Monday, November 28, 2011

A Foreword to George Ricker's new book

(George Ricker's latest book, More to Think About, comes out this week (Nov. 28). The book will be available, along with several books by other University UMC authors, at our UUMC Authors' Festival on Sunday, December 11 after worship. Here's the Foreword that George so graciously asked me to write.)

Over the last decade, there has been a remarkable resurgence of theological work which attempts to rethink and re-enliven Christianity. Writers from both ends of the spectrum, like Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren, have engaged in the quest for a Christianity that connects with a postmodern culture, yet does not lose the focus on faithfulness to the life and teaching of Jesus. Theologians like John Cobb and Philip Clayton have brought their prodigious intellectual gifts to tracing a new way of doing theology that moves beyond academic jargon to connect with the church and with real life.

Many pastors jumped into the dialogue and joined the vast movement of revitalized thought only to find that we were not the first ones aboard. George Ricker had taken a seat long before us, quietly working through sermons, newspaper columns, Sunday school classes and radio spots, seeking a mature faith that is authentic to the historic witness and also credible to the postmodern, even post-Christian world.

George is a marvel. At 89, he serves as Pastor Emeritus at University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, where I currently serve as Senior Pastor, and he continues to teach and write about the meaning of the Christian faith. I first became acquainted with George through his work at UUMC. Back in the 70s, he offered “Lifestyle Studies,” which featured serious reflection on the work of theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Neibuhr. Ever the pastor, though, George’s work always moved beyond theoretical issues to engage day-to-day realities. Long before much critical thought had been given to the full admission of gays and lesbians into the life of the church, George was there, speaking about the openness of the church to homosexual persons as an issue of justice. In the 80s, at the height of the arms race, even though the issue of nuclear disarmament was not popular, George lent his voice to the prophetic call for peace and for an end to the nuclear weapons.

Some might be tempted to pigeon-hole George as just another liberal theologian churning out mainline Protestant dogma. They will be surprised at the different ways he seeks to embrace and honor the opposite pole, even giving thanks, at one point, for religious extremism! The only kind of faith that comes in for harsh critique is one that is narrow and restrictive. And so while “progressive Christianity” may be the name that he favors, the faith that George outlines might better be described as a more expansive and inclusive Christianity. In approaching the issue of the interpretation of scripture, for example, he lifts up a view of the Bible that is “richer, fuller, deeper than it has ever been” thanks to the work of historical analysis and literary criticism. Similarly in writing about world religions, we’re pushed not only to imagine the value in the diversity of religions but we’re pressed to be personally shaped and transformed by the very different beliefs of others.

Particularly in light of the crisis North American Christianity now finds itself in with the growing decline in church membership and attendance, and the burgeoning numbers of those who are either uninterested or openly hostile to church, the practice of rethinking the meaning and the practice of faith is of paramount importance. Few will return to a church that simply repeats the well-worn formulas of days gone by. Undoubtedly some of what George Ricker says will not be popular. Good! The value of More to Think About lies in the summons to wrestle with the faith once given, not as a purely theoretical project, but as a movement of the soul toward a life of meaning and purpose that contributes to the transformation and healing of the world.

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