Transformative Theologizing

Theologizing is an ongoing, transforming process in the world..

[1] In the 1970s, I decided to work on a Ph.D. in Theology, even though my interests were pulling me into Ethics. Back then, Lutheran Ethics was seen by many as an oxymoron; Lutherans believe “God does it all; we don’t.” Because I wanted to be a “real” theologian, I began with theology, but what really tugged at me were the social/ethical issues of the time.   The conjunction was key: my first teaching position was in “Church and Society” and in the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Besides directing the theological unit, my chair was in “Church and Social Issues.” The assumption operating in both cases was that the church and its theology were somehow given, static, and separate from ever-changing society or social issues; hence there was the need that they be brought together.

[2] Inspired by various liberation theologies that were emerging in the 1970s that were especially focused on those who have been marginalized (people of African and/or Latin American descent, women, etc.) and inspired by what I observed while pastoring mainly working-class congregations, I decided to bring my insights together for my doctoral dissertation on the theological understanding and response to white working-class realities.  I realize now that this was the beginning of moving from static theology to dynamic theologizing.  Rather than simply applying theological formulations of the past, these formulations needed to be re-interpreted to be applied in new ways if they were to be redemptive (or transformative) for working-class folks in bondage in a given historical context.  “Class” had been an overlooked reality then and still is now — which is why many are succumbing to right wing appeals.

[3] In the early 1980s, while teaching a public theology course at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, inspired by much that was occurring as liberation theologies emerged, I developed a theological method chart. It began with asking (step 1) “What’s going on with folks?,” (step 2) “Why is it like this?,” (step 3) “What is Good News in relation to this reality,” and finally (step 4) “What needs to be done differently in light of this?”  As I was reminded by one of my mentors, Dorothee Soelle, the fourth step – action/praxis — reveals new realities or tensions that themselves call for further theological reflection, especially as we interact with those who are different from ourselves.  New challenges and tensions arise, which themselves provoke further theologizing. Thus, step four is not the end; this leads into further and unending theologizing.

[4] In my years with the Lutheran World Federation, I realized how few from the G

lobal South thought of themselves as “theologians,” choosing instead to do “biblical studies” or “pastoral care.” “Theology” may have been just too intimidating, associated with what Europeans had refined over centuries. Theology was experienced as abstract, elitist, static, not in touch with what people were actually facing in daily life.  In teaching an online course, when U.S.-based students complained about the economic realities they were facing, the head of an African seminary replied that he had not even been paid for many months.  Funding for practical projects was and still is far more popular than for “theological studies.” Theology can become only rhetoric or allegiance to a given tradition, especially to gain funding, whether from local, national or global sources. Of what concrete, earthly good is theology?

[5] Increasingly, today, studies in diakonia and theology are combined.  For many, theology mostly impels the real action of practical action in the world.  That real action is what matters, and indeed, it is. But the ongoing need to theologize in light of what is occurring in practice is usually overlooked.   Theology becomes the motivating force, a send-off or point of departure.  This is important, but not sufficient.  It is the theologizing that occurs in light of praxis that matters.

[6] In highly secular societies, such as where I now live, people still glaze over when I state I am a theologian. Theology is even more increasingly marginalized, considered quaint, of a bygone era. It often is associated with doctrine, and is rooted there, but too often it becomes static or is felt as doctrinaire or judging. Many people claim to be “spiritual” (meaning other-worldly and free floating) but are not connected with religious institutions. These religious institutions have experienced significant declines in recent years. They often are associated popularly with the status quo rather than with justice-seeking agendas and movements in the world.  There is a considerable amount of skepticism regarding religion, especially given how much negative attention it is getting in the media.  Many ask, can there be any earthly good associated with religion today?

[7] However, as Kelly Brown Douglas stated in a webinar on Jan. 6 2022, “theology does matter.”[1]  In a January, 2022 article, Serene Jones explained,  “Far-right Christianity is a sickness that will continue plaguing our politics and will ultimately kill our democracy if not immediately, urgently challenged. Silence or passive liberal head-shaking is not enough. A devastating theological crisis is upon us now. Faith leaders must speak up, loudly, for equality and true justice and to expose the deadly lies of those who use theology for destruction.”[2]

[8] Historical examples of what religion has done, or been used for, only reinforce the popular impression of “religion.”  Many now reject religion as having any earthly good. Too often religion has been a dividing force throughout history. This includes the repeated colonization of those thought of as “other,” crusades against those of another religion, supremacy of Christians over others, and various expressions and practices of empire. Many have analyzed and decried such. Recently some have raised up what Jesus did to cross boundaries of culture, gender, racial constructs, nationality, and religion. But more often, religion is too mis-used and weaponized by the “Christian Right” (or other religions in other countries).  Too often it is being used for nationalist political agendas.

[9] I propose that rather than referring to “theology” as a fixed noun, theologizing is an ongoing process of what God is doing. This is not only contextual but also actually transformative of what is. Theologizing has the power to change (transform) what is unjust and systemic in societies, with a much different worldview that what has become dominant.  Enacting another worldview than what currently is reigning and dominating is what theologizing does. It does this not in a stand-apart, static way, but in ways that are collaborative with what actually is occurring here and now. This is theologizing.


[10] Transformative theologizing requires knowing theological traditions well – through biblical, historical and other studies.  This means finding what is key in them, but also going deeper so as to draw from them in creative ways in ever new situations. Theologizing is not static or unchanging but ongoing.

[11] The biblical account of the Magnificat in Luke (1:46ff) has emphasized Mary’s low estate and humbleness, and her praise of what God has done.  However, in recent years, what has been emphasized are verses 52-54 — how God has brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly, in other words, the revolutionary acts of resisting and turning over oppressive rule. This is exemplified in the “Canticle of the Turning,” which is an example of transformative theologizing.  It involves looking again at traditional texts, which today speak with new urgency about the challenging contexts we face today, and have not been sufficiently emphasized in centuries of doctrinal imposition.  The text has been de-politicized to make it more acceptable to established order, and especially to keep women submissive.  In the Magnificat the whole being of Mary is emphasized. The Word is not passive but enacts an alternative vision and power.

[12] Whereas “theology” can be seen as an unchanging set of doctrines —a noun,  “theologizing,” a verb, is an ongoing process of what is Good News here and how. It continues to change with and reflects on praxis. This does not mean that all is up for grabs.  There is a core that does not change with circumstances – a grammar bordered by grace, love of neighbor, the cross, etc, that must be deeply learned if it is to be applied in ever new situations – that are “recoded and rewired within new semantic fields.” [3]

[13] I wrote some years ago that the value of theology is in terms of the questions it raises, and the new spaces it open up for confessing and living out the faith in current contexts…. Renewal in theology, worship and church life does not simply mean going back to “tradition,” but it involves retrieving, revising, recasting or transfiguring what has been received.  ….How to think and write theologically, rather than only repeating answers others provide, is a skill or art that urgently needs to be developed through more appropriate methodologies and pedagogies.”[4] I now am referring to this as theologizing.

[14] Those with this creative spirit often leave congregations, and turn to other vocations or expressions that are more artistic and less pedantic for communicating what faith involves.  They often express what theologizing is about.  Many of the issues and challenges we face today were not obviously present in biblical times, or since then,  so what is communicated through theologizing is new or different from what was expressed then. New meanings or connections are made. Yet these are rooted in the grammar of the faith as expressed through a theological tradition. We need to open our congregations to these theologizers.


[15] For many years, missionaries and others have been contextualizing by drawing upon stories, images and practices from the hosting culture. This has been a crucial and important development.

[16] However, contextualization can also result in maintaining certain aspects of a culture that is contrary to how Jesus and the early church embodied power.  I experienced this in Africa when a retired missionary suddenly appeared and tried to convince participants in a conference on ordaining women that women could not exercise power over men for “cultural reasons,” even though in that culture women leaders had long been doing so. “Contextualization” can become an excuse or barrier to change.  Too often this is religiously enforced.

[17] Even Christmas has been contextualized.  Jesus probably was not born in December and certainly was not born in snowy weather.  Romans used Christmas to replace Saturnalia festivities. Northern Europeans contextualized this holiday to fit their solstice celebrations.   Of course, the traditional European context for Christmas celebration is quite foreign in the global South.  Yet, in some places the carols and traditions of Europe have spread there even so.

[18]  The point is that theology and theological traditions have always been contextual. I realized this again while at a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Council meeting in 2002 in Wittenberg Germany. Those from throughout the world realized how what the Reformation arose 500 years ago out of that context of 16th century Germany.  However, what was imprisoning people then and there, may not be the lock that is imprisoning people today.

[19] Contextualization has been pivotal in how it has changed so much of theology.  Theologians are realizing that all theology is or should be viewed as contextual.  In my first teaching position in the early 80s, seminary studies began by raising up theology from Black, Latino, feminist and other perspectives – not from a normative one-size-fits-all core. This has spread around the world, where contextualization has now become what is expected, but usually is not carried out beyond this.

[20] Most of the time, efforts are made to name and analyze a context accurately, drawing from the social sciences and various other disciplines. But even then the explicitly un-examined theological answer tends to be plugged in, in automatic un-examined ways.

[21] For example, “grace” may be what is needed in any context, but how is this concept explained, unpacked, and realized?   Does it only impact individual persons or does it have wider societal impacts? This question may seem to be too political or controversial and thus to be avoided. After all, most teachers and preachers want to be liked; they don’t like to provoke as prophets often do. But not asking this question may lead to theology and churches increasingly becoming irrelevant and anemic in speaking to the real crises at hand.

A Few Specific Theologizing Points


[22] Over 30 years ago, I brought my commitment to liberating theologizing to realities facing the working class in my dissertation and book, The Dream Betrayed.  During that era, James Davison Hunter analyzed the cultural wars that were brewing, but often overlooked the importance of class. The reality of the impact of class has become even more apparent today.

[23] One of the contributing factors to the intense polarization that threatens democratic processes and institutions  is the continual tendency in the U.S. to fail to attend to class.  Paying attention to class requires more than giving the fortunate few a chance, especially through education, to “move up” (and often away) through meritocracy. Class identities and practices remain, as does resentment toward those who are “higher up.”

[24] The challenges we face are the pervasive inequities.   Appropriating more money to solve this systemic problem by providing opportunities for career advancement can be important but is insufficient.   We need more than  classical liberal approaches that rely on the grit of individuals  Many progressives decry the inequalities, but are quite caught themselves in an economic system that weds them to jobs that keep that same system in place.

[25] Urban elites are often characterized as ignoring the realities of working-class and those in rural communities. In truth, many of these people see themselves as having recently escaped their own rural or  working class communities to find themselves in  high-priced urban areas and higher-class jobs. People scorn or look down upon where they have come from.  Others in this class claim to be  utterly confused as they ponder, how could those who are of a different class be so dumb and succumb to what is not in their self-interest. No wonder the  body politic is so polarized!  Urban elites and the politics they generate bear at least part of the responsibility for the polarization. Moreover, in some areas, such as the San Francisco Bay or the Seattle areas, where high-tech dominates, the policies and preferences of wealthy progressives have pushed the cost of housing ever higher, making it unaffordable for many in the working class to live in the neighborhoods where they were raised.

[26] Rural and often working-class folks are increasingly waking up. They are angry because they have not been heard, especially by those ruling over them, and often succumb to right wing appeals.


[27] “Evangelical” is a term that is a part of the ELCA.  Yet it is repeatedly used to  distort what is at the core of Christianity. The term is being used  as a political weapon that polarizes (which it has often tragically done throughout history).  “Evangelical” is, today,  often used to designate those advocating right-wing agendas. Yet the heart of the Christian message is the gospel that liberates persons held in bondage.  The political agenda of so-called “evangelical” Christianity often is used to excuse or reinforce bondage, resulting in various forms of bigotry.  When this occurs, the term “Christian” is being mis-used to reinforce patterns of sexism, racism, and “othering” that are contrary to the core of the Gospels.

[28] When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed over 30 years ago, many wondered what “evangelical” meant.   I was contacted often by media folks who assumed the church must have conservative social positions, because of “evangelical” in its name.  At the time of the 16th century Protestant Reformation those distinguished from Catholics were identified as “evangelical,” which continues as the identification for Lutherans in many places where “Christians” or “evangelicals” are distinguished from Catholics.

[29] Yet, “evangelical” – which often claims to be “spiritual but not political” –  has become known as supportive of political agendas that are in opposition to those on the margins. This betrays what we read in the Gospels of how Jesus actually related to those who were marginalized. He was continually crossing boundaries of what was appropriate – and therein is the Good News for all today.

[30] Those who see at the heart of what gospel means can provide a counter-witness to what evangelical has come to mean. It is the Good News of not fearing the future but embracing those who are different, of crossing boundaries and liberating from bondage. This is usually not associated with “evangelical.” Many are yearning to hear and experience this Good News, so let’s be bolder in doing so.   How might this older, more global sense of “evangelical” be expressed and lived out today?


[31]  Jesus is always the answer.  But, too often,  “Jesus” is devoid of any biblical meaning, used in songs and sermons as an incantation to justify almost anything. When the ELCA was beginning, an esteemed professor said to me, “Liberate us from only focusing on Jesus.” As a biblical scholar he knew quite well that Jesus freed many who were in bondage to culture, tradition and other boundaries and forces.  But this obsession with Jesus — as the only one, ignores how Jesus is one aspect of the Trinity, and tends to distance us from interfaith relations.  For many Christians, Trinity Sunday is mystifying. Yet the relationality and interconnectedness of the Trinity is central to who God is.

[32] Yes, Jesus makes Christianity unique and distinctive. Yes, we worship Jesus because what he said and did reveals God for us.  Yes, as Christians, as we are “united in Christ.”  However, “Christ” through the centuries has been mis-used to exploit or colonize others.  In this sense, the way we use “Jesus Christ” may need to be purged if there is to be genuine relating with those who of a different or no faith. And yet in re-envisioning ways to cross boundaries of faith is what Jesus is about.


[33] In 2017 I posted in my “Here WE Stand” blog: “Rather than captive to untruths, illusions, and false promises that popularly appeal to many, and with policies and practices based on hardness, exclusion and fear, we seek to be faithful to a God of compassion and justice, who brings hope, reconciliation and redemption for all. It is this kind of faith-based vision that contrasts with what currently is reigning, and empowers us to work with others to change unjust realities in this faith kairos.”[5]

[34] Over fifty years ago, many of us began to realize that the worldviews of those dominating and conquering peoples and parts of the created world would not suffice.  Writing about different worldviews, especially of those previously ignored was occurring then.  Many songs then looked toward a new world of justice and peace.  Folk songs sung in the early 70s bring back nostalgic memories. New music has continued and expanded significantly but the overall situations of injustice have not changed significantly in the U.S. and throughout the world.  This injustice has been revealed as significant during the pandemic and during shifting political developments.  Although many academics were writing about different worldviews, many others felt left out of these discussions, resulting in today’s resentments and “cancel culture” cries.  Moreover, while that these other worldviews were discussed, they were rarely enacted.

[35] “Global” has been a positive trend in study, but today “globalization” has become suspect. In the late 60s, I was in the first “global” study group at my college. Spending time in Ethiopia, India, Thailand and Japan, my eyes were opened to much different worldviews than those to which I was accustomed. This has continued throughout my life, including during my time as a director with the Lutheran World Federation when I became even more aware of how people around the world experienced and saw theological and other realities quite differently. Driven especially by colonization and global capitalism, “neoliberal globalization” was experienced and viewed far more negatively than it was then in the U.S.

[36] What began as study calls for passing the baton to those who will not only talk about but actually enact new worldviews.   Furthermore, those activists of the older generations need to support and stand in solidarity with those who are organizing and active today, who often have different analyses and action plans than those some decades ago.  We need to integrate worldviews.

[37] This distinctively theological endeavor  to look to holistic, underlying reality) transforms previous modes of thinking .  Neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” this endeavor is inter-faith – drawing upon age-old traditions and worldviews that may not be considered “religious” and that attract those with no particular religious faith.

[38] Advocacy of different policies for the sake of what furthers the good of all is important, but this needs to be re-framed and connected with or articulated from out of an overall worldview, and not primarily driven by ideological commitments. These especially set “us” against “others”, and often lead to alignments and blockages in which no actual change occurs. Profiting or raising funds from these polarizing tendencies loom large. Countless emails plead us to donate to defeat the other side – “to get them.”

[39] Theologizing involves more than just repeating the same slogans and analyses.  There is a need for new language, narrative and strategies that go beyond what has been.

[40]  As an example, Valarie Kaur, a Sikh, in her book See No Stranger, draws upon much that has been written about nonviolent struggles and her own experiences involving struggle (revolutionary love), as well as her own Sikh tradition.  She speaks of potential opponents not as enemies but as “you are a part of me that I do not yet know.”

[41] A new world, with new cultural expressions – through music, art, film, poetry and dance – and new worldviews is growing.  Former institutions and ideologies are changing.  “Liberal” and “progressive” labels are insufficient.  We need  ways that affirm new-found identities in ever-transforming intersectional, fluid and not rigid ways.  This is what theologizing does. How can these be connected in new ways and result in actual transformative changes today? An example of this was in a recent “American Roots” concert in a state park in WA by a woman from Japan, and a man from Colombia who creatively combined their distinctive music and instruments for a new sound.

[42] Appreciating the worldviews and stories of others is crucial, for the birthing of new movements together. This involves crossing the usual “us” vs. “them” divides. In this sense, the intersectionality of diverse justice struggles can be promising.  With careful listening to others, deep solidarity across forces that divide can allow action together to confront injustice.


[43] Worldviews are sustained and nourished through spirituality.  New worldviews cannot be birthed apart from spirituality.  This is often overlooked as societies become increasingly secularized and often agnostic or atheistic.  Instead, political or cultural positions become absolute “gods” or ends in themselves. No wonder “culture wars” and polarization have increased!

[44] Spirituality is quite different from religion, especially in its institutionalized forms.  Many have left institutionalized religion, such as churches, synagogues, mosques or temples, but they continue to rely on age-old spiritualities.  Under Westernization, this appropriation is usually quite individualistic, not communal – even though it may have been originally — and thus are adopted today in ways consistent with the reign of individualism.  “Pick and choose” for yourself is practiced.

[45] Yet culture and spirituality are intertwined for the majority of peoples around the world.  They simply cannot be addressed separately, because spirituality includes economics, politics, and culture. It is part of the whole.” Spirituality shapes worldviews; they are deeply interconnected.  Being in community with others is how faith is expressed throughout the world.

[46] In our time, fear of syncretism is fading, even though some resist such, and want to return to the supposed purity of how things have been.  An example is organized resistance in some communities to practices of mindfulness, without acknowledging and affirming its Buddhist origins.  Keeping “my” spirituality pure or untainted from that of others is considered essential.

[47] Yet more is involved than blending spiritualities for the sake of lowest common denominators.  Each faith is connected with an overall worldview, which must be recognized and appreciated on its own terms. This may be expressed through dance or other practices. Spiritually-based worldviews — not necessarily religious institutions — are needed. Community is essential, and sustains people in struggles for justice.

[48] Many spiritual traditions have embraced nature, or have sought to heal the split between humans and the rest of nature (animals, plants, etc.). They have adopted past traditions that were branded as pagan or heretical.  The age-old rift with nature is being overcome in many rituals, liturgies and practices, including in churches.  Re-emerging are creation-centered theologies and practices that are embedded in various spiritual traditions that have been overlooked.  Worldviews that seem to be new, but actually are quite old, are increasingly popular.  But there are deep spiritualities behind these worldviews.  An example of this is the deeply-religious country of Ukraine, whose resistance cannot be explained apart from deeply-embedded spiritualities.

[49] Too often humans and the rest of nature are set over and against each other, especially for the sake of what is profitable for some humans, but often to the detriment of the rest of nature (and more vulnerable humans).  A different worldview can overcome separations between us and them. We are inter-connected with the rest of nature. For example, “rights of nature” are emphasized in the tribal court cases of the White Earth Band of the Ojibwe. What is not human has its own “intelligence,” a different worldview. My dog often “tells” me this. We are interconnected together, even with what may seem strange, even foreign to “me.” Hierarchical control or supremacy over nature itself needs to be overcome.  Many writers and movements have advocated such.

[50] This goes against what has characterized so much in Western logic, which is naming everything so that they can be distinguished. Putting all in separate categories, so as to distinguish and rule over them, whether plants, animals, birds or human beings becomes important – naming or categorizing everything. This is a result of this domineering logic.  It is what occurs when human beings are sorted by presumably racial differences, and is at the core of what justifies racism and all kinds of other supremacy, including how nature is dominated and used.  Categorizing legitimates supremacies. It forms a “rational” basis for dominating others, especially when fueled by power.

[51] Yet, focusing on what will serve the common good of local communities crosses many of the divides today, such as all that now divides Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.  The cues and leadership for this need to come from those who previously have been left out, with the rest of us joining together in solidarity with them.   This necessitates collaborating across generations, drawing on the experience and wisdom of those who are older together with those who are younger, and with those who  have been split apart, for the sake of greater justice for all today.


[52] The word “theologizing” is used here because it cannot become fixed or static as “theology” can.  It embraces other worldviews. Theologizing is an ongoing process that is connected with actual practices, and is in dialogue with  others.  It is not the final word; it does not close off conversation, as theology can do. Although it is rooted in some basic, even distinctive, tenets, what these mean will vary depend on contextual challenges.  Theologizing is what should occur in every sermon, in a given time and place.  If theology is only brought in at the end, it often becomes mostly a platitude. The hard work of theologizing is avoided, in the face of contextual challenges confronting us today. In this sense, theologizing is a step beyond but rooted in contextualization.

[53] Theologizing is closely connecting with practices of diakonia – living out the faith that is confessed; implementing  what is confessed, not for the sake of God but for the neighbor — for those in need. Faith-based organizations have done a lot of this, throughout the world, for many years. The focus is not just on beliefs, but on the practicalities of what is needed now and for the sake of the future.  It is reflection on praxis. It leads us to collaborate with those of other faiths, and with civil society.  This can occur through theologizing.


[1] Episcopal Divinity School at Union’s Facebook Live series Just Conversations with Kelly Brown Douglas explored the racialized inequities intrinsic to our nation and our collective responsibility to create a more just future.


[3] Guillermo Hansen, Theology in the Life of the Church, (LWF) Volume 6, p. 26.

[4] Karen Bloomquist, “Lutheran Theology in the Future?” in Theology in the Life of the Church, (LWF) Volume 6,  pp. 193, 196, 204.)


Karen L. Bloomquist

Karen Bloomquist, ordained in 1974, has served as pastor of Lutheran congregations in CA, NYC, WA, and after completing her PhD at Union in NY, has been on faculties in Chicago, Dubuque and Berkeley, as well as director of departments in the ELCA and the LWF.  She also has taught at seminaries throughout the world, and has authored or edited many publications. She currently is a theologian-at-large, and lives in  both WA and CA.