There are two reasons for grown-ups to avoid church. First, they’ve never been. My grandson once asked me with innocent curiosity what that building is with the “t” on top. Many others have been and see no reason to come back. The experience may have been repellent, demeaning or embarrassing. When you hear the worst people in public life explain their ugliness with faith, sensible people back away and keep the kids out of earshot. But it is far more likely that the church was inoffensive– less interesting than another cup of coffee, a walk around the block, tennis or whatever.
I’m speaking of church, but I’m guessing something happens like this in other religions, too.
I have found my closest working partners in two groups. The first are inside the church, but near the back door ready to get back on the streets. The second are already on the streets surprised to find themselves friends with a religious guy like me. We share the energy, joy and pathos—but not “god-talk.”
Next week twenty authors from Africa, Europe and the United States will gather at Wake Forest to blend our thinking on a book on religion and health to be published next year by Elgar Press. The intellectual sausage is still in process, so it’s premature to share detail. I mention it because most of the authors are in the two groups—some surprised to be invited to anything religious and all surprised by the creative energy released.
I am trying out the name “theogenerative practioner” for those propelled by an experience that feels ultimate and urgent, not just dutiful or godly. TGP for short. They are everywhere which is why I can’t despair. When Stakeholder Health gave Soma Saha and Ji Im our Jerry Winslow and Ruth Temple Bell Award in June, I called all of them that. Legendary practice; the theo signals the well from whence comes the imagination and resilience.
Writing in a more academic manner about “theogenerative practice” for the book I had to deal with “theo.” Jim Cochrane pointed me to Rev. Dr. Ted Jennings, our late friend from Chicago Theological Seminary, a TGP who wrote a wildly generative book, Beyond Theism, in 1985 (out of print, but available used on Alibris). He said we had been suckered into defending an abstraction called God—and the dangerous claptrap of theism. We misplaced the real mystery, that we humans experience God more like a verb than a noun. Ted did not care about God as an abstract ultimate cause that lends itself to authoritarianism. The abstract god justifies structures of religion, culture, politics and practice whose inertia robs the poor of hope for change and, risks the extinction of us all. A Christian theologian, he cared less about God as creator and more about the liberating Spirit. And he cared about the itinerant carpenter who was killed by the twisted authorities of religion and empire for proclaiming justice and mercy. Count me, in Ted.
Although TGP’s are often not religious, we find “god-talk” helpful as we talk to each other about the experiences of being drawn, called, called out, confronted by the deeper currents of life. Ted was careful to note that a lot of non-religious people experience this even when they don’t have “god-talk” to explain it: activists, artists, care-givers and healers. Maybe you and me.
I think of Brooks Hays, Jimmy Carter, Bill Foege, Jim Curran, Howard Koh. And John Lewis, of course, who became an icon of generative public justice-making. He was raised in the church; long called him “preacher” for his earnest way of preaching to the chickens under his care. (Read Walking in the Wind right away!). But his life changed when,
“on a Sunday morning in early 1955, I was listening to our radio…as always, when on the air came a sermon by a voice I’d never heard before, a young minister from Atlanta…. But even more than the voice, it was his message that sat me bolt upright with amazement….This was the first time I had ever heard something I would soon learn was called the social gospel….I felt that this man—his name was Martin Luther King Jr.—was speaking directly to me.” (Lewis, p. 56).
He was transformed forever; following, following, following and in then leading, leading and leading. This was an event that opened the possibility that oppressive political realities could be disrupted, too.
We may never have another John Lewis or Jimmy Carter. But we may never have another you or me, either. It is entirely normal to have one’s life disrupted by events and inbreakings that release us for what we are made to be, made to do. Ted would say the work of theology begins with these events, not the old dry abstractions of theism. God is not done. What?!?!?!
Don’t skip over “generative.” This is the quality we recognize in God and the people. And not just practice which is nice, kind or proper. This is what makes God disruptive and impossible to tame by human systems. And this is why generative theologians scare defenders of the old ways.
A critical role for TGP’s who are religious like me is to defend theogenerativity against authoritarian religion in the public square. We needed this in COVID when religion was used to undermine public health. And, sadly, we see it in the most ironic place—love and the wonders of sexuality. Amid so much hurtful blather, we have to say clearly that God delights in generative relationships; you can’t have too much love across the whole fluid alphabet of sexual identities. God loves love.
We need tens of thousands of theogenerative practioners. And I think we have them. We have twenty-five new ones starting at our School of Divinity. Jerry Winslow is still disruptively typing at 78. I promise you that Jimmy is doing something theogenerative on his 99th birthday.
Why not you and me?