A Theology from Below (and Subterranean Book Review)

subterraneanYear after year as my community seeks to live well in the unique soil of our little neighborhood, we discover how much our neighborhood has to teach us about ourselves, each other and the One we follow. Because real life is textured with both the beautiful and broken realities of humanity, we find ourselves formed and informed in new ways that we couldn’t have ever expected. For this reason, we make plenty of space for our theology to be shaped not only from “above” through our intellect, study and empirical insight, but also from “below” through the realities of God’s presence in the mundane of everyday. In fact, it is often this lived theology that most clearly reveals to us where we fit in God’s story that is unfolding in our place. 

The reality of having our theology developed from below means we regularly expose ourselves to darkness, disappointment and failure. The stories don’t always end the way we want them to. In our heads we may have the perfect theological formula, but in reality, the formula is often as unhelpful as our freshman algebra class. What happens when that friend you’ve been walking with for years falls back into addiction and violence? What happens when your seemingly perfect family reality get upended by tragedy? Or when despite your best efforts, your vision for what is “good” in your neighborhood turns out being the exact opposite? 

In Practicing Locality -- chapter 9 of Dan White’s new book, Subterranean: Why the Future of the Church is Rootedness -- he argues that despite the cost and potential disappointment, we have to give ourselves to everyday practice because it is only there that we will develop a “living theology.” To do theology faithfully, we must participate in the social realities of our broken and beautiful places“(pg 95). This is a theology not only informed by a textbook, but by the breath of the Spirit moving in and through a community of practice. It is for that reason Dan opens the chapter by describing the necessity of imagination. When we give ourselves to the everyday, we have to carry with us an imagination for God’s dream for the world in the midst of the inevitable disappointment, failure and darkness. As one who is part of a faith community committed to a “living theology,” we experience as much heart ache, failure and brokenness as we do joy and “success.” An imagination for not only what is, but what will be, is often the fuel that sustains us.

Dan goes on to offer a couple “tools” that can help faith communities experience a “living theology” by participating in the fabric of their neighborhood as a reflection of renewal and rooted presence. Without going into the nuances of his suggested pathways here, it is clear that Dan is a practitioner whose stories and insights could only come forth out of a life of practice. Not only does he encourage us to hold our theology accountable to a lived set of practices, he reminds us to remain in the posture of learners rather than hero’s. “We speak from where our bodies are situated. Too much theologizing and Christian living techniques are formed in the ivory tower of the Christian world, telling us what people need and how they should receive it(95).

In contrast to many “church-planting” books, he continually highlights the necessity of learning from and being loved by our neighbors in a mutually beneficial relationship. We aren’t the hero’s who have come to conquer or correct, we are simply participants in what God is already doing for the flourishing of all.  We must take a teachable posture as we are confronted by our ignorance and misplaced judgments. We must recognize our own blindness and limitations in the spaces we dwell in. We must behold, not just look (97)…walk gently and quietly so as to not stomp all over others’ sweat-soaked work. Innovation happens when a community humbly comes together to discern how to be in a place in a way that blesses the lifeworld of a neighborhood(98).

If there is a liability to this chapter, it is the introduction of so much new language. This is not only true of Dan’s book, but characteristic of a whole moment of theologians and communicators who are seeking to offer a renewed vision for how the church can be in the world. While fresh language is vitally important, it can also be confusing and a hurdle rather than an asset. I have been guilty of this myself and would love to see a growing movement with common language so as not to require the continual interpretation and reinterpretation of shared ideas. 

In the end, Practicing Locality is a refreshing reminder that we must live the stuff we talk about. Theology means little (if anything at all) if it isn’t lived out in the context of everyday life in neighborhood. Further, this chapter serves as a helpful guide to onramp individuals and communities into a lived set of practices that reflect a Jesus who didn’t come to conquer, but to give himself away for the flourishing of others. May we go and do likewise. 

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This review was part of a Subterranean Book Blog Tour, which is offering a unique 40% off discount code that expires Oct 23rd if purchased at http://wipfandstock.com/subterranean.html Here is the code: ROOTED

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