Baptist gathering in Atlanta is one sign of theological shift
By RAY WADDLE • January 26, 2008

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Despite all the talk of public religion now, there’s little public discussion of theology. People have passionate opinions about Fox News or Hillary Clinton, not St. Augustine or John Wesley, and judge others accordingly.

But it’s the curse of religion writers to detect a theological dimension to everything, including politics. A person’s concept of God (harsh, merciful or indifferent) shapes political outlook.

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Even denials of theology carry a whiff of the theological: Rejecting God, many an atheist is merely rejecting a deficient concept of God from childhood.

Theology never disappears. It just goes underground, where the theological tectonic plates quietly grind on, altering the landscape, adjusting to new social conditions.

For centuries, American theology was monopolized by a particular brew of Protestant piety. It honored Scripture and insisted on vivid personal conversion. It said human sin shipwrecks all dreams of social progress. Salvation was intensely personal ? no vision of political reform.

In the South, it inspired personal kindness and neighborliness but, paradoxically, blessed slavery and segregation. Doctrinal conformity enforced the social contradictions.

This old pattern is crumbling. That’s been a storyline for 40 years: the old theological arguments that once gave denominations their identities carry no weight with new generations.

In the South, the old but uneasy mixture of revivalist evangelicalism (born-again experience, available to all) and intellectual Calvinism (respect for God’s majesty, notions of preordained salvation) has trouble holding up against the messages of pop music, therapy, digital proliferation and global pluralism. The rise of megachurches and the rise of yoga are different responses to the same thing: rejection of doctrinal enforcement of the old rules.

New theologies struggle to be born.

Diverse Baptists to meet
Next week’s unusual Baptist assembly in Atlanta is another sign of spiritual tectonic shifts.

The New Baptist Covenant will attract 30 organizations (racially, geographically, theologically diverse) to promote the example of Jesus and liberalize the Baptist public image, now dominated by the conservative, high-profile Southern Baptist Convention.

The new movement may turn out to be the biggest surge yet of “golden-rule Christianity,” a theological style emerging as a defiant alternative to doctrinal conflict. Golden-rule Christians (as sociologists describe them) favor compassionate action over creedal uniformity.

As an informal alliance, the New Baptist Covenant isn’t indifferent to doctrine.

Officially it reaffirms traditional Baptist values. It also aims to fulfill “the biblical mandate to promote peace with justice, feed the hungry ? and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.”

Many will be watching. Can it have an impact? Can it build momentum and be theologically coherent too, despite its diversity?

In a world driven to violence by rival claims of religious truth, many are searching for a new theology, a new way to balance compassion with moral certainty.

Columnist Ray Waddle, a former Tennessean religion editor, can be reached at ray@raywaddle.com.

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