University of Southern California

Center for Religion & Civic Culture

L.A. Theology Reaching for the Transcendent

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By Jason S. Sexton (Photo by Moby / www.Moby.com)

As the ominous, deep purple smoke plume rose from the drought-parched Glendora hills, drifting across the orange and blue sunrise over the San Bernadino mountains on a crisp January morning, theologians in Pasadena prepared discuss the age-old Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The world knows Los Angeles has its problems. If it’s not water, earthquakes, brush fires and other issues with the environment, it’s issues among our people—violence, incarceration, conflicts over immigration and the challenges of fiscal stability and growth, which were recently addressed by the Los Angeles 2020 Commission’s report, “A Time for Truth.” All these complexities make Los Angeles one of the most difficult American cities to govern.

Yet the problems revealed by shattered dreams—when fantasies of utopia yield to hard, dystopian realities—often give birth to something new. Like forest fires, which cleanse the earth to allow new vegetation to develop and flourish, the dream turned nightmare often reveals fresh opportunities in the light of day. In his recent article titled “The First City of the Apocalypse,” Moby made this observation about Los Angeles: “Experimentation and a grudging familiarity with occasional failure are part of L.A.’s ethos.”

The experience of failure is arguably a common feature of many of L.A.’s array of religious movements, which often didn’t develop a sense of solidarity, coherence of expression or (dare I say) marketability until they took root here. Well-known for the role it has played in the shaping of global religions, Angeleno spirituality has been marked by hype, media sensationalism and raw charisma. What has often been lacking here is thoughtful, comprehensive theological reflection about the place. This is what the TECC Project has begun to do by encouraging inter-institutional, interdisciplinary theological reflections on California’s distinctive cultural expressions and phenomena, some of which are captured in the volume, Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture.

Theology as an academic discipline—or, better, as a mode of thought in its own right—does not deal merely with reflection on religious expression, the meaning of the mundane or the encounter between faith and culture. It also poses its own internal questions regarding the transcendent, the nature of reality and the existential fallout from the claim to have encountered the divine, who exists in a basic ulterior, a se relation to the material universe, altogether unlike anything we could dream of.

And how appropriate that the big nowhere, the city without a center, the postapocalyptic metropolis should be the place where theologians converge each January to reflect afresh on the big questions at the heart of these topics. Rather than chasing cultural trends, this is precisely what theology is primarily about—tuning hearts to sing of grace somehow anchored in the highest ceiling. And L.A. is precisely the place that theology ought to be done.

The second annual L.A. Theology conference, which spanned two days in January below a smoky horizon and a dry rain of ash, drew scholars from some of the leading British and North American universities and represented a range of traditions (Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Unitarian, etc.) and disciplines (analytic philosophy, traditional systematic theology, musicology). Missing from the mix were theologians from major Californian universities, where theology remains largely in exile.

But surprising to some is the fact that this ecumenical effort is being led by Zondervan, a traditional Evangelical publishing house, along with Biola scholar Fred Sanders and Fuller Seminary professor Oliver Crisp, who together have invited those from the wider Christian tradition to reflect together on Christianity’s major themes. This trend coincides with what Richard Flory identifies as one of the traits of Evangelicalism’s evolution, in this case finding Catholics, Evangelicals and other Protestants convening to discuss not merely social action but the core of each group’s theological understanding of the ultimate. In a suburban corner of a global city, these thinkers are reaching for something ancient, subversive and inspiring, resources that Angelenos are certain to need in the disaster that D. J. Waldie worries will come after the fire.

It’s just like L.A. to invite the world to its stage to think anew about the biggest topics of spiritual and intellectual discourse. And it’s just like Angelenos, denizens of the city of angels, to explore areas of new possibility, hope and the transcendent at times when California could use some help from under-explored sources. As they reach for the transcendent here in the postapocalyptic city, they just may indeed find it.