What is love anyway?

All through my PhD I had the same song running through my head. Unless you are a teen-child of the 80s you may not know it, and if you do, it’ll already be playing through your head! Howard Jones, ‘What is love’?


click to go through to youtube for this piece of 80s gold!


‘What is lo o o o o love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?’

It’s the question that arises when relationships turn to shit (excuse the language, but when relationships go this way only extreme language seems adequate). Did he ever love me? Did I make it all up? Is she even capable of love? What the f*&k is love anyway?

Whilst this seems to be an inevitable part of life, it is a problem for Christian theology. For love is inextricably central to theology – as Saint Augustine said, ‘if anyone cannot love God and neighbour-as-self by his understanding of Scripture, then (s)he has not yet understood them correctly.’ If Christian theology cannot be described as loving, then it cannot be Christian! Systematic thinking about God-who-is-love (1 John 4) and the Christ who was sent into the world because of love (John 3), cannot be anything but love, if it is speaking truthfully about its theos.

So, what the heck is a Christian theologian to do, when they are in those moments of life singing Howard Jones into a handkerchief?

This question was the driver behind 4 years of full-time theological research. It resulted in a proposal for understanding the function of the ‘what the f*&k’ stage in the normative human process of change, of growing up. A crisis of love is no cause to give up on love, only an opportunity (painful as it can be) to reassess our assumptions about love. What is love, anyway?

For love cannot be contained by human thinking, not even theological thinking. Love is a concept that cannot ever be fully spoken  or written or imaged or drawn or described by any human means. Poets and artists do the best when they evoke a sense of love which we can feel in our bodies and the centre of our being, remembering the energetic throb of the experience beyond words.

Furthermore, love cannot be contained in any one relationship, connection or context. Love can arise between a parent and child, in friendships, sexually charged relationships, and – I would argue – between a person and material things or ideas and imaginations that they passionate about! We need all of these in our lives and more – just one love is never enough! Many people point out that there is only one word in the English language for love, although it is describing a whole range of different experiences. I think that is an advantage rather than a problem – for love should be understood as a concept that has a family of meanings (Wittgenstein’s family resemblance concept of words) each one displaying a family resemblance but with particular expressions in each instance.

What resulted from my pondering of love as a key concept in Christian theology, and forgive me if this leap is too long here in this instance, is that love requires a great generosity on our part. Each and every time love is evoked, it has the capacity to take us beyond itself, into the heart of the family, toward the fountain of love at its source. Plato suggested that when we reach perplexity of intellectual knowing (aporia) we simply step over the thresh-hold of our limited understanding into a different kind of knowledge, perhaps hidden to scientific rationality, but by no means hidden to the priests and poets (says Plato). We enter into an ‘open-space’ of knowing where it is possible to encounter love – and God – beyond human form.

This gives a Christian theologian enormous freedom in the current climate of cultural change, where the established norms, forms and institutions of love are in radical transition. There is no need to pitch so-called ‘Christian’ forms of love over and against other forms of ‘un-Christian’ love in anxious competition. Neither does this mean the opposite, that because the cultural norms of love are changing, that Christian norms of love must necessarily fall into line! Because most Western Christians think through the frame of reference of the European Enlightenment, we have arranged our understanding of love along a linear spectrum, with a forced binary opposition between two Greek word-labels for love – agape and eros. In its most extreme form the former is exclusively God’s domain and deemed perfect, the latter is the Human realm and unavoidably feeble. This understanding of love was made popular through C.S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves. Academically, the definitive argument is laid out in Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros.

I am now happy to declare that I passionately refute such an arrangement of intellectual thinking about love!

I propose that all human forms of love (which in the first place cannot be reduced to the Greek eros) should be intellectually conceived as an arrangement around a sphere of open-space. There are an infinite number of particular love phenomenons. Each one is an invitation to go further, so open ourselves to the possibility that there is more, and especially that there is more that will never adequately be expressed in words. This is the open-space of both thinking and prayer, where divine love can be encountered beyond the need for form.

Love requires freedom. Freedom requires vulnerability. Vulnerability enables us to suspend judgment on individual expressions of love and enter into an enquiry of the mystery behind and beyond them.









I’m back


Post PhD life!

Well, it’s been a while – and in truth a long road – but I’m back to blog at reddresstheology!

My PhD thesis has been submitted (cue: crowd roar) and I have spare headspace for the first time in 18 months or so. I am now awaiting examination (which will take a couple of months) and getting on to spruking my services and superior Phd intelligence (cue: rolling of eyes)!

So, stay tuned for a return to regular posts from me as I get myself sorted into a new post-PhD life, full to overflowing with exciting adventures.

Oh, and just in case you’re curious as to what I ended up writing about, here is my final thesis abstract. If you find the academic writing incomprehensible you’ve just discovered why I needed to take a break from blogging while I got this thing out of the way!!

Saint Augustine, the founder of Western theological hermeneutics, declared the double-love command of God and neighbour-as-self to be the key to Christian theology (On Christian Doctrine). Love is touted as central to theology, but love has a fluid range of meanings and its expressions are enmeshed within contextually specific forms. How can such a slippery concept form a stable guide for Christian theology, particularly in contexts where the sociocultural forms of love are in transition? 

Transparent Glass Sphere

The key image of my theological hermeneutic is a sphere of open-space.

This thesis develops a theological hermeneutic for contexts of change utilising liminality theory from the discipline of anthropology. First, it outlines the challenges for theologians in these contexts, and second, it directs attention to the theological resources required to negotiate these contexts. Central to liminality theory is a movement of ‘open-space’—a chaotic but creative opportunity where stable sociality falls away in order to be transformed into a new sociality, fit to express the complex relationship between the individual and the universal. By negotiating the cultural open-space via a spiritual open-space of contemplative prayer—an embrace of apophatic strategies for knowing without form and for the refinement of human wisdom—the theologian is equipped with the resources required to love in liminality. This can be translated into a theological method such as Rowan Williams has proposed, for theology as a conversation, where dialectical propositions are held as ‘thresh-holds’ to be traversed into a ‘liminal’ way of knowing, instead of limit-situations that are roadblocks to ‘rational’ knowing. Sarah Coakley’s methodological privileging of contemplation for the transformation of desire is shown to match liminality’s capacity for the transformation of sociality. This ‘contemplative communitas’ affects both an objective and a subjective transformation of theological knowledge.

Re-examining Augustine’s theological hermeneutic of love with these resources in place, it is argued that if love is to be a guide

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

for theology in contexts of cultural change, the conception of love itself must fall into liminality and be re-formed in the crucible of personal spiritual encounter with God-who-is-love. What results is a theological hermeneutic that loves from God, through self, to neighbour in continuous, life-giving connection.





Sarah Coakley Colloquium

downloadable brochure here: Sarah Coakley Colloquim Sarah Coakley Colloquim






















10.30am – 11.00am:    morning tea

11.00am – 12.30pm:   Keynote Address by Sarah Coakley

12.30pm – 1.30pm:    lunch

1.30pm – 2.30pm:      Benjamin Myers

2.30pm – 2.45pm:      afternoon tea

2.45pm – 3.45pm:      Chris Hackett

3.45pm – 4.00pm:      break

4.00pm – 5.00pm:      Teresa Brown



Professor Sarah Coakley (Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge): “Rational Sacrifice: Possibility or Impossibility?”

In this keynote address Sarah Coakley considers the massive resistances that have accrued in the modern period, and especially in the post-WWII era, to the idea of sacrifice as rational, productive or redemptive. Exposing the paradoxes at the heart of Rene Girard’s famous critique of the destructive violence of sacrifice, she turns the philosophical and theological tables back on this thesis in order to argue once more for a cosmological vision of productive sacrifice, one now illuminated afresh by evolutionary theory and made the more urgent by the ecological crisis that threatens human flourishing.


Benjamin Myers (United Theological College, NSW):

“Exegetical Mysticism: Scripture and the Spiritual Senses”

Drawing on the work of Gregory of Nyssa, Sarah Coakley has developed a rigorous contemporary account of the patristic doctrine of the ‘spiritual senses’. According to this doctrine, the soul has its own senses corresponding to the five physical senses. In this paper I explore the roots of the spiritual senses tradition in the work of Origen. For Origen, the ‘senses’ refer not to a wordless or non-thematic mystical experience, but to the spiritual practice of scriptural interpretation. Origen uses extravagant sensuous language to describe the process by which the soul is drawn more deeply into the life of God through the reading of scriptural texts. Based on this analysis of Origen, I consider Coakley’s retrieval of the spiritual senses, and raise some questions about the relation in Coakley’s work between spirituality and scripture, mysticism and exegesis.


W. Chris Hackett (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University):

By the Renewing of your Minds: The Theologian’s Task between Contemplation and Concepts”

The passage from theôria to theory that defines philosophical thinking is fraught with difficulties and provides the itinerary and challenge for a ‘way of life’. In religious-philosophical thinking, the difficulty is made all the more acute.  How does the theologian—defined in the first place as the one who speaks to God—properly speak about God without constructing an idol out of his concepts? We will explore this question in light of Sarah Coakley’s recent work and with special reference to St Paul.


Teresa Brown (School of Theology, Australian Catholic University):

“Reframing Trinitarian Theology: Coakley’s Essay On the Trinity

In this paper we will explore the ways in which Sarah Coakley reframes and reorients key insights from the classical tradition of trinitarian theology to present a theology which speaks to the contemporary Christian, particularly from the perspective of feminist concerns. Focusing on the first volume of her théologie totale, entitled, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, we will critically examine her project in light of the pressing contemporary questions she addresses: How to speak of God and name God in a contemporary, feminist context, and how to live in the world in such a way that we image God the Trinity, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’.

On Christian Doctrine by Saint Augustine of Hippo

As one does, when researching for a PhD in theology, I’ve had to dip into a bit of Augustine this past week!  On Christian Doctrine is a collection of four books from the fourth century Church Father outlining just how it is we get from words from a person’s lips, to true knowledge about God – or, when it comes down to it, about anything!

It’s a little surreal after reading so much twentieth century psycholinguistic theory over the past six months, to come to an ancient writer struggling with essentially the same problems and suggesting eerily similar solutions!  Augustine describes ‘words’ as ‘signs which point to real things’.  Jacques Lacan would say language is a system of Symbols, referring to the Real, through the interpretive framework of the Imagery.  There are differences, of course, and it would be a mistake to conflate such fundamentally different social and philosophical cultures into one.  Besides, it is Augustine that concerns me in this moment.

In book 1, Augustine explores ‘things’ (res in Latin).  Things can be ‘used’ or ‘enjoyed’, but Augustine urges the Christian to use things to enjoy God, and enjoy God alone, for enjoying things of the created order – be they self, another human, an aspect of nature or a human-man thing – is always idolatry.  It’s a description of reality that borrows heavy from Plato and betrays Augustine’s characteristically pessimistic anthropology.

In book 2, Augustine explains what he means by ‘signs’, with a particular focus on words, which he describes as ‘signs’ that point to ‘things’.  Some words are clear or ‘natural’ signs with a direct relationship to the thing, such as smoke is a sign of fire.  Other words are ‘given’ a meaning to their sign, by human beings who are desiring to communicate something of a ‘thing’ which has no material representation which can be plainly known to all by the use of their five senses.  This includes the whole task of theology, love, beauty and pretty much everything else I am interested in communicating about on reddresstheology!  Augustine argues that there is a connection between an actual ‘thing’ and a given ‘sign’, but the meaning of the sign is necessarily constructed through human mediation and hence the opportunity for miscommunication abounds.  Interestingly, he says that because true knowledge of God is held internally in the human person, the scripture is only a tool that God uses to stir up that truth within individual human beings and scripture is, therefore, theoretically unnecessary if God decides to reveal Godself directly to a person’s ‘heart’.

Book 3 suggests strategies for interpreting ambiguous passages in scripture: it’s not rocket science really, but it’s surprising how much we need to be reminded of these simple strategies when we encounter confusion in our understanding of the bible.  First and foremost, Augustine argues, we must work out what is figurative and what is literal.  Common sense says that if the text is nonsense when taken literally, then it must be figurative.  The rule of faith suggests that if all knowledge helps us to love God and our neighbour – if a text taken literally cannot lead us into love, then it must be figurative!  If the text still doesn’t make sense, then we look at context, including the immediate context of the passage within it’s text, the whole canonical context, and the context of ourselves as reader.  Ultimately, there is nothing in scripture which does not lead towards the double love of God and neighbour, so that is the ultimate standard by which all interpretations must abide, for love is the telos, the goal of scripture, just as love is the goal of everything God does, is and communicates to God’s creation!

The final book is about preaching, or the presentation of scripture to a learning community.

I could summarise the whole thing myself, but there’s a new book out from Matthew Levering, offering introductions to his most important works, which is so well written that I’m going to cheat and give you his two succinct paragraph summary of instead.

    In the Prologue of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine responds to “Christians who rejoice to know the Sacred Scriptures without human instruction.”  God could have revealed things directly to each individual human, and in some cases God has revealed himself directly.  But in almost every case, God has required that we learn from others.  Even in speaking to us directly in Jesus Christ, God ensured that we would learn Jesus’ words and deeds from others, who would have to interpret them.  The divinity of Jesus Christ is mediated to us through his humanity, and the biblical signs that testify to him are mediated to us through Israel and the Church.  The guidance of the Holy Spirit does not take away from the profound presence of human mediation and interpretation at the heart of God’s work of salvation.  Why did God choose this way to reveal himself?
Augustine’s answer is that given the needs and capacities of fallen human nature, God reveals himself through signs so as to train us in love.  Since we must learn about God through signs that have been given in history, we can come to God only within the community of wisdom and love built up by Christ and the Holy Spirit.  To learn from Christ in the Church means to learn how to move from sign to thing, so as to cleave in love to the unseen God who is revealed through signs.  those whose task it is to interpret Scripture for others must employ its signs for the purpose of leading others to love of God and neighbor.  This purpose does not mean abandoning the liberal arts or the methods of persuasive public speaking.  But it does mean redirecting such learning towards the goal of Christian wisdom.  If such a redirection is to succeed, Christian interpreters must not become puffed up by their learning and must practice what they preach.  In the school that is the Church, the labor of learning and teaching is at the service of the love of God and neighbor.

If you’ve been reading reddresstheology for a while and know something about my PhD topic – Love as Revelation – you will probably have seen the connections with that project: love is not just the what of Christian teaching, it is also the how, why, when and where.  However, what has struck me even more reading On Christian Doctrine at this time, is it’s relevance to Christians engaged in a conversation about the scriptural teaching on diverge gender and sexualities.

A productive conversation about sex and scripture fundamentally relies on a prior conversation about the conversation.  How do we read scripture in the midst of this difficult conversation with multiple commitments, complex emotions and shifting philosophical foundations for reasoning from texts?  Each individual in the conversation has an interpretive framework – whether they acknowledge it or not – which may or may not be a compatible with the interpretive framework of their conversation partner.  In stable societies and cultures individuals can assume a certain level of functional similarities across members of the same community, but his ceases to be the case during times of epoch transition that we are currently living through.

Why does Augustine help in this context?  Because he reminds us to focus on what is clear, before we focus on what is ambiguous.  What is crystal clear in scripture is the dual commandment to love God and neighbour.

“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” (1.36.40)

This is a pretty indisputable starting point for Christians in disagreement as to how to read scripture:  can we agree that any interpretation we propose must pass a simple test?  It must be shown to have an outcome in reason and experience that can be described as loving.  It must promote love of God and love of neighbour.  If we agree to this hermeneutical principle, we can discuss how different interpretations of the text might best promote this higher, clearer goal of double love.

Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction by Karen Kilby

(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.; 2012)

This is easily the best introduction to von Balthasar that I’ve read.  Even better, there are two, 20 minute youtube clips with Karen talking through much of the key elements of the book!

part one

part two

The first thing to note is the very reassuring assertion that von Balthasar is a difficult theologian to get one’s head around: phew!  I wasn’t going crazy after all!  It’s not that his work is difficult to read, but rather there is so much of it, laid out primarily as persuasive writing rather than systematics, so it takes a lot of work to get a sense of the whole accurate enough to commence critical reflection.  Hence, many readers of von Balthasar tend to be uncritically embracing or uncompromisingly rejecting of him as a theologian.

Kilby starts her introductory navigation of von Balthasar by offering a context for reading his work which, I concur, is critical because there is much that is unique about his life underwritten in his theology.  First, he embraces the challenges of post-war Europe, with its wave of new thinking and being.  It is an era negotiating the collapse of Enlightenment optimism and the emergence of existentialism together with the global economy.  It is also an era of massive institutional change – both secular and sacred.

Second, he was undoubtedly a brilliant man – a concert standard pianist with a brilliant memory; he devoured music, literature and theology in German, French and Latin, translating and publishing many of his favourite works.  Not only this, was a creative, entrepreneurial man and a free thinker: he created ‘new’ pathways of theology and philosophy by synthesising the extensive resources he had at his disposal.  Like any genius, I suggest that von Balthasar begins an epoch changing work rather than handing over a completed thesis, because such significant work can never to achieved in isolation.

Third, Kilby draws our attention to three relationships von Balthasar had which exerted a significant impact on his writing: with Henri de Lubac, Karl Barth and Adrienne von Speyer.  De Lubac situates von Balthasar as part of the ‘new theology’ (nouveau theologie) movement of the second half of the twentieth century which focussed on returning to early church fathers (ressourcement). His relationship with Barth draws our attention to von Balthasar’s engagement with theology and philosophy beyond his own Catholic house.  Von Speyer, whom von Balthasar spoke of as his equal partner in the theological task, reminds us of his deep commitment to theology as spiritual experience.  This relationship with von Speyer however, was exceedingly complex and justifiably controversial.

In the next two chapters, Kilby offers us central images which permeate von Balthasar’s writings.  They are not a ‘key’ as such, like ‘the Word’ might be spoken of as the key to Barth’s writings, but they are ways of conceiving and articulating reality which von Balthasar returns to again and again.  The first of these chapters explores the complementary images of ‘The Picture and The Play’; seen most clearly in his conception of a theological aesthetics and theo-drama.

Secondly, ‘Fulfilment and the Circle’ are images not quite so straightforward to identify but no less significant.  Kilby is referring to von Balthasar’s habit of arguing: on the one hand this, on the other hand that, but now this.  I think this is more of a Hegelian indebtedness than Kilby emphasises in this volume, but that does not discount the truth of her claim, that this is a way in which von Balthasar’s supreme intellectual arrogance – something most brilliant thinkers seem to share – gets the better of him.  It ends up reading like: ‘at first theologians thought this, then they thought this, but now I’ll tell you the whole picture: this is how it really works!’

Similarly, von Balthasar’s confidence is expressed in the declaration of a ‘kernel’ of truth, a centre, the core from which many other insights and truths radiate out of or in towards.  Kilby describes this as like a child’s drawing of a sun; a circle with lines of sun-rays drawn outwards at various angles and extensions.  Aspects of ‘truth’ point towards a whole (because they emanate out from the whole) and very often we know only the individual lines.  But if we follow them we eventually arrive at the kernel, that which is wholly true.  This is an image which reflects something of my own emerging theological method, if the centre piece is left free and untameable.  However, Kilby convincingly argues that von Balthasar fails to refrain from naming the unnamable.  That is, he claims to know too much, even though his very own theological model directs him to do otherwise.

Von Balthasar’s inflated ego ends up infiltrating the content of his theology.  Hence, as Kilby presents von Balthasar’s ideas on the Trinity and on Nuptual Theology in the fifth and sixth chapters of this introduction, we begin to see there there is an element of over-reaching in his theological conceptualisions.  For example, the cross is a Trinitarian event – von Balthasar articulates the relational nature of the godhead beautifully, but when he starts to explain how that makes The Father (in this instance) feminine in relation to Christ, we really do need to suggest he has overcooked the dish! Unfortunately, if we are to follow in the footsteps of von Balthasar, it needs to be a case of taking from what he says, when it comes to theological method, rather than what he does.

For those of you who want to engage deeply with von Balthasar, I highly recommend Karen Kilby as a starting point.  She is both succinct and balanced, making her very easy to read, which this excerpt – the final three paragraphs of Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction demonstrate.  I agree with her up till the last point: I do think that von Balthasar has something to teach us about how to be a theologian, but not as a guru.  Rather, we can learn from him as a supreme example of doing theology in a particular way, (integrating spiritual experience, rational thought and faithfully reading and referring to the Tradition, both scripture and church from the centuries) but like all of us, he is flawed and his insights are partial.

     Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology has over the past few decades attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, and he has come more and more to be presented as a major theological guide for our time.  If the argument of this book is correct, then one must conclude, first, that the attention he has been given has indeed been justified, but second, that the notion that he might be a great guide, something like a Church Father for our age, has not.

The scholarly interest that Balthasar’s writings have provoked is amply justified by the rich creativity of his thought.  His writings break in many ways with our familiar theological categories; often he points towards fascinating new possibilities.  We have not come to the end of exploring what his work makes possible, of receiving what he has to give, of thinking through where the lines of thought he begins should lead.  Attention to Balthasar needs to continue.  But, if I am right, it should be combined with a certain wariness, a readiness to question him, to wonder how he knows what he seems to know, to ask where he stands so that he can tell us what he wants to tell us.

A recurring theme in Balthasar’s work, as we have seen, is the relation of the whole to the part, the whole to the fragment.  In essence what I am proposing in this book is that Balthasar in fragments is important and worth pursuing, for there is much to learn from, to borrow, to think about, to develop.  But when one tries to follow Balthasar as a whole, to treat him as one’s theological guide, as a contemporary Church Father, then he in fact becomes dangerous.  If there is much to learn from Balthasar, the one thing in my view one ought not to learn from him is how to be a theologian.

New Catholic Feminism by Tina Beattie

Beattie, Tina,  New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routlege; London, 2006)

I met Tina Beattie recently, when attending the annual conference of the Mystical Theology UK Network in Dublin.  She is my kind of woman, complete with red patent leather heels to present a kick-arse paper on Aquinas!  Mind you, even with the heels she can’t be much taller than the average hobbit; but with some women, their small physical stature comes across as an ironic defiance of their overall personal stature and Tina Beattie certainly has a commanding presence both in the flesh and in her writing.

Tina made headlines in the Northern Hemisphere last year after she was ‘uninvited’ to speak at a university having signed a public statement in favour of (secular) same-sax marriage legislation for the UK.  Her media release in response to the scandal is an eloquent exercise in grace and generosity and displays the strength of her personal character.  She is an academic theologian who is a practicing Roman Catholic, committed to open and honest conversations about God, the church and the world.  You can follow all this and much more on her blog Marginal Musings.

New Catholic Feminism is a polemical work engaging a post-Vatlcan II conservative movement in the Roman church, which has branded itself as a new kind of feminism.  Theologically it is grounded in the gendered theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, then Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict).  Pope Francis’s ‘theology of the body’ is yet unclear to me: that he retains the same conservative markers on gender and sexuality doesn’t actually tell the theological thinking behind them.

The ‘new catholic feminism’ is a movement that has much in common with the Anglican and Protestant movements towards gendered theology, most strongly known in my world through the influence of conservative Sydney Anglicanism under the banner of ‘complementarianism’.  Men lead and women follow; men run the world (and therefore the church) and women run the home; it is feared that any slip in these boundaries destabilises not only the created order but also the order of salvation.  If you want to check whether or not I’ve given you a biased perspective, you can check out this interview with Michelle Schumacher, one of it’s proponents.

I’ve taken months to digest this book, so a blog post is hardly going to do it justice: it would make a great core text for a masters unit on feminist theology!  Beattie critiques contemporary feminism with theological insights and contemporary theology with feminist insights, developing an argument for a ‘sacramental feminist theology’.  That is, “a feminist theology of grace informed by a sense of the sacramentality of creation and by an awareness of the significance of prayer, revelation and faith for Christian ways of knowing, through a critical feminist refiguration of contemporary Catholic theology.” (p.4)  It’s an exploration of the symbolic structures of language in relation to male, female and God who is beyond gender.

Beattie argues that “[w]hen psycholinguistics and neo-orthodox theology are brought into intimate dialogue with one another, the confusion which surrounds the place of the female body in Catholic symbolism and sacramentality begins to burn with a dark intensity.  This illuminates an unexplored space -virgin territory perhaps – which is at one and the same time charged with the most profound and threatening irrationality, but also with a sacramental and sexual potency that might yet bring about the transformation of the Catholic vision.” (p.5)

I guess the question is, why does the church have so much difficulty with sex?  And why is this difficulty so often projected onto women?

It is not just a matter of official policy, doctrine and practise: what is not said and what is not considered possible is just as important as what is.  Why have women’s voices been so long excluded or marginalised in Western theology and liturgy?

Beattie offers some suggestions:
Following Irigaray, when complexity and multivocality are denied in a patriarchal context, what is lost is the feminine.
Following Butler (and several others – Jantzen, Clack, Coakley), the body is lost in the Christian preoccupation with death.
Following Kristeva (and others), the symbolic rejection of the mother’s body, as per psychoanalytic theory, destroys the proper developmental context for human sexuality and gender construction.

A disclaimer – it is entirely possible that I have not grasped all this accurately or have reduced it dishonourably in this three line summary: it really was a crash course in psycholinguistic philosophy and post-postmodern feminist theory!  But these are the things in my mind as I place the book back into my bookshelf.

I am left with the conviction that sex and gender in the church, particularly in theology, are even more complex than I realised.  It is impossible for me to think outside of being a woman, a mother, a sister and daughter, a sexual person and all those other things that have gone into constructing my identity.  I cannot do theology outside of these constructs and when I pray, I quite purposefully embrace them all as I open my whole self before God!  So, if this is the case, theology needs to slow down!  We need to feel what is being said (and not said); leaving time and space to notice the source of our reactions, deeply within out body and spirit.  Further, sexuality and gender are such essentially human constructs that we have to understand their limitation an analogies for the Being of God.  Specific memories are evoked in us whenever we invoke the notions of femininity and masculinity – their definitions are intuitively grounded in our experience way more powerfully than they are in the abstract definitional constructs we can read and review in a dictionary.

This is why Tina Beattie argues Christian feminism must be sacramental – embodied, lived, devotional, humble before our God – and I whole heartedly agree.

Love as Revelation

This post is the final in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

Well, I’m not sure that I’ve kept the best till last, but I’ve kept my own paper till last in this series reflecting on ‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’ conference.  I’ve given you here a copy of the abstract, introduction and conclusion of the paper.  Click over to the reddresstheology writing page to read the whole paper if you’re interested.


‘Love As Revelation’


In his 1963 work Love Alone: The Way of Revelation, Hans Urs Von Balthasar proposed a ‘third way’ of conceiving the theological category of ‘revelation’ beyond cosmological or anthropological methods.  He calls this method love as revelation.  This paper asks, first, what did von Balthasar mean by this phrase and second, why would contemporary Australian theologians be interested?  Von Balthasar is seeking an aesthetic way of speaking about God that respects the particularity of the Christian gospel whilst acknowledging the limitations of human knowing.  As such, it is a resource that might address some contemporary philosophical concerns about knowledge and reason, subjectivity and objectivity, being and thinking.


Good afternoon and thank-you for coming to hear about Love after lunch.  I am Michelle Trebilcock.  I live in Melbourne with my two gorgeous boys aged 6 and 8, I’m an Anglican Priest, and I’m 8 months in to a full-time doctoral student with St Mark’s Canberra in Public and Contextual Theology.  My project is developing a mystical hermeneutic for Public conversations about God, religion and ethics, grounded in this concept of Love as Revelation which I am sharing with you today.

In this paper, I will outline a proposal from Hans Urs von Balthasar that, at its foundation, Christian truth is not just about love, it is love.  Love is not just the content of Christian revelation – God so loved the world(John 3:16); God is love (1 John 4:8); Love the Lord your God…and your neighbour… ( Deut 6:5/ Matt 22:37/ etc.); and so on – Love is the way of revelation. 

Love is the how, the how we know, the how we know it and the how we make sense of being human.

Love is the methodology, the step-by-step process, the hermeneutic and epistemology of spirituality and of religious knowledge.


When we love another person, we love them for the ways that they are different to us, as well as the ways that they are the same. When we love another well, we help them to become all that they are uniquely capable of being, without diminishment of our own uniqueness.  It is not relative truth, but neither is it one-dimensional. Love is empirically conscious only by its symptoms and causes but within the subjectivity of the person experiencing love, is known absolutely.  To apply love as an avatar for ‘how we know’, is to insist on an embodied, conversational epistemology and hermeneutic. The goal is kenotic openness to the ‘truth’ of the person before us, without diminishing the ‘truth’ of our own selves.

Just imagine, how the hyperpluralistic, public discourses of our country would be transformed is Christians entered into the dialogue in this way: leading the conversation towards beauty, goodness and truth by its tone and tenor, rather than the abstract presentation of dogma.  That is my vision for a mystical hermeneutic for public theology – a hermeneutic of love as revelation.

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Cath McKinney

This post is the fourth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

A Sacred Connection: The Essential Encounter Between (M)other and Baby’

by Cath McKinney

At least once a week I work in the postgraduate room at Dalton-McCaughey library, Parkville.  It’s a magical place with amazing women co-creating the world through re-imagining theology, ministry, poetry, biblical interpretation, justice and society.  Cath is my special ‘PhD friend’; the one whom God has given me to walk this particular part of my life journey.  She is spectacular.

As the title of Cath’s paper suggests, she is working at an intersection between psycho/socio-analysis and theology.  Traditional theology deals with the concept of ‘analogy’ – that what can be known about god is known via analogy with god’s creation.  Cath’s work challenges this notion to suggest that any theological insight gleaned from nature, especially human nature, can not actually be severed from the experience itself.  That is the nature of incarnation, that if there is anything to learn about god in nature, then god is actually in that experience, not just like that experience.

Cath is taking the work of Donald Winnicott into a conversation with Christian incarnational theology.  In her paper she presented a ‘working hypothesis’ that

“a newborn child and the Mother, defined as any person who takes up the role of (M)other, reflect the ontological connectedness of God and humankind… [T]he experience of at-one-ness… fundamentally establishes the experience of the infant in the context of God, self and the other.”

Writing ‘(M)other’ is an expression that has developed in feminist theory to include any who take up the role of mothering, female or male, beyond those who have had the biological experience of bearing children.

Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst working in the second half of last century.  Drawing upon his clinical experience with thousands of mothers and infants, Winnicott developed observations about their relationship and its impact on the construction of the child’s psychology.

“There’s no such thing as a baby; there’s a baby and someone.  There’s no such thing as a baby; there’s a baby and the other.  There’s no such thing as a baby; there’s a baby and the Mother”

This is not just a human to human relationship however, it is a moment of human-divine connect.  A moment where the imago dei is known by one in the presence of an (M)other.  A moment in which the God of the Universe has included Godself in God’s creation.  A moment of incarnation, prior to The Incarnation, of total God in total man: The Christ. Cath says:

“We enter into this world in ontological connectedness with the creator God as mirrored by our connection with (M)other, and as we do so we experience what is possible on earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).”

The Germans have a phrase for this time, which Cath draws upon to strengthen her thesis.  In the postgrad room we’ve wondered out loud why this phrase is not in any published German theology that we know of.

“Heilige-Welt, (Holy-World) [is] a sacred time for the (M)other and the Child, exclusive and unrepeatable… In many cultures this time is acknowledged as vital for the wellbeing of the (M)other and child both physically and psychologically.  I am in no way questioning the importance of this time spent in careful attention to the needs of the (M)other and Child, but I am suggesting that in addition, an ontic reality exists.  The experience of Heilige Welt can serve to remind us, in an ontological sense, that we are created to participate in the world, in relation to one another, and that in thus we arrive as infants fully immersed within this experience of connectedness… It is in these moments, that I am suggesting we receive a glimpse of the Reign of God in our present state and here resides hope and possibility for now.”

There is much more than this in Cath’s paper, but this link that she makes between the experience of infancy and the experience of the divine is worthy of consideration all on it’s own and so I’m going to lay aside the rest.  This is innovative theology in the best sense – drawing upon what we know of the world in order to interpret the Word of God as passed down to us.  For me, this moment of human wholeness tells the same story as the opening chapters of Genesis; that before the drive for knowledge devastated our relationship with God and other humans, we experienced our world as perfection.

Cath’s paper will be published next year in the journal Feminist Theology.

You can learn a little bit more about the Donald Winnicott via wikipedia.