Clark M. Williamson

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Clark M. Williamson (born November 3, 1935) is a North American theologian whose work is associated with neo-process theology, post-Shoah theology, and biblical theology. The author of more than twenty books, he is especially known for his pioneering work in eliminating anti-Jewish elements and implications in Christianity in his Has God Rejected His People? Anti-Judaism in the Christian Church (1982) and for his probing examination and restatement of major themes in Christian faith in the light of the Holocaust and official statements of the churches on these matters in Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology (1993). He has also written a systematic theology, Way of Blessing/Way of Life: A Christian Theology (1999) developing  a constructive and comprehensive theology based on these themes and in conversation with process thinkers, Paul Tillich, post-Shoah theology, narrative theology, and feminist theology.

Contents[edit]

  1. Biography
  2. A Church Theology
  3. A Conversational Approach
  4. Neo-Process theology
  5. Post-Shoah theology
  6. Distinctive Theological Criteria
  7. Bibliography
  8. References

Biography[edit]

Clark Williamson was born 1935 in Memphis, Tennessee, where he grew up. Williamson was a member of Taylor Memorial Christian Church where his grandfather, J. Murray Taylor was minister. Taylor viewed the principle calling of the minister to be that of teacher of the Christian faith, a perspective that continues to animate Williamson's approach to the church and the ministry. Williamson completed the AB in religion and philosophy at Transylvania University in 1957. He then studied at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago for the M.Div. (1961), M.A. (1963), and PhD (1969), where his dissertation was The Dilemma of Historical Relativity and Revelation: An Analysis of the Theology of Ernst Troeltsch. While at the University of Chicago, Williamson was Paul Tillich's assistant for Volume III of Tillich's renowned Systematic Theology. Tillich referred to Williamson as “my Englisher.” In Chicago, Williamson served as assistant dean of Disciples Divinity House and as interim minister of University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In 1966, he was called to teach theology at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Appointed full Professor at an early age, he was the first to hold the Indiana Chair of Christian Thought and served as Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, retiring in 2002. He has also been visiting professor at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches and at Claremont School of Theology. Transylvania University honored him with the Distinguished Achievement Award (2002) and with the D.D. (honoris causa) (2005). Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago named him Alumnus of the Year (2015).

A Church Theology[edit]

Williamson does theology for the sake of the church. While he participates fully in the academy, Williamson is profoundly concerned for the church to develop an adequate understanding of God which will then animate the life and witness of the church. “The purpose of Christian theology is to bring the church to self-understanding and self-criticism.”[1] Williamson distinguishes between the church and the theologian as follows: “The task of the church is to make the Christian witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ; the task of the theologian is to criticize the way in which the church makes its witness.”[2] In this context, criticism is a constructive act that identifies both appropriate and inappropriate aspects of Christian witness so that the church move away from the latter and towards the former. Williamson acknowledges that making and criticizing the Christian witness are not discreet categories but are matters of emphasis. In a vital relationship between theology and church, theology helps the church formulate its deepest convictions in ways that are appropriate to tradition and contemporary sensibility so that the church make a faithful witness in both word and deed. Theology seeks for the church to make a witness that is credible and coherent.

Conversational Approach[edit]

Clark Williamson laments that the church has often taken an authoritarian attitude by regarding itself as the only source of truth. Indeed, during certain periods in Christian history, the church, sometimes allied with the state, enforced its positions in public life. This approach sought to silence others. By contrast, Williamson asserts, “A good idea is a good idea, no matter its source.”[3] Hence, Williamson does theology in a conversational way. In conversation, the church listens to others with an ear towards what the church might learn from others so the church can then reinterpret aspects of its message and mission. Williamson stresses that the church must listen to others whose voices have often been minimized or even silenced.

Conversation is ongoing because, as Williamson says, “Each new context presents to us new questions and challenges, challenges to which the church must respond with answers that are appropriate to the Christian faith and adequate to the situation.” [4]The church needs continually to rethink its theology and witness in light of new contexts and fresh perspectives. However, as Williamson notes, this approach “does not mean that a conversational theology never disagrees with another viewpoint. It means, rather, that the grounds for disagreement can only be reached after we can fairly be said to understand those with whom we disagree”[5] (Way of Blessing/Way of Life, 4). The goal of the conversation is to become as clear as possible about what the church affirms—and what the church rejects.

In Way of Blessing/Way of Life; A Christian Theology, Williamson's prime conversation partners are the school of process philosophy flowing from the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, the theology of Paul Tillich, rethinking the Christian faith in in the aftermath of the Shoah (post-Shoah theology), narrative theology (in which he sees some promise and peril), and feminist theology. Williamson also engages people of color, the LGBTQAI community, people from other religions and other cultures, and others whose voices have been excluded from the conversation.

Williamson notes that his own contributions are part of the larger ongoing theological conversation. His approach “is in no sense under the illusion that the answers here put into play in the conversation will be widely accepted or hold good for all time. It is simply an attempt to contribute to the conversation and, in so doing, to help keep it going.”[6]

Neo-Process Theology[edit]

Williamson began his formal theological thinking as a Tillichian. Tillich's work remains a conversation partner. For Tillich, God is the ground of all being. However, Williamson became restive with the concept that “God is being itself” (Deus esst esse ipsum). True to his own axiom of reflecting critically on all ideas, Williamson struggled with the tension between the Christian claim that God acts (that is, that God does things) and the notion of God as being-itself. Williamson concluded, “It is hard to see how ‘being-itself’ can ‘do’ anything.’” In the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne (often called process philosophy/theology, relational theology, or philosophy of organism) Williamson found a way forward. For process theologians, God is not only the power of all being, but is also an entity who can act.

The extent of divine power, however, is a crucial matter for Williamson. In process thought God does not have the power to intervene directly in history to change the course of events by massive demonstrations of power, but is constantly present as lure towards elements of the created world living together in mutual solidarity and support, a notion that Williamson identifies with the Jewish and Christian concept of “blessing.” God's purposes of blessing come about in the world when human beings (and elements of nature) participate in God's purposes in a divine-human partnership.  Many students in his classes have witnessed a dramatic moment when Clark Williamson points out the window of the seminary classroom towards a section of the city that is impoverished and asks, “Can God make a peanut butter sandwich for the people who are hungry there?”

Human actions—and the actions of other entities—affect God. Williamson contrasts the Unmoved Mover God of certain strands of philosophy and theology with the God the Bible whom Williamson characterizes as “the Most Moved Mover.” Williamson often cites Whitehead in this regard. “God is the great companion—the fellow sufferer who understands.”[7]

Williamson is not, however, a doctrinaire process thinker. He acknowledges that many themes once distinctive of process conceptuality are now found in many other thinkers. As noted, he draws on good ideas whatever their source. And he departs from some typical perceptions of process theologians, especially with regard to the doctrines of creation out of nothing, and the trinity. Williamson now refers to his approach as “neo-process theology.”

Post-Shoah Theology[edit]

One of Williamson's greatest contributions comes in the arena of post-Shoah theology. He was one of the first Christian theologians to recognize the adversus Judaeos ideology as an almost constant element in Christian tradition from the biblical period to today. In anti-Jewish ways of thinking, “Jews and Judaism serve as images of everything bad in religion.”[8] Christians often depict Jewish people, institutions, practices and scriptures as legalistic, narrow, rigid, pointing towards works righteousness, exclusive, and as Christ-killers. In this matrix of thought, Christianity supersedes or displaces Judaism, which is no longer regarded as a legitimate religion. Williamson laments that Christians who manifest these attitudes not only use them as a lens for reading anti-Judaism into all aspects of Christian doctrine but often translate such perceptions into anti-Jewish actions, culminating in the Shoah.

Clark Williamson joins others in critiquing anti-Judaism on historical, theological, and ethical grounds, and in seeking to reformulate Christian faith from the perspective of continuity (rather than discontinuity) with Judaism. He reconstructs the typical Christian view of the history of relationships between Judaism and Christianity, most notably, the positive attitudes towards Judaism in the historical Jesus and Paul, and stresses that many Jews and Christians had positive relationships into the fourth century. He highlights the continuity of theological themes between the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, and the Gospels and Letters. For example, God promised Abram and Sarai that through them all human families would be blessed. In Williamson's view, Jesus Christ is a means whereby gentiles come to share in this blessing of the God of Israel.

We gentiles must understand that historically we come into consciousness of our relationship with God through the event of Jesus Christ. Jesus is Christ to us because, apart from Jesus, we were also apart from God, strangers to the covenant, and the promises. Jews knew of God before Jesus came along. We did not. Hence, for us, it is true that all who have Jesus Christ as Lord have God as [God]. To have Jesus Christ as our Lord is existentially the same as knowing God. This God is the covenant God of Israel . . . .[9]

When the church engages in serious conversation with the Jewish community, the church learns from Judaism the meaning of love, grace, covenant, faith, and how to live in the way of blessing. The church violates its deepest ethical values when it behaves in anti-Jewish ways.

Clark Williamson has been active for forty years not only in thinking about the relationship of Judaism and Christianity but in actively engaging in Jewish-Christian relationships. Williamson is instrumental in shifting Christian perception from seeing itself having a mission to the Jewish community to perceiving itself seeking the mutual witness the two communities can make in a context of critical solidarity.[10]

Distinctive Expression of the Gospel and  Theological Criteria[edit]

Williamson formulates the gospel, his deepest conviction about God's purposes, in line with “the axioms of canonical hermeneutics.” These axioms are “the promise of the love of God graciously offered to each and all [note: the elements of nature included], and the command of God that we love God in return with all our selves and our neighbors (all our neighbors) as ourselves.” Williamson expands, “Love for the neighbor implies justice to the neighbor, lest love become the formal and empty sentimentality to which it has often degenerated in Christian history.”[11] The gospel is described, then,  not as a circle with one center, but as an ellipse, a closed arc with two centers: the promise of the love of God for each and all, and the command of God to love our neighbors (and hence to be in solidarity with our neighbors for justice).

Williamson articulates three distinctive theological criteria, summarized the acronym AIM: appropriateness, intelligibility, and moral plausibility.

  1. Appropriateness to the gospel. By the gospel, Williamson includes two points, “the promise of God lovingly offered to each and all and the command of God that justice be done to each and all,.”[12] This dipolar gospel is theocentric. In Williamson's view, the natural world (matters of ecology) are included in our neighbors.
  2. Intelligibility. By intelligibility, Williamson means intellectually credible or making sense. “By ‘making sense,’ I mean simply saying what we mean by what we say, and giving reasons for what is worthy of being accepted.”[13] Intelligibility insists on a “coherent ordering of life,” that is, on consistency among the various things we believe and among our thoughts and actions.[14]
  3. Moral plausibility. By moral plausibility, Williamson simply means making explicit the moral outcome of the gospel in social life. “Love for the neighbor implies and requires justice to the neighbor.”[15]

The church can use these criteria to evaluate any idea or action to determine the degree to which it is acceptable in the Christian community. In conversation, that church can ask of any biblical text, any doctrinal formulation, any church policy, “Is it appropriate to the God's love for us? Does it make sense in view of our worldview and context? Is it morally plausible, that is, does it encourage love for everyone involved? The church can—and should—also apply these criteria to things outside the church—e.g. ideas, social structures, economic realities, government policy.

Bibliography[edit]

Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary, with Ronald J. Allen (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007).

Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law: A Lectionary Commentary with Ronald J. Allen (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary, with Ronald J. Allen.  (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004).

Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999).

The Vital Church, with Ronald J. Allen (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998).

Adventures of the Spirit: A Guide to Worship from the Perspective of Process Theology, with Ronald J. Allen (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997).

A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).

The Church and the Jewish People, ed. (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1994).

A Mutual Witness: Toward Critical Solidarity Between Jews and Christians, ed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1992).

A Credible and Timely Word: Process Theology and Preaching, with Ronald J. Allen (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1991).

The Teaching Minister, with Ronald J. Allen (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991).

Interpreting Difficult Texts: Anti-Judaism and Christian Preaching, with Ronald J. Allen (London: SCM and Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1989).

When Jews and Christians Meet: A Guide for Christian Preaching and Teaching (St. Louis: CBP, 1989).

Baptism: Embodiment of the Gospel (St. Louis: CBP, 1987).

Has God Rejected His People? Anti-Judaism in the Christian Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982).

God is Never Absent (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1977).

Editor, Encounter, 1968-1998

References[edit]

[1] Clark M. Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology, Westminster John Knox, 1993, vii

[2] Ibid. 21

[3] Clark M. Williamson, Way of Blessing/Way of Life: A Christian Theology, Chalice Press, 1999, 5

[4] Ibid. 4

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 5

[7] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected edition by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, The Free Press, 1978, 351

[8] Clark M. Williamson and Ronald J. Allen, Interpreting Difficult Texts: Anti-Judaism and Christian Preaching. Trinity Press International, 1989, 2

[9] Clark M. Williamson, Has God Rejected His People: Anti-Judaism and the Christian Church, Abingdon, 1982, 61

[10] See especially Clark M. Williamson, editor, A Mutual Witness: Toward Critical Solidarity Between Jews and Christians, Chalice Press, 1991 and When Jews and Christians Meet: A Guide for Preaching and Teaching, CBP Press, 1989

[11] Way of Blessing/Way of Life 81. Williamson's emphasis.

[12] Ibid. 82

[13] Ibid. 86

[14] Ibid. 88

[15] Ibid. 81


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