becoming aware of it and rooting it out remains a hugely important task for the Christian community. Just as importantly, though, in articulated an understanding of the gospel that is rooted in the Christian tradition without being exclusivist.

Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology Regular readers won’t be surprised to see a book from Linzey on this list. This is his most sustained engagement with the theological tradition, one in which he tries to show that an orthodox, trinitarian conception of God not only permits, but requires us to re-think our views of non-human animals, but to radically change our practice.

Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the GospelThis one’s kind of a cheat because the book was originally published in 1982. But the edition I read was the one reissued by Wipf & Stock in 2002, so there. Anyway, Jenson’s work was my first exposure to a sustained critique of the influence that Greek metaphysics and its attendant assumptions about time, eternity, and power had on the Christian doctrine of God. I don’t share all his conclusions (or his social conservatism), but the idea that God shares in–and even defines the divine identity through–the history of God’s creatures, rather than standing aloof and unmoved, is one that has stayed with me. Plus, it seemed like I should have at least one Lutheran on here (even if it’s an idiosyncratic one like Jenson).

Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning I don’t consider myself a “Girardian,” but I think once you’ve been exposed to Girard’s way of looking at the world–at violence, sacrifice, and the sacred–you see things differently. Girard sometimes seems to be offering an overly simplistic, mono-causal account of religion. Nevertheless, particularly in this work, he shows how the gospel can convey the power to overcome the violence that simmers just beneath the surface of human society. I’m not even sure this book counts as theology properly speaking, but if nothing else we can point to the ways that the brilliant James Alison has applied Girard’s insights to theology.

I also feel like there should be something about the historical Jesus on this list, but I don’t know that there’s one book I would single out (Luke Timothy Johnson, Marcus Borg, and Dale Allison have all been influences here, despite–or maybe because of–their disagreements). I would also want to cite something in the religion and science dialogue (probably Ian Barbour’s book).