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.





Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams by Ben Myers

There will be lots of reviews of this book which are more thorough than I intend to be: all I want to do is make sure you read it! Ben Myers’ writing is a delight – entertaining, clear, succinct. He makes Rowan Williams accessible to a very broad audience, for which we should all be grateful. His love of William’s work and witness is evident and we can assume accurate, given that Williams himself read the script before it was published.

There have been some great interviews with Ben on radio national, so while you wait for your book to arrive (the first print has sold out), check out the following podcasts and online articles.

Good Friday Breakfast: The Theology of Rowan Williams (25 min podcast)

Opinion Article: Rowan Williams and the Politics of the Open Tomb.

Opinion Article: The Problem with Rowan Williams.

There is also a kindle edition of the book if you can’t wait.

And you should check out Ben’s blog: Faith and Theology.

Ray of Darkness by Rowan Williams

(Cowley; USA, 1995)

Ray of Darkness is a collection of ++Rowan’s sermons from the mid 1990s around key Christian dates, creeds and dogmas.  I dipped into the relevant Holy Week and Easter sermons through-out the past weeks.  The sermons never failed to move me.  This is a book to have on one’s bookshelf for those moments when you are in need of a 5 minute spiritual pep talk that goes beyond banal platitudes.

I wish they were available on line, but unfortunately I’ve not found them anywhere.  However, you can access ++Rowan’s latest sermons on the ABofC website, including his 2012 easter day sermon.

I’ll share just one quote from ++Rowan which sums up my Holy Week experience (and ends this series of reddress posts):

In this week, the holy is redefined and recreated for us. The temple is rebuilt as the body of the crucified Christ, not a place of exclusions, a house of merchandise where we must barter to be allowed in, trading our daily lives, our secular joys and pains for the sacred currency of ritual and acceptable pure gifts that will placate God, but the cross by the roadside, unfenced, unadorned, the public and defenseless place where God gives us room.

Holy Week, with all its intensity of ritual and imaginative elaboration, comes paradoxically to break down the walls of self-contained religion and morality and to gather us around the one true holy place of the Christian religion, Jesus himself, displayed to the world as the public language of our God, placarded on the history of human suffering that stretches along the roadside. This is a weekfor learning – not management, bargaining, and rule-keeping, but naked trust in that naked gift.



Holy Week: Being-in-love with God

Amidst all of the possible thought trails to pursue in Holy Week, it is The Liturgy of the Bridegroom that continues to grab my attention.  In particular, I have been mindful of the great burden of broken love which human beings almost universally share and the wonderful, therapeutic opportunity to confront that loss and pain as we turn our eyes towards the Cross of Christ.

Hence, I’ve decided to share the final of four sermons which I recently delivered at Southern Cross Ministries, a contemporary/charismatic Anglican Church in Melbourne.  Theme of the sermons, Being-in-love with Jesus, is taken from Bernard Lonergan’s epistemology of conversion and knowing, and is material that I will continue to develop for 2 other (very different) contexts this year.  Not only is it the result of intense theological reflection from the past year, it is the result of three and a half years of hard living and an awful lot of prayer.

A sermon in response to Song of Songs 2:1 – 3:5

Romance as the Pathological Religion of Western Culture

The psychology of love is a massive cultural phenomena in our Western. It is, in fact, one of the things non-Western cultures criticise us for. It is our obsession; our pathology; and our replacement for religion in a secular age. As our culture moved away from seeking meaning in religious notions of transcendence, we projected those spiritual needs onto our human relationships. Romance has become our religion.

A case in point: I saw the movie Any Questions for Ben? when it came out last month. Poor Ben is going through a quarter life crisis: he feels cut adrift, lost, yearning for something more and for his life to ‘mean something.’ So does he turn to religion, spirituality or even psychotherapy? No, he turns to love! He finds it within himself to commit to one woman and trusts in that relationship to satisfy these inadequacies he feels.

There is a pressing need to address the unrealistic expectations on intimate human relationships of all kinds – parental, romantic, platonic, etc. And whilst I am going to be focusing on romance today, much of it can be transferred to others whom we are close to, and especially to our mothers and fathers.

If we seek ‘god’ in a human person we will always be disappointed. But more subtlety, if we seek the source for our own personal transformation in another person, we too easily fail to integrate any fleeting transcendence within ourselves. It is not that God is absent from human relationships, indeed, frequently we experience the wonderful grace of God in our intimate relationships, but the source of God is not located solely within them as the object of our affection. It is a glimpse of heaven, but we live here and now on earth.

Robert Johnson is a Jungian therapist who has written on this issue:

“…What we seek constantly in romantic love is not human love or human relationship alone; we also seek a religious experience, a vision of wholeness. Here is the meaning of the magic, the sorcery, the supernatural in the love potion. There is another world that is outside the vision of our ego-minds: It is the realm of psyche, the realm of unconscious. It is there that our souls and our spirits live, for unknown to our conscious Western minds, our souls and spirits are psychological realities, and they live on in our psyches without our knowledge. And it is there, in the unconscious, that God lives, whoever God may be for us as individuals.”


Mystical romantic Love

When I first read the song of songs as teenager, I really could make no sense of it. The unfamiliar imagery and the mysterious whisper or sometimes snigger, that seemed to accompany its mention. I was taught that there was a huge debate about this book of the bible. Some say this is a book about a man and a woman, so its a book about marriage and about the sanctity of marriage. Others say that it is an allegorical book about loving God, and the mystical experience of knowing Jesus in the thrill of the holy spirit. I have no doubt in my mind now that it is both. And the reason that it is both is because, in the words of Richard Rohr, the way we love anything, is the way we love everything.
I have a friend who used the Song of Songs as the basis for a major art project last year. I greatly anticipated the artwork for many months, for she is a beautiful and skilled artist, and she was trying a new technique with ink. When she shared the finishe product I was surprised and taken aback. She created a book with selected words from Song of Songs on one side, and images of indigenous shrub on the other. It is a comment on the Love of God that we can discover through nature!

St John of the Cross was a sixteenth century mystic, who wrote his own love poetry to God, some of which was directly modelled on the Song of Songs, with the voice of the bride and then the bridegroom taking it in turns to declare their experience of love. He found such spiritual nourishment in the Song of Songs that when he was dying, he requested the priest read from the book of Song of Songs, unstead of the usual prayers for the dying. This John once urged a younger Christian, “Enter within yourself and work in the presence of your Bridegroom, who is ever present loving you.”

He is picking up on Ephesians chapter 5 of course, where St Paul describes the relationship between Christ and the Church as Bridegroom and Bride. We must be careful to always remember that in Paul’s meaning each of us as individuals are only a part of the Bride, Christ is ours by virtue of us being one with one another, but this language of bride and bridegroom is not uncommon amongsts spiritual writers across the ages. Singing love songs to Jesus is not new and by no means exclusive to the contemporary charismatic worship movement!

In a sermon on Loving God, Rowan Williams remembers a story about St John of the Cross and wonders, do any of us love God so intimately?

“When St John of the Cross was staying at a convent over Chrismas, one of the sisters saw him, when he thought no one was looking, picking up the figure of the child Jesus from the crib. He hugged it close to his chest and then, with eyes closed, danced around the crib for a few minutes. Well, that, it seems, is love of God: a devotion that makes people more than a little dotty, that produces an all-pervading warmth and delight, an incommunicable gladness beyond all words. ‘My beloved is mine and I am his.’”
Is this kind of crazy love just a personality thing? Some of us are more emotional than others and they are the one’s who have this kind of relationship with God in prayer? St John of the Cross entered into his great love affair with God when he was kidnapped and imprisoned. The Dark Night of the Soul was literally for him, 9 long months in a dark, damp, medievil cell. Upon his escape he began to write poetry of what had happened in the darkness, the breaking through of light and love as he cast himself entirely on God.

Spiritual writers describe love and suffering as the two great doorways into knowledge of God. Both are experiences which wrench our hands off the steering wheel; bind our fate to the whims of another; shame us into knowledge of our own powerlessness. Hence, it should be no surprise that the darkest moments of our lives have a unique capacity to throw us into the arms of God.

Rowan William’s deals with the relationship between this mystical love with St John of the Cross describes, and other more rational forms of love: love is a decision, love is a choice, love is a set of actions putting the other person first. Yes, love is all that but the Song of Songs and the saints who pray them, reveal to us the possibility of more. And then he gives some great advice:

“If the ‘love of God’ means nothing to you…, then love the lovers of God. Love the love of God in Francis or John of the Cross, Dick Sheppard or Mother Theresa, Aelred of Rievaulx or Charles de Foucauld. To love love-in-someone is, by the courtesy of heaven, to love love and so to love God. It is to turn our eyes toward, to choose and desire the truth of all truth, the beauty of all beauty. It is to look and hope in and love and serve and know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, from whom and for whom everything in heaven and earth exists, even the cold, flabby, and fantasy-ridden hearts of human beings.”


The agony of falling-in-love

There was a bigger reason why I struggled with song of songs as a teenager, beyond knowing what this mystical sort of love was. Really, I just didn’t didn’t have enough life under my belt to really get it. Maybe, and this is a hint for some of the young people here this morning, maybe if I’d had The Message version I would have cottoned on a little sooner. The bride’s dream at the start of chapter 3, Eugene Peterson translates:

“Restless in bed and sleepless through the night, I longed for my lover. I wanted him desperately. He absence was painful.”
At age 15, I knew not enough about falling in love to grasp the deep longing and great confusion of feeling within the text. Listen to the repeated refrain:

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not awaken love until it is ready!”
In recent years I have found myself often repeating a little mantra to myself: “it is possible to feel two very different things at once.” Intense passionate love is like that. In fact, Robert Johnson would say, suffering is an essential ingredient in romantic passion. It is agony to awaken desire for a lover with whom we are not able to share a bed – whether that is for practical or moral reasons, temporary or permanent. Now, when I read the text I feel the complexity of love! At once joyous and burdensome.


Love’s work

Gillian Rose has been one of my greatest delights in the past year. She is a contemporary philosopher who wrote a book in 1997 while she was dying, called ‘Love’s work”. In it, she describes “unhappy love”. Human love which is bound to be thwarted in this life – be it because it is unrequited, the object of our affection does not share the same passion for us, even when maybe they once did – or maybe the man/woman of your dreams just is nowhere to be found! Unhappy love includes all those cases which are deemed immoral or socially impossible – to be married and in love with someone who is not our spouse, or to be in love with someone who is too young for us, or considered inappropriate in some way; it is not uncommon to be strongly attracted to our teacher, our boss, our doctor, our priest: none of which are appropriate relationships to pursue. Finally, unhappy love can be purely because of impracticalities – they live on the other side of the world, you meet at the wrong time, or , in the worst possible circumstances, one’s Beloved has passed away and you are seperated by death!

In any of these relationships, unhappy love is the passion of loss. And interesting in the Song of Songs story, the woman is searching the streets for her Lost Lover. Romantic love, at its heart, is about the desperate human search for love! Some pyschologists like to ham up the idea of falling-in-love as addiction or an illness, but maybe, in one way, falling-in-love is a sign of good health! When a healthy body requires food we experience hunger pains: could not love pains be a function of a healthy soul telling us what we need? In which case, falling-in-love can be processed as a spiritual discipline: the soul’s prescribed remedy for deconstructing the immature ego and unearthing the true self. A drive to reclaim the perfection of Love as it was first known in pre-human form. Hence, Gillian Rose writes, unhappy love initiates an investigation into lovelessness. We come face to face with the epic journey to recover our sense of Beloved-ness.


Created from Love

The Love of God is woven beautifully into all God’s creatures. And what I have tried to describe in my previous sermons is an insight from the Dominican spiritual writer Sebastian Moore. Our desire for another, is triggered by a deep memory of ourselves as desirable. Some look or word from whatever archetypal man, woman or child is required to grabs our psychic attention, and we rediscover the Love out of which we were formed, as the Psalmist has said, I loved you in your mother’s womb, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

The way we love anything, is the way we love everything. The different types of love that we experience – for brother, for friend, for children and parents, for our heros, for our Lovers, for our enemies, all Love comes from the one source: God. And God, who IS love, has poured God’s own love for us into our hearts by the holy spirit. So the very source of all Love is within us, buried deep within our foundation as human persons, but released by life as we encounter love and discover ourselves to be Beloved in the eyes of others, starting of course, with our mothers, even before we sense the cool of a breeze on our cheeks. This is Sebastian Moore’s point, the person who awakens love in us, merely throws aside the veil, and we unearth the fountain of love from which we were created by God.

If we do not seek God within us, the love that is available in God stays distant, stays apart from us, it cannot change us in the same way when we keep it at arms distance. We must know it within ourselves if we are to survive the trials of human love.


Encouragement for sufferers of Unhappy Love

To close, let me speak to those whose heart is breaking right now, from unhappy love.
Let me say to you: this is normal. This is not nice, but this is normal. This is what human love is like. And even when you are in a relationship that is more happy than unhappy, there are still moments when the people we love let us down.

I have a close friend who is married, I am not. We have journeyed together through the unhappy love of our different circumstances and what we have discovered is that our pathways are the same: the way forward, towards happiness, is only through the discovery and determined depenence upon the love that is within ourselves. The love we seek, the love we all seek, is already inside you. It has been inside you since birth. The one who has awakened love in you is but a beautiful mirror, reflecting the Divine Love of Creation in your very Being. Set your heart on the higher goal, search for the source of all love, and you find what you so desperately seek in a mere mortal.

Let me also speak to those whose struggle is not so much lost love but betrayed love, the same is true. Seek the higher love, and you will find the source of forgiveness, grace, and justice, that will get you through. Mere human love does not have the capacity to love one’s enemies. You will need divine love for that. But that divine love is written into your inmost Being – Jesus can show you how to find it.

Finally, let me speak to those of you who are on the other side; who have been the cause of unhappiness in Love. Let me say to you, Falling in love is not wrong, it is not even stupid! But it is not always healthy, and it is not always right to pursue it in an outward relationship. Don’t fall for the lie that passion is all there is. There is a higher love, and that love calls us to a higher law. This higher Love is not a disciplinarian, but will reward you richly for choosing to invest in it. Jesus said even he who looks upon another woman lustfully is guilty of adultery! How on earth can we survive that kind of temptation? Self-discipline definitely has it’s place, but you will never chain up your mind entirely. So, you need a greater love. You need a superhuman love! And you need to know that love has forgiven you at your most undeserving.

So, start a journal, sign up for counselling, go on a silent retreat, take an art class, walk in the rain, buy a pet: but turn inwards, and let go of the person you think will make you happy. God has already given you what you think you want, look for it within yourself.

Sharing these kinds of thoughts with a friend recently, she put me on to this beautiful hymn which I’d never heard.

Geoff Mattheson, O Love that will not let me go.

1.   O Love that wilt not let me go,  
I rest my weary soul in thee;  
I give thee back the life I owe,
  That in thine ocean depths its flow,  
May richer, fuller be.
2.   O light that foll’west all my way,  
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
  My heart restores its borrowed ray,
  That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day, 
 May brighter, fairer be.
3.   O Joy that seekest me through pain,  
I cannot close my heart to thee;
  I trace the rainbow through the rain,  
And feel the promise is not vain,
  That morn shall tearless be.
4.   O Cross that liftest up my head,
  I dare not ask to fly from thee;
  I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
  And from the ground there blossoms red, 
 Life that shall endless be.

Rowan Williams on Orthodox Theology

I’ve just handed in a ‘Reading Reports’ assignment where I had to summarise and respond to various set texts in order to grasp something of the global trends in theology in the twentieth century.  It may be a bit clunky, but I’ve cut and paste the assignment here to give you a paragraph on some key theologians from the past 100 years.   Several of the chapters set in these reviews are from the fat brick of a book that is the subject’s text: David Ford’s The Modern Theologians.  Oh how I love Rowan Williams!!!!

Williams, Rowan, ‘Eastern Orthodox Theology.’ In David F. Ford with Rachel Muers, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918 (third edition) pp.572-587 (Massachussets; Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

Williams is an easy introduction to Orthodox Theology for Western thinkers – drawing our attention to some key differences at the outset – the more balanced approach to dualism, a stronger link to mystical traditions and a non-Enlightenment engagement with twentieth century Continental philosophy. It is accidentally convenient for Western thinkers that “for most of the twentieth century, the story of Orthodox theology is the story of Russian theology” – making the fruitful reconnection of Western and Eastern Christianity much simpler to pursue. Russian Orthodox theology in the twentieth century can be understood through it’s engagement with Soloviev’s theology of sophia in the century before. Soloviev developed sophia as a cosmology of the Eternal Feminine, Divine Wisdom, that which is uncreated and absolute breaking through to material reality in an act of reintegration in the cosmos, through the incarnation of sophia in the Divine Word. Bulgakov develops Soloviev’s cosmology with a careful description of Christ as uncreated sophia in his divine nature, created sophia in his human nature. Because they are perfected together, Christ leads the way for the church who is “sophia in the process of becoming” (p.576). Lossky was very critical of Bulgakov and saw his furthering of Soloviev as contrary to his own concern for “an ‘authentic,’ patristically based Orthodoxy” (p.578). Mediating between a “Catholic essentialism and Protestant existentialism” (p.580) Lossky embraced an apophatic approach to theology which located the task of theology in that ambiguous realm between divine mystery and human intelligence. This is the place of the Trinity and leads us into God’s complex relationality. “It is from the divine paradigm of the divine hypostases that we come to grasp our own vocation to personal being” (p.579). Unsurprisingly then, Lossky outlines an ecclesiology in a sobornost that binds together both “the institutional and the charismatic…as inseparably as the Word and the Spirit in the Trinity” (p.580). Florovsky also pursued the Patristics synthesis and was unwavering in his commitment to the Hellenism of the Church Fathers. Christianity cannot escape it’s historical particularity, of which the Hellenistic context for the earliest Tradition of the Church is primary, because all reality is grounded in historical acts. Further, Florovsky is critical of any theology that is not grounded in the historical Jesus. The eucharist becomes foundational for sobernost through it’s historical continuity. Contemporary Orthodox scholarship covers a breadth of fresh theological insights as East meets West in various combinations.  

I’m not ashamed to say that I danced around the top floor of the Dalton McCaughey Library whilst reading some of this stuff (there was no-one else around!!).  How exciting to read a critique of Enlightenment hermeneutics from those who have not had to endure the Enlightenment!  Of course, the same goes the other way – it’s easy for me to embrace Orthodox Theology when I only read about it in books! I’m sure the reality is as marred with sin as my own Western Protestant tradition!

However, I can see why Rowan Williams has integrated much of this hermeneutic.  The Orthodox tradition never lost the capacity to keep two poles of belief in tension, to believe two things can be true at the same time without competition.  The West lost that capacity in the late middle ages and the Reformation did nothing to address it.  I think it’s about ‘definitions’.  When we try and define things too tightly we confine them, and their meaning gets distorted.  Hmm… something coming to mind about wineskins…


The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle

(Baker: Grand Rapids, 2008)

If you were taking ‘Emerging Church’ as a formal study unit, The Great Emergence by Phylis Tickle would be a textbook. She argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition has a habit of renewing itself every 500 years or so and the experimentation we are currently seeing in the emerging church movement is part of this process and the Church will look very different by the middle of the 21st century. Key to this process is an integration of the different expressions of church from the previous epoch but not as a homogenous, simple entity. Rather, as a network of religious belief, belonging and behaving recognisable to each other by the orientation it’s centering principle: Jesus Christ. I think others write better speculating about the future, but as I continue to read in this university session, I see the acute scholarship in her analysis of the past.

I’ve just re-read Phylis Tickle having read Schleiermacher’s Second Speech: On The Essence of Religion. Schleirermacher is a 19th century theologian who is often quoted as the Father of Twentieth Century Liberal theology. I found it fascinating mapping his influence and was drawn back into Phylis Tickle’s argument about the present emergence of the Christian church into something new. In a lecture to a group of atheists, Schleiermacher presented an apologetics argument that religion should not be seen as a logical set of rationalities nor a particular set of moral behaviours, rules and actions. “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.” In other words, religion is best defined as that intuition or feeling that all human beings have: that there is something mysterious, something divine, something beyond ourselves. I am interested that this is how most people would define spirituality these days. (See the post on spirituality and theology, including the comments where I explain to Marcus why I favour a human-centric definition of spirituality.)

Phylis Tickle refers to both sociological and philosophical shifts that are shuffling the church into a new era. The postmodern cultural pressures on the church are now well known and their effects relatively obvious (eg. No-one walks to church anymore). What is less often discussed is the philosophical shifts underlying the beliefs of everyday Christians. For me, Schleiermacher represents the first shots fired in the ‘Spirituality Revolution’ which has birthed a variety of pyscho-spiritual expressions. This includes such a diverse range of movements in both religious and non-religious human experience as the whole psycho-dynamic psycho-therapy movement, charismatic renewal in the Church, the embracing of Eastern spiritualities, and, as Phylis Tickle points out, eventually forged into emerging forms of church ecclesiology and worship.

There are 2 themes introduced by Schleiermacher which have influenced Christian theology. The first is this recovery of the psycho-spiritual. The second is a theology of universalism: that all religions are basically variant expressions of one, unified divine mystery. The two are connected for him because religion is the experience of the divine within a tradition, not the doctrine or moral code of that religion (which clearly differ between religions). However, the postmodern subjectivity ‘turn’ a century after Schleirermacher developed intellectual tools to offer a more sophisticated explanation of universal human experience. (See the post on David Tracey’s limit situations for an example of how Schleiermacher’s concerns have been evolved.) Post-liberal theorists have found a way to let multiple experiences and explanations sit side by side without having to dissolve them, because we understand ultimate truth and transcendent being (in whatever form) necessarily exists beyond our definitive knowing. So post-post liberal theorists (or whatever we are up to now!) have continued to move away further from a need for the doctrine of universalism. I love the way Rowan Williams explains the importance of rejecting universalism: the Jesus story (or the Hebrew story, Buddha’s story etc) gets distorted if we do not allow it’s uniqueness to stand (See the post on Rowan Williams and Pluralism for an example.)  Tickle gets onto this in her final chapter describing the kind of distinctive expressions of the Great Emergence.

The other day a new friend called me ‘liberal.’ My response was, “Yes, postmodern Christianity can look a lot like liberalism.” But if liberal refers to an embracing of humanistic enlightenment theology, I am definitely not a liberal! Recovering the experiential – the psycho-spiritual aspect of human consciousness – is a critical element to postmodern theologies. Also, I still hold to the exclusivist claims of Christ as the unique divine embodiment of the God Who Is the source of all existence. However, that does not mean that I am then logically obliged to reject the aspects of truth, beauty and goodness in other religious discourses. Indeed, paradox is paramount to postmodern epistemology. In fact, if I sense myself bumping up against two understandings that both seem to be true but don’t immediately fit logically together, I intuitively feel like I might be really onto something!

Living in the creative space between ‘boxes’ of established theological and ecclesiological traditions is not easy. Phylis Tickle doesn’t really discuss the birthpangs in her book, but anyone who understands her thesis will know them. They are also evident in the questions that she says are critical in every great transition. I love these questions, they are my questions and the questions that I see in the Church as I know it today:

  • how do we know stuff? (what are our sources of authority, what happens to sola scriptura, and what is the nature of the term ‘truth’?)
  • who are we? (what is it to be a human being?)

and to a lesser extent she says this question which preoccupies me personally:

  • How is our community structured (eg. Nuclear family of Reformation Era is being deconstructed and a new basic building block of society relationships is yet to functionally replace it.) 

Praying For England edited by Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley

(London: Continuum, 2008)

What is it to be a christian priest in a secular society?  What do we do and why?  Is there still a public role for priests once religion has been privatized and marginalized?  These are the highly existential questions of this book and they feature prominently, and somewhat painfully, in my own life as mother-priest-daughter-sister-sociologist-writer-theologian-melbournian.  In the introduction Sarah Coakley describes this as a recovery of the ‘liminal sensibility’ of ministry.  “The representational ‘invisibility’ of priesthood in a secular society thus can, paradoxically, be its true strength” (p4).

The book includes chapters from Stephen Cherry on being the Representative God Person in a community tragedy; Peter Wilcox on the parallels between Priest and Footfall Fan; Samuel Wells on Godly Play; Edmund Newry on Presence in Funeral Ministry; Jessica Martin on paying Attention when life is hard (an incredibly moving chapter); Andrew Shanks on owning up to our past, present and future with honesty (fantastic!); Grace Davies on vicarious ‘debate’; and a final theological reflection from Rowan Williams (erudite as ever).

I am grateful for this book.  There are elements to it which have challenged me, because I don’t see myself being good at some of the public roles of  priestly ‘representation’ presented in some of these stories of ‘traditional’ parish roles.  And yet, if I translate the theological purpose or identity into the context of my own mixed-up set of relationships, that dissolve the boundaries between public and private, I’m very comfortable.  As a priest born into the evangelical family, I fear we reacted too severely to ‘ontological theories’ of ordination that we missed the basic Christian characteristics of incarnational living which has a particular expression in priesthood.  We embody the gospel of Christ for those with whom we cross paths, we live it not just teach it.

I think coming to terms with the embodied nature of priesthood has been a particular journey for me as a woman.  The more comfortable I have become with my own femininity, the less propositional my notions of priestly ministry have become and the more integrated with myself as a whole person.  This fits with my image of the womb as a definitional image for the feminine – drawing the world into ourselves to love and live from our inner place.

Jessica Martin writes about the struggle to hold onto her priestly vocation when most of life is absorbed with the trauma of loving a daughter suffering from drug addiction.  I wish more stories like this were told but instead we keep secrets and lose the benefit of the insights which struggle brings.  Priests are always human beings first, with responsibilities as humans and christians, that must not be neglected if one’s priestly ministry is to be effective.  The damage done by priests who have refused to address their own inner needs or illnesses are too well known.  We need to shake the human ego out of the priesthood and let the Spirit of God preside.

Rowan Williams never ceases to inspire me and I was so humbled by his words about sacrifice being at the heart of the priestly life.  He also talks about wonderful God opportunities in liminality (which could have gone into my liminality essay if I’d had another month plus an extra 2,000 words to include a section on vocation):

“So where the priestly people are to be found is where there is a certain kind of space for human beings, a space that does not belong to any sub-section of the human race, but – because it is first the space cleared by God – is understood as a space where humanity as such is welcome.  It is not defended against anyone; it exists because of the defencelessness of God in the crucified Jesus.  Those who occupy it are not charged with marking it out as a territory sharply defined over against territory that is the property of others; they are to sustain it as a welcoming place.”

What a hard lesson this is – that just when we feel like life is not working properly and we don’t quite ‘fit’ – that is the very best opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, to love God, and to love our neighbour standing right there with us in the shit, whoever they turn out to be.

This book has helped me clarify the purpose, plans and passions of the reddresstheology project (not just the blog – the whole ‘ministry’ of theology as spiritual exercise and spiritual gift to the church).  I have no desire to be an academic, I’m a priest.  My concern is for the spiritual and wholistic growth of individuals and the church.  My passion is to see people come alive with the spirit of Christ at work within them.  That’s good to know about myself:  I write to move people in the depths of their being and hope that God will use that to draw them towards Godself.

‘The Judgement of the World’ by Rowan Williams

Chapter 3 in On Christian Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 2000)

I’m a Priest.  I talk to people about God all the time!   Why should anyone be convinced that what I believe about life, humanity and the universe might obligate what they believe about life, humanity and the universe?

Again, if you understand nothing else, understand that for Williams theology is all about conversation.

Let’s imagine (not hard if you know me well) that you and I are sitting down at my big kitchen table with a cuppa – the kids playing boisterously outside in the back yard.  What are we doing?  Talking!  Having a conversation in which I share about my life and you share about yours.  Some of the things in our lives are the same, some are different.  That is exactly how the Christian story is able to relate to others who do not share a Christian commitment to Christ.

Genuine conversation respects the unique integrity of each person.  Imagine, sitting down at my big kitchen table, I reprimand you in regards to your children’s behaviour – they are out of control because you don’t discipline them severely as I discipline my own (hmm… much more likely someone would be criticizing me for this particular failing).  I would hope that you would be offended!  Grab your kids and leave my house never to return – I have been rude and wrong!  Instead, imagine that when listening to the dramas created by the challenging behaviour of our offspring, we share tips we’ve learned along the way, books we’ve read, things we’ve observed.  Jesus is no less real because he has been encountered in my subjective experience.  But it is the field of my subjective experience that others may first encounter Him.

There are a whole host of concerns shared by all humanity, particularly amongst those who express some kind of religious faith – sustainability, human spirituality, global poverty, etc, etc.  The grounds for conversation and working together with others on these concerns furthers the kingdom of God as Christ instructed us, this work is no less our faithful response to Jesus just because other people are involved in it as well for other reasons and God will use it all.

‘The Unity of Christian Truth’ by Rowan Williams

Chapter 2 in On Christian Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 2000)

If you put this post together with the previous ‘The Integrity of Theology’ (5th March) and another two posts still to arrive in coming days, you will have reviews for the whole of the first part of ++RW’s book On Christian Theology.  It’s the methodology section of a scholarly work which has enabled me to more clearly understanding the great breadth of Williams’ writing and actions as Archbishop of Canterbury.  I’m waiting on a grade for an essay on this- if it turns out the essay is worth reading I’ll put it up here on reddress!  These posts are the pop version of William’s chapters and come with a ‘read at your own risk’ warning – oversimplified theology frequently loses its essence.  Plus, I’m not at all confident I have faithfully rendered Williams’ arguments and perhaps these posts should be considered fledgling attempts at summarisation  – refinement by others is more than welcome!   I think a sneak preview of the essay will help offer a way into these posts if you are coming to these philosphical questions of knowing completely cold:

The question of integrity in speaking of God is ‘how do we take our subjectivity seriously whilst not losing the distinctive faith in a God who reveals Godself in order to be known.’  The theologian is ever tied to the context of their own experience, tradition and faith community.  In the broadest sense this leads the theologian into the discipline of dealing with the particular, because the whole is beyond us and that leads into a new set of questions – if we can speak only of the particular, how do individuated discourses speak to one another in such a way that we may know anything outside or beyond our own subjectivity?  This is the postmodern preoccupation of  intertexuality –  the inter-related notion of all texts (Beal 2000) and was the driving force behind postliberal approaches to theology (De Hart 2006).  Williams is optimistic about the human capacity to discern some kind of truth in theology that is greater than our subjective selves.

If you understand nothing else, understand that for Williams, theology is all about conversation.

To state the obvious, Christians disagree.  Even on the most fundamental elements of theology which make up the testimony of what, in my little corner of Christendom, we like to call ‘the gospel’!  So does that mean one of us is right and the rest of us are wrong wherever we differ?  How much variation is permissible before someone is deemed to be outside an orthodox definition of Christianity?  This is a question of method for theologians – is there a basis by which Christian witness can hang together in some kind of unified whole yet recognize the reality of diversity?

I was trained in a theological tradition that says orthodoxy can be determined by reference to primary, secondary and tertiary matters.  If Christians agree on first order issues as laid out by the creeds (divinity of Christ, historical resurrection, etc) then we are free to entertain differences of opinion on less important issues (role of women in the church, nature of heaven, etc.)  The limitation of this approach is that it does not address the subtle dynamics of human knowing which means that people may use the very same words to refer to very different concepts.  Change the philosophical assumptions under girding knowledge (as has been done in the postmodern cultural transition) and the meaning of the words, however precisely articulated, will change.

Williams argues that the Christian story hangs together through human interaction with Christ.  It’s all about Jesus, yes.  But the continuity (knowability) of Christian truth is possible because there is constant flow of personal interactions with Jesus.  Those human experiences of Christ can be gathered together into an evidential data set.  When we compare the way people interact with Jesus in the gospels with stories of people from the old testament and observe similarities in the dynamic of faith and life, we can see a continuity in humanity’s relationship with the Divine, which is made explicit in the person of Jesus.  We can also go the other way:  when we compare people’s interactions with Jesus and stories of people in post-resurrection history then even in our world today, we can observe similarities in the dynamic of faith and life.  It is those observable relational dynamics that unify the message of the Christian story.

Truth is grounded in experiential truth, in the relational knowing of Jesus in the particularity of Christian lives.  Its an ongoing conversation between real people and a real Jesus.  “We constantly return to imagine the life of Jesus in a way that will help us to understand how it sets up a continuous pattern of human living before God.  Who Jesus is must be (and can only be) grasped in the light of what Christian humanity is” (p25)

Make sense?

‘The Integrity of Theology’ by Rowan Williams

(prologue and chapter one in:  On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)

For some time now I have had a shelf in my mind set aside for questions relating to a postmodern discomfort about ‘us and them’ categories, particularly in relation to evangelism.  Bless you Rowan Williams for providing a framework that might begin to work towards some responses to these concerns!  (NB This post reflects more of my language than his and I’m not guaranteeing I’ve completely grasped his superior intellect!)

The first gem comes from his description of a ‘three fold division of theological reflection’.  I imagine them as an intertwining rope.  Williams labels them celebratory, communicative and critical.

  • celebratory – the living faith context of speaking about and to God.  prayer.  worship. discipleship. devotion.
  • communicative – the interaction required with other worldly wisdoms in order to communicate something about God.  Hence we might draw on sociological insights to increase our understanding of a biblical concept!
  • critical – questioning leads us to humble experiences of the truth.

The second gem from this short chapter on theological integrity comes from his discussion of language.  Theological conversations, as with most human interactions, are susceptible to a two level discourse – there is a stated language and subject, but also an unstated and frequently unconscious level to the conversation.  For a theology to have integrity, it must find a way to deal honestly with the unstated agendas.

This two level discourse is illustrated perfectly in the tweet and blog furor over Rob Bell’s soon to be released book on the theology of hell.  There has been widespread condemnation of Bell (i.e. Bell himself, not just his ideas!) based on a three minute promo video for the book and the domino effect of key ‘theological players’ taking a swing!  How is it possible to have a theological conversation about a book before it has even been read!?!  There is something else going on – this cannot be a conversation purely about the biblical texts on hell (which by the way, would not fit into a twitter sized communicae).

Rowan William’s proscription for theology with integrity includes the following:

  • allow for answers, ie. have an actual conversation
  • response and continuation of the conversation are essential
  • invite collaboration
  • do not claim to be final
  • critical self-perception – develop a dynamic of repentance in theological language
  • decline the attempt to speak from God’s point of view
  • steer away from gross generalities
  • work within the same narrative dynamic revealed in scripture  – a story of humanity’s response to God’s working in the world and God’s response to the humanity
  • speak to God, not just about God
  • acknowledge that praise of God is a labour for us – it requires work, effort, it costs us something
  • be open to the lessons of contemplative prayer where language ceases to be important for our deep and abiding communion with God

How does all this relate to my distaste for ‘us and them’ dynamics in a conversation about evangelism?  At it’s heart, the postmodern suspicion of clearly defined boundaries is a psychological honesty about our own finitude.  I do not know everything there is to know about the world (the world wide web has made that blindingly obvious);  I do not have the same religion as other families at school but I still really like hanging out with them (world wide population movements have blessed us with that in real terms);  and our moral compass has been smashed – my mother/father/lover/friend is a good person but they have sent me into life-long therapy and besides all that bad things happen to good people!

Williams is suggesting we embrace our limitations.  I know what I know, but that leaves an awful lot of stuff I don’t!  I know that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected.  I know I believe his claims to be the Son of God.  I know I am ‘a sinner’ and I know what I think that means!  There are lots of these kinds of claims to knowledge I could make.  But to state that I know the spiritual plight of my next door neighbours (of whom, by the way, I know dispairingly little) is to overstate my own capacity for truth and insight.  However, I do know that they are good neighbours who return the balls that regularly fly over their fence.  I do know that that they are human beings within whom God imprinted his image.  I even know that they are co-contributors to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in.  There are a range of truths and insights about our shared humanity (including theologically) which I can embrace.  In fact, I know more about what we have in common than I do about what might divide us.  So, to distinguish between myself and them with absolutising categories tells a story I am not able to tell with integrity.

With William’s advice in mind, I can move forward.  I can engage in conversations about Jesus sharing truthfully from my own experience and interaction with the texts and traditions.  But it is a conversation not a proclamation.  An invitation not a declaration.  I do not lose myself and my own convictions in the dialogue, but neither do I become closed to learning something new.  Is not God – the Sovereign and Supreme Creator of the Universe most worthy of this kind of respect?  Surely Jesus can look after his own reputation in this kind of interaction – especially with the Holy Spirit at his disposal!  My confidence is evangelism shifts in this way to the stated content of the discourse (i.e. God), rather than the unstated and largely unconscious need to have others agree with me, to validate my ego’s explanation of the world.