A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

“California, Localized Theology, and Theological Localism”

Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California's Culture, eds Jason Sexton and Fred Sanders (Ashgate, 2014), 19-33

Wallace Stegner once said, “Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic—only more so.” As California becomes increasingly self-conscious as a social and political entity, an academic conversation is beginning to take place among historians, political scientists, literary scholars, and others interested in describing this vast place. “California Studies” is now, as they say, a thing. It has classes, courses of study, academic conferences, a journal, and in the inevitable logic of academia, it will no doubt have majors and graduate degrees before long. In this interdisciplinary conversation, theologians have not been prominent so far. As a result, the conversation has lacked a depth and seriousness which theological categories could provide. If theology is a real intellectual discipline, in touch with reality, it ought (at the very least) to be able to find true, interesting, and enlightening things to say in this public dialogue. But before theologians can contribute to the dialogue, they need to: first, know the Californian dialect: second, clarify their own properly theological reasons for involvement: and third, consider helpful methods from more established disciplines. This chapter will attempt to enact the first (showing mastery of the Californian dialect by working with recognizably Californian sources), pursue the second (explaining theological reasons for theological engagement in the first main section of the paper), and give one extended example of the third, scouting the accomplishments of the critical quest to define California’s literary regionalism.

In the first main section of the chapter, I distinguish between the theological method of correlation on the one hand, which would take culture as either a norm or source for theology, and programmatic apologetics on the other hand, which investigates the culture in order to communicate its message most effectively. The present movement toward developing theological localism is a third thing, an attempt to be aware and self-critical about place, location, and situation. While rejecting correlationism, theological localism attempts to take into account the fact that theological thinking is embedded in the very cultural forms it addresses. It also recognizes that, within the bounds of orthodoxy, a laudable diversity of equally legitimate local theologies have developed elsewhere throughout Christian history, and envisions such possibilities for California…