This weekend I began teaching my class on Lives of Faith. It’s one of the most interesting topics in all the things I’ve taught. The unit is based on the methodology of James McClendon who wrote a book Biography as Theology, published way back in 1974. I had the privilege of hearing him teach at Whitley, later in the 1980s and then later still staying with him in his home in Pasadena. McClendon’s systematic theology is quite unique in that he begins where most other systems aim finally to arrive, with ethics. Indeed the first volume is indeed titled Ethics.
There are two basic elements to his approach. McClendon seeks a ‘non-foundationalist’ method for theology. He does not want to begin with authority, but rather seeks to derive authority from the subject matter itself. In doing this, he describes what he calls a small-b baptist approach to faith and to church. These contrast with the small-c catholic and small-p protestant: none of these is a denomination, more a style or stream of Christian faith and theology, and all having certain strengths and challenges. The small-b baptist is distinguished not by certain doctrines or structures but by a way of forming community, essentially a community that reads the bible in the present, and responds to the call of God in the present. This community, in every time and place, is what McClendon calls ‘the primitive community’, as if it is hearing the word of the Gospel for the first time, and it must respond to it, freely and responsibly, and it is also what McClendon calls ‘the eschatological community’. It is the community responsible for what become so the faith, in the world, here and now.
In all this, McClendon’s approach to theology is radically ‘free church’, in line with his Anabaptist’ roots: and I find this very very helpful. If only the churches which bear this heritage actually knew about it and could practice it more effectively.
Another crucial element in McClendon’s approach, arising from the preceding focus, is his quest for what he calls ‘an ethics of character’. Christian life is not fundamentally about beliefs, it is about values and living—character. In his wider philosophical and theological work, McClendon explores the idea of convictions: these are the fundamental or core ideas and values which shape and direct a personal life or the life of a community. His studies of biographies search for the core conviction, such as a single value or concept, which can be seen at the very heart of that person’s life.
McClendon also saw that often a person might not exactly know, in the sense of being able immediately to name or articulate that conviction. Some times we discover what our convictions really are: either because that value is challenged or infringed, or perhaps we sense we have not reached it or have failed it, and then we are able to name it, own it, and go on to live more fully in the light of it.
The same is true of communities, and McClendon’s definition of theology includes the idea that a ‘convictional community’ might actually need to ‘discover’, and review, revise or re-organise its convictions.
So the study of biographies, in this class, includes the opportunity to look at a number of lives, some of them theologians, some leaders and writers, and to consider the convictions that shaped their lives.
We are also interested in the dynamic relationship between experience and theology in these lives: the ways life experience may have shaped theology and teaching, and also the ways theology or faith may have shaped their lives, actions and so on.
A final, and deeply enriching dimension of this class, is to take all these insights and consider how they relate to our own lives.
This study allows us to think in very practical and meaningful ways about the nature of faith. All too easily faith is thought of as an intellectual thing, and often in highly individualist ways, and sometimes as a static state. There is also a tendency in some circles to think of faith as a kind of perfectionist state: you must have 100% faith or you don’t have faith at all.
Our explorations will help us see faith in much more real and meaningful ways, through the real lives of people like ourselves: lives of faith.
How privileged I am to journey with this class of people exploring this, the most fruitful way to study theology.