Wired reported a couple of days ago on the conclusions of Google co-founder Larry Page's working group on improving life on earth, and the list of '14 Grand Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century'. They included things like making solar energy affordable, reverse-engineering the brain and providing energy from fusion. Energy, quality of life, quantity of life, in summary.
This got me thinking: what might a list of the grand theological challenges of the next 100 years look like? Well, I'm no Larry Page, but I mailed out a bunch of people in my address book, texted and called a few others, and had lunch with one, asking them, very simply, what they thought should be on the list.
Actually, not that simply. Because I also asked if they thought whether such a list could even be created. Page's list is more simple: science - our knowledge of our physical world - does progress. We have better materials and technologies than we used to. But has our understanding of God actually moved forward? Or do people simply dig ever-deeper into their rutted positions?
So what did people say? You can find the unexpurgated version here, but, edited down a little:
Brian Maclaren (writer) Grappling with Jesus' good news of the kingdom of God, realizing how it differs from the popular Western gospel of "how to go to heaven after you die and be happy and successful until then.
Nic Hughes (designer) I wish that someone, some group, something, somewhere would develop a theological project that captured the imagination. All the good ideas are elsewhere. Cross-discipline theological labs please?
Vanessa Elston (teacher) In very basic terms how do we move from a reformation/protestant/enlightenment emphasis on the salvation of the individual to one of communal participation in salvation.
Peter Rollins (writer) The task of developing concrete faith collectives which are freed from foundationalism and evidentialism - collectives which are founded on something other than shared doctrinal belief.
Greg Russinger (church leader) The ongoing challenge of communal theology among cultural difference or indifference.
Becky Garrison (writer / satirist) The challenge is finding ways to communicate theological change without becoming yet another crass Christian marketing machine.
Richard Sudworth (PhD student) A theology of political engagement that speaks into every area of the public sphere without resorting to domination and privilege.
Naz Georgis (alt.worship legend) A theology of synthesis.
Don Brewin (Anglican Vicar and top dad) I think the key issue for theology in the next generation is the theology of religion. What is our attitude to people of other faiths?
David Townsend (member of emergent group) A GayLesbianBiTransexual theology (as opposed to the polarised entrenchments that exist currently).
Sue Wallace (Visions, York) There is a sense in which the biggest theological challenges will always be the ones of cultural communication, and the frustrating thing is that as soon as we have sussed out how to speak one language, the world has moved on, and we have to learn
another if we are to engage in serious dialogue, and offer true hope rather than incomprehensible poetry.
Luke Bretherton (lecturer) Same as ever - 'Who is Jesus Christ?' And we have to ask it in relation to various contexts perhaps most importantly, relations with Islam, the environmental crises and the implications of peak oil for social and political life, genetic engineering and lastly the upholding of human flourishing against processes of commodification, instrumentalisation and totalising forms of modern power, whether economic, political, religious or technological.
Jonny Baker (Grace) Good idea but I am on a few days off so unlikely to contribute – sorry!
So are there any common themes there we might identify?
I think there are. It may simply be a function of the constituency, but I think there's an over-riding sense of wanting theology - talk about God - to speak to us. We want God to speak into our culture, our politics, our identity, our world. The implication is that people are perhaps feeling that theology is not doing that. So what's at fault? Are the 'professional theologians' hiding in ivory towers not doing enough? Are sermons not good enough? Are churches simply not engaged enough?
The other strong theme, I feel, is that of a serious theology of 'the other'. Other religions. Other sexual orientations. Other cultures. The world is becoming a melting pot, and people are struggling to work out both who they are within that, and how to relate to these 'others' who they now come into contact with. From ASBOs to Islamism, the problem of 'the other' is over-arching.
However, finally, the question is whether any of this is any different to any other time in history. If these are the grand questions now, have they ever been any different? And if not, are we failing in our theological practice, or simply evolving to cope with a changing world?