There has never been one truth, despite what people claim. Theological ideas have waxed and waned through history, taking conflicting turns with changing leaders, worldviews and political forces. This fast-paced, lay-friendly book, backed by serious, inquisitive scholarship, follows this maze, shining a spotlight into dark corners and dusty shelves to observe ideas silenced and others declared eternal. As many people walk away from churches that are unwilling to face the big questions, this book offers readers permission to think for themselves.
Testing Traditions and Liberating Theology may well be the best volume to come from Val Webb’s prolific key pad. – Noel Preston.
Doing theology is about finding your own voice in an ongoing theological conversation. This book provides challenge, companionship and resources in this process. – Sue Emeleus and Frances Mackay in EREMOS.
Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology is a little Aussie gem from our own pre-eminent lay theologian Dr Val Webb. – Bruce Mullan, Journey.
Brian Mullan (Acting director, Uniting Communications) –
Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology is a little Aussie gem from our own pre-eminent lay theologian Dr Val Webb.
Webb’s goal in this book is to unlock theological process from the rarefied academic world of the seminary and encourage everyone to do their own theological thinking, “rather than continually accepting the often dumbed-down scraps from the altar of others”.
Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology makes theology accessible for the average reader, using clear language and everyday images that open up the mysteries of religious belief.
It provides a comprehensive overview of the history of theology through the last 2000 years, presenting an intelligible overview of key theologians and their contribution to the development of theological thought.
If you have ever wondered what systematic theology, Pelagianism, neo-orthodoxy or the “filioque” clause are all about, then the early chapters of this book are for you.
Webb then goes on to explore and explain liberation and feminist theologies and appropriately concludes with the contribution eco-theology can make to understanding our relationship with the natural world.
Whether it is ancient and traditional theology or emerging, evolving and progressive theologies, Webb summarises the significant while acknowledging the impossibility of a comprehensive analysis in one small book.
Her précis provides plenty of revision to what we may already know as well as moments of revelation and discovery. Reading this book is to be empowered by a credible lay theologian.
What could have been a dry read is flavoured by an autobiographical thread which covers Webb’s own theological journey from the early certainties of evangelical faith to more complex current contextual understanding.
While she deals equitably with the flow and history of theological thought, Webb doesn’t hide her own theological preferences and unashamed partiality for contextual theology.
“Many people today are ‘doing their theology’ with their feet—walking out of churches that continue to preach outdated and unbelievable ideas from former ages, rather than helping people find answers in their present situation,” she writes.
This perspective won’t sit comfortably with many who favour the neo-Barthian (look this up in her book) fondness that dominates much Uniting Church thinking.
Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology submits that there are many ways to think theologically, and Webb leaves the reader to make their own decision.
Dr Noel Preston AM –
Testing Traditions and Liberating Theology may well be the best volume to come from Val Webb’s prolific key pad – and that is quite a rap! Her primary audience is the inquiring lay person. In Val’s own words, she “wrote this book because I meet so many people that either know very little about the development of theology within their church tradition; or else have left their church because what they hear there makes little sense to them, or is even harmful to them. Like Richard Dawkins’ attacks on Christianity, they only know one version and have no idea that theology has actually changed considerably over the centuries and keeps on changing.(p.1)”
The valid assumption underpinning Val Webb’s interpretation is that the true test of religion is how religious faith and practice sustains and nurtures good living “here and now”. Much of the book is an historical survey of the development of (Christian) theological ideas. As such, it will be a great eye opener to many, and an enlightening refresher to others. She demonstrates how theology moves from the dogmatic and systematic to the contextual, that is, to liberation and feminist theologies which emancipate theology from ivory tower seminaries and continue to test the traditions of ecclesiastical institutions while providing a theological framework for engaging contemporary moral questions and public policy as well as personal empowerment.
Adopting the style of the teacher rather than the polemicist, Webb does not labour her own preferences, though they are well implied. Her own theological perspective is informed by process theology and relates to a pan-en-theistic understanding of the divine. As such, the traditions informing twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich rather than those of Karl Barth support her contextual approach. She also endorses the contemporary importance of interfaith dialogue, indigenous spiritualities and eco-theology. Indeed, one of the most significant chapters in Testing Traditions and Liberating Theologies is the final one, “Living our theology on the planet”.
Along the way Val speaks to her own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia (pp.231-235). She questions how theological debates are to be resolved in this twentieth century ecclesiastical creation. “Can the Uniting Church allow its theology to emerge from reflection on its context or must it stay in conformity with churches from which our ancestors broke away? And…who decides?” She observes that if this is to be the national Assembly of the church, this requires a theologically literate laity who compose half that body. Adding, many of the Assembly’s laity “simply accept what their theologians say UC people must think, even if they have questions within themselves.”
Her passion is for lay theology (not that she suggests current theological seminaries in Australia overlook this). Because of this passion I found her omission of reference to biologist and process philosopher Charles Birch obvious and unfortunate, for Birch was arguably Australia’s most eminent twentieth century lay theologian, and a Uniting Church affiliate. That said, Val herself qualifies for that title in the new millenium.
Certainly, this is a most commendable and readable text “backed by serious, inquisitive scholarship”, as its dust cover asserts. My copy will be passed on to my critical thinking son-in-law and then it may become a second hand Christmas present to my local pastor! It is also amenable to group study with questions for discussion following each of its twenty chapters.
Sue Emeleusand & Frances Mackay, EREMOS Magazine. –
Have you ever wondered what it means to do theology? According to Val Webb’s latest book, doing theology is about finding your own voice in an ongoing theological conversation. This book provides challenge, companionship and resources in this process – as have her eight earlier books, many of which we have reviewed in EREMOS. Indeed she is revisiting and developing themes raised in these books as she seeks to provide a valuable resource for addressing the theological challenges of the 21st Century.
The book begins by asking the epistemological question, ‘How do we know what we know?’ Rather than telling us what to believe, Webb says that the theologian’s role is to ‘help us discern what is essential to our faith, and to express it in ways that are both comprehensive and comprehensible’ (p. 24). Webb does just that by providing an historical context for the evolution of our beliefs over time. For example, in chapter three, titled ‘Who needs theology when we have the Bible?’ she summarises the history of the evolution of the Bible as we now have it: ‘the story of an ancient people who saw themselves as the people of their God YHWH in their time and place’. But she insists that the Bible comes alive for us in our time and place only as we ‘do our theology’ (p. 39). It is not enough to ‘receive’ theology; we need to participate in its ongoing co-creation.
In learning how to do our own theology it seems we need to be familiar with how our faith ancestors have done theirs, and the context in which they did it. In chapters 4-8 Webb gives a wonderful overview of twenty centuries of church history, thereby providing a context for the theology that developed over that time. Speaking of the evolution of theology through history, she asks each of us a challenging question: ‘Where do you erect your theological tent in this history of ideas?’ (p. 99).
Arguably it is harder in our post-modern, multicultural context to maintain a stance that ours is the one true faith. As Webb reminds us, ‘We are only one small take on the world, and we need to shed our arrogance and step out to see how the Sacred is at work in other places.’ (She did this very well in her book, Stepping Out with the Sacred: Human Attempts to Engage the Divine.)
I (Sue) don’t know where my theological tent will be pitched next, but I know that this book will have helped me to decide. Here is a taste of the challenge she gives the contemporary theological seeker:
In a chapter called, ‘Doubting boldly’, the author revisits themes explored in her earlier book, In Defence of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure (1995; 2012/2014). She claims that ‘silencing of the doubter is theological abuse… Blaming the doubter is psychological family abuse’. Later she comments, ‘No wonder people leave churches, refusing to play this unhealthy game’ (p. 135). Yet Christianity has often promoted faith as certainty, and exploration as something to be discouraged, interpreting it as a loss of faith. Webb assures us, however, that listening to our doubts is not weakness but can be a source of strength and creativity. To be in doubt is to be in good company. She reminds us again of Mother Teresa’s years of darkness and doubt. (Thankfully Eremos provides a forum where we can safely explore our doubts.)
It comes as no surprise that Val claims that all theology is contextual, and all theologians are shaped by their biography and wider socio-historical situations. She suggests that Florence Nightingale is an example of someone whose work context made her recognise ‘the inadequacy of the Church of England theology with its oppressive cruelty to the poor’. Augustine, Aquinas, John Wesley, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Dorothee Soelle are all examples of those who developed their theology because of the situations in which they found themselves.
Specific ‘breeds’ of contextual theology – liberation theologies, feminist theology and progressive theology – are discussed in the final chapters of her book. ‘These emerge’, she says, ‘not from professional theologians thinking in academic halls, but from ordinary people doing theology in their particular situations of struggle’ (p. 153). Such a theology has grass roots. It begins
Webb reminds us that liberation theology in South America began with ‘ordinary people reading the Bible together in their situation… Communities celebrated the Eucharist, with or without a priest, and decided their political and social action through theological reflection’ (p. 160). Black Theology, heavily influenced by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X grew out of the Black Power Movement in the US. Likewise, in Australia, Rainbow Spirit Theology (1995) was ‘a liberation theology for Australian Aboriginal Christians [based on] the experiences of white oppression, murder, disenfranchisement and loss of tradition since English invasion and settlement in 1788’. Given that the inclusion of a preamble to the Constitution recognizing the first inhabitants of the land is now under discussion, it is encouraging that the preamble to the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church already recognises the religious heritage of Aboriginal people prior to the missionaries. It is also interesting to read of the criticism of this preamble by church theologians!
Webb acknowledges the difficulty of doing justice to evolving Feminist theologies in different parts of the world, and Queer theology, which addresses the struggles of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered and intersex (GLBTI) groups, in a short space: ‘such liberation theologies are never static – they move and change with the context and ever-emerging new struggles’ (p. 181).
Perhaps the pivotal chapter of the book is chapter 15 in which she deconstructs the clergy laity caste system that characterises contemporary church practice, and that seems at odds with that of the New Testament Church. She explains it this way:
Webb suggests that restoration of lay authority could contribute to the credibility of our theology in the public domain if lay and academic theologians were to collaborate in developing a public theology that would include the reflections of lay people ‘working in their spheres of excellence’. She claims that ‘progressive’ or ‘emerging’ Christian groups, are often ‘lay-led or lay-energised’, offering ‘safe places for people to discuss questions without censure and read energising new theology and biblical research offered in the public marketplace’ (p. 206). In the words of Rev Dr John Bodycomb he describes Progressive Christianity as
While acknowledging this movement’s contribution to interfaith dialogue, Webb also comments that more is required than the deconstruction of outmoded beliefs:
Another chapter is devoted to the theological hospitality that is required if we are going to engage in dialogue with those whose views differ from ours. This kind of hospitality requires that we let go of the ‘negative naming [that] happens in theology when some believe they have the correct answers and others are simply wrong’ (p. 228). In contrast to theological hospitality is the attitude described by Thich Nhat Hanh:
To cultivate theological hospitality, we need to learn to ‘theologise across borders’. Such theologising requires a pluralist stance, which she defines as follows:
In her final chapter, ‘Living our theology on the planet’, Webb issues this challenge:
There are several categories of readers who would find this book invaluable. For example, theological students of any area of church history would find this an excellent resource, as would Higher School Certificate (HSC) students of Studies in Religion or Christian Studies. The three questions at the end of each chapter would also make it ideal for Eremos discussion groups, and for individual Eremos members wanting to remain abreast of the current theological scene.