‘The Future of Faith’ by Harvey Cox (and the future of reddresstheology)

(New York; Harper Collins; 2009)

My horoscope prediction tells me that my love life is likely to improve from this date!  How interesting… for today I am in Canberra chatting to St Mark’s faculty and refining my PhD abstract.   Yes, that’s right, I am taking a deep breath and diving into insanity: and what else would a reddresstheology PhD be about other than love?!?

Well it might have been about the global turn towards experiential expressions of truth, life and human Being in psychology, religion and culture… but Harvey Cox has already written that book, so now I can move on!  The Future of Faith was published by Cox to honour his retirement from the Chair of Divinity at Harvard University.  He argues that despite his predictions in the 60s that the world was going secular (The Secular City, 1965) there has in fact been a revival of religion and spirituality across the globe and religion has re-entered the public sphere as a cultural category to be reckoned with.  Think: rise of Islam in global geo-politics.

Cox thinks this is so much more than a fundamentalist response to a crumbling world – he actually thinks fundamentalism is on its way out.  In fact, he thinks that ‘dogma’ and ‘belief’ are on their way out as centralising principles for religion, including Christianity.  As a Christian, he sees this as a good thing: a return to the early church where christians were in fellowship with each other by virtue of the spirit and their faith in Jesus.

‘Do you believe in Jesus?  Great!  Let’s break bread together’

As opposed to the Christendom epoch in which fellow christians might say:

‘Do you believe in… substitutionary atonement? the infallibility of scripture? the subordination of women? the transfiguration of the bread into the corporal blood of jesus? the supreme authority of the pope? etc. etc.

And that’s where Tina Turner comes in.  I can’t help but start singing (a noble form of contemplation you must agree):  what’s love got to do with it

So, even though I don’t have the PhD topic even vaguely under control, I feel that I’m wandering around in this field of questions.  What does a theology conceived with/through/in/by Love look like when love is the object not just the subject?  What do the 2 commandments (foundational for christian ethics and morality) look like if we switch to a mystical and ‘expansive’ concept of Love rather than a platonic one?  If personal experience is the basis of our theology and spirituality, how can we create shared meaning together in church and society?  What about the problem of pluralism – we all have different experiences so is a shared meaning system even possible.  But most importantly, what a wonderful opportunity to recover the inspired teaching of Jesus who developed a ‘public contextual theology’ and religion based on love not law!

All suggestions for PhD title/topic gratefully received! What do you want to read about on reddress for the next 3 years???

‘Spirituality and Theology’ by Mark McIntosh

Chapter 1 in Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 1998: 3-34)

There is a hightened interest in the ancient wisdoms of Mystical/ Spiritual/ Aesthetic Theology in the Academy just as there is a hightened interest in spirituality in Western cultures. It is instructive that there is a congregation of creative, postmodern theologians and pastors exploring contemplative theology and practice who have previously been formed in a great range of modernist traditions.  Catholics and Evangelicals alike are discovering the passion and possibilities within Mystical Theology.

Mark McIntosh is a prominent Anglican Theologian in this field who is easy to read and inspiring to reflect upon.  The particular task of the Mystic is ‘contemplation’ and hence is the particular method of Mystic Theology.

“contemplation is not like normal thinking only muddled and tentative, on the contrary it is seen as an activity in which the mind is liberated to perceive clearly, freed from the usual constraints of distraction, self-preoccupation or prejudice.”

“the more classical notion of mind [as opposed to Enlightenment preoccupation with linear, empirical rationality] refers to the desire of our whole being for deep understanding and relationship with all that is intelligible.”

what the mind is fixed upon in clear vision by an act of suspended wonder is ‘the manifestation of wisdom’… [Hence] it is in contemplation that theology and spirituality meet.”

These concerns echo a recurring theme in all the theologians I have been reading this year!  McIntosh warns that there is a danger with postmodern fascination with spirituality that is becomes self-absorbed and self-serving.  Wisdom (theology) moves us in a direction away from unhealthy spirituality which, as with everything else human, has the capacity to harm as much as it does to bless.

It is the discussion about definitions of spirituality in this chapter which helped me clarify something that has been slowly evolving in my mind.  First,  McIntosh is particular about a definition of spirituality within the realm of Mystical Religious Experience:

“spirituality… is inherently oriented towards discovery, towards new perceptions and new understandings of reality, and hence is intimately related to theology”

“the spiritual is that dimension of life which is engendered and empowered by God.. [and] is connected with the active presence of God and not primarily with extraordinary inner experiences”

“personal experience is not in itself the goal of spirituality”

He favours a ‘God-centric’ definition of spirituality as opposed to a Human-centric definition.  Contrast this with the opinion he cites from Sandra Schneiders (US spirituality ‘expert’):

“just as one says that a person has a certain ‘psychology’, a shape or pattern to their psychic life, so one could well say that every human being has a spirituality, that is, a ‘fundamental dimension of the human being’ … [i.e.]… that dimension of the human which is oriented towards self-transcendence

“[there is a distinction between] ‘the lived experience which actualizes’ one’s spirituality … [and the] … inherent feature of human existence.”

“[the academic discipline of spirituality is] the experimental and theoretical study of human efforts at self-transcending integration and to the pastoral practices aimed at fostering the spirituality of individuals and groups”.

Personally, I favor Schneiders definition, but the contrast in itself draws an important distinction between the ‘Mystical Experience’ (of particular persons) and ‘Basic Human Spirituality’ which should not be lost as it has important implications for both mission and ministry.  (McIntosh shows how they result in quite different academic disciplines.)   The Christian Gospel contains both particular declarations about God and generic declarations about Humanity.  There is ample ground for working together with others in our community to develop healthy human spirituality without any compromise the particularities of Jesus for professing Christians.

Universal human spirituality, as a definable characteristic independent from ‘The Proclamation Of The Gospel’, is a theological anthropology at the heart of emerging church models of missional community and the Cof E ‘fresh expressions’ and we who consider ourselves proponents of experimental forms of missional church would do well to be more articulate about it.  We might differ on how they go together but I don’t think we will disagree that they are distinct.  I do wonder whether misunderstanding this at the heart of Davison & Milbank’s For the Parish, but that is on my bookshelf waiting for the end of term!

‘Is there a Future for Gender and Theology?’ by Sarah Coakley

(In Criterion 47:1 (2009), 2-11.   Access online  here.)

Call it God, the Universe or the Mystery of Life but I’m not the only one who experiences the wonder of meeting just the right people at just the right time.  All those posts about spirituality, sexuality, psychology, love and marriage … enter Sarah Coakley.  Sarah has a theology chair at Cambridge and writes integrating interests in systematics, postmodern hermeneutics, spirituality, contemplation, mysticism, feminism, anglicanism (she’s a priest), Depth Psychology,  the body and sexuality, biology, ecology, and any other thing I could possibly desire in  reddress theology!   She has a book in the pipeline called The New Asceticism (first promised late 2010, now early 2012 – we should pray for her!)

In this essay Coakley outlines how combining investigations into postmodern gender issues and trinitarian systematic theology forges some important pathways into knowing God.

“It is the very threeness of God… transformatively met in the Spirit, which gives the key to a view of gender that is appropriately founded in bodily practices of prayer…  [Giving rise to] … an understanding of theology in progressive transformation… and one founded not in any secular rationality or theory of selfhood, but in a spiritual practice of paying attention that mysteriously challenges and expands the range of rationality, and simultaneously darkens and breaks one’s hold on previous certainties.”

She addresses three typically postmodern suspicions about the meta-narrative approach of systematic theology, in which she identifies entangled objections about power, knowledge and gender.  The first of these is an onto-theological suspicion that systematics too readily turns theology into idolatry.  The second comes from liberation critiques which identify the tendencies for overarching systems to give refuge to controlling and oppressive uses of power.  Third, French post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory identifies systematic thinking as intrinsically phallocentric.

Coakley suggests that a contemplative approach to systematics is able to address each of these difficulties in it’s capacity to transform (redeem) ‘desire’.  Desire to control for the sake of managing one’s deepest fears, gives way to a Desire to be in free relationship to others.  The refining fire is of course, the “naked longing for God” which the “desiring trinitarian God” implants in us.  It is through contemplative prayer that we most fully encounter the Triune God whom Jesus Christ revealed.  She argues (and I agree) that Human Spiritual Desire is more fundamental than sexual desire, lust for political control, love of money, and so on.  By addressing the human spirit’s desire for the divine (think in Jungian categories here) theology has the capacity to look at those other desires from a different angle.

“The very act of contemplation – repeated, lived, embodied, suffered – is an act that, by grace, and over time, precisely inculcates mental patterns of un-mastery, welcomes the dark realm of the unconscious, opens up a radical attention to the other, and instigates an acute awareness of the messy entanglement of sexual desires and desire for God.”

Sarah Coakley’s writing is so erudite and beautiful that one finds oneself considering really complex and contentious concepts before you even notice you’ve traversed into stormy waters.  It’s worth taking a look at this article for her trinitarian conceptualizations as much as for her theological foundations for the sex debates raging in the Church.   Do yourself a favour… [read the article]

‘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.

‘Trends and directions in Contemporary Theology: Anglican Theology’ by Ian Markham

(in Expository Times, 122 (5) 209-217)

Cute and useful little article!  (However, it does not include consideration of non-western thinkers and movements and is overly focused on the US.) Markham identifies 5 streams of contemporary anglican theology:

1. liberal

eg. Richard Holloway; John Shelby Spong

2. conservative

perhaps the largest group;  eg. Philip Jenkins, James Packer, Philip Turner, Ephraim Radner,

3. mystical – including the ‘radical orthodoxy’ movement

“The battle between liberals and conservatives is being fought out in the battleground of the Anglican Communion.  much of this theology is being expressed in communiques, statements, and most recently in ‘pastoral letters’.  However, more nuanced Anglican theologies are emerging in the academy, of which the most influential are using the language of ‘mystical theology’ and ‘radical orthodoxy’… [and are] … a response to postmodernism – our sensitivity that we cannot simply ‘argue’for the truth.” (p.213)

eg. mystical feminist theology – Sarah Coakley;  radical orthodoxy – John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock

4. eccelisology & culture

“This group shares a relatively conservative doctrinal emphasis..[with an understanding that]… faith depends on revelation… [which is ultimately]… the disclosure of God in the Eternal Word made flesh – the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  There is also agreement that the Christian community is central.  Faith is learning the language that enables one to participate in the Church.  The difference with Radical Orthodoxy is the possibility of dialogue across disciplines.” (p.214)

eg. Katherine Tanner, Daniel W, Hardy, David Ford, Martyn Percy, Esther Reed, Keith Ward,

5. Rowan Williams – in a category all on his own!

Three major themes to William’s work – (i) the centrality of the Christian community, with a particular interest in the way language functions in the discourse of faith;  (ii) the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity; (iii) the centrality of  Scripture, in which he encourages a ‘literal’ reading of scripture which draws us into a conversation – with God, ourselves, and our critical faculties.

“Williams is setting out an agenda for Anglican theology.  It is one that learns from conservative theologians the importance of authority and limits to pluralism.  It recognizes as foundational the conviction that God is revealed in Christ and discovered in Scripture.  It learns from the liberals the need to recognize that God is always bigger than the boxes in which we insist on confining God.  This Rowan Williams’ inspired Anglican Theology recognizes the centrality of prayer and appreciates the insights of Radical Orthodoxy.  It is happy to share an appropriate emphasis on recognizing that God is disclosing Christ to us in a vast array of cultural discoveries.  It is also a theology that gently takes issue with the extremes in each group.  To the conservatives, they need to think carefully at precisely what point a fellow Christian is no longer struggling in Christ to discern the truth of God’s Word; to the liberal, he has no time for the theologies that fail to recognize the achievement of the creeds, to the advocate of Radical Orthodoxy, he worries about an inability to engage; and to the sociological interfaith, ecclesiological movement, he insists on a strong sense of Christian identity within the Church.  This mixture of both learning from these conversation partners and yet taking issue with them is producing a distinctly Anglican approach to theology.”  (p.217)

 

Heather Thomson (ed), Embracing Grace: The Theologian’s Task: Essays in honour of Graeme Garrett

(Barton Books:  Australia:  2009)

Embracing Grace is an obtuse collection of essays, which I suspect will make more sense to those familiar with Graeme Garratt’s work, than those who are not.  The thematic link which holds the collection together is the authors’ shared admiration of their mentor, whose retirement from the Director of St. Mark’s National Theological Centre at Charles Sturt University this book celebrates.  However, the supposed theological link of ‘Grace’ is less easy to track through the writings of the varied authors.  “The title of the book was inspired by the centrality of ‘grace’ for Christian theology, both in understanding the grace of God towards us and the acceptance of that grace for living the Christian life in freedom, compassion and joy.  Graeme, for us, embodies such a life” (page 2).  Because of this failure of the linking theme, some essays seemed to be much more erudite than others, depending on my own capacity to relate to their subject matter.  The strength of the book is in the man to whom it is devoted.

Garrett himself provides the best way into the collection of essays through his response at the end of the book.  “God gives Godself to be known, or knowledge of God does not take place at all.  Theology presupposes the embracing grace of God” (page 200).  If the task of theology is to extend and apply and facilitate the embrace of god to others, what then is the nature of the many and varied ministries of the Church which in essence are it’s theological tasks?  The chapters written by non-professional theologians on The Theologian as Citizen, Conversationalist and Poet (John Langmore, Geoffrey Brennan, Terry Falla respectively) seemed more adept at emulating Graeme Garrett’s personal capacity to extend the theological power of Grace into all areas of life and study.   For example, Langmore’s chapter entitled ‘Prophetic Grief and Hope,’ elucidates and gives contemporary examples from Australian public policy, Global Development and Nuclear disarmament, for the long standing Christian tradition in which Garrett stands of believing “not only that human life is sacred but that God seeks for all to live wholly fulfilled lives” (page 90).  Such practicality finally gave me a way into the rest of the essays which explored Theologian as Priest, Preacher, Spiritual Director, Biblical Interpreter, Prophet, Ethicist, Peacemaker, Teacher and Writer (Stephen Pickard, Jane Foulcher, Kerrie Hide, John Painter, Thorwald Lorenzen, Sarah Bachelard, David Neville, Heather Thompson and Tom Frame).   Of these, Bachelard’s chapter entitled ‘Beyond ‘thou shalt’ lies a deeper word’, stands out with her concise remark:  “grace creates the possibility of radical fellowship.”  What is clear from these thinkers is that grace has created the possibility of radical discipleship, radical being and believing, radical theology.  Radical, in the sense that it has the power to transform the world.

 

Ian Mobsby, The Becoming of G-d

(YTC Press: UK: 2008)

I LOVE this book!  Ian Mobsby writes more of my own thoughts than anyone else I have ever read.  It is so exciting to know someone whose been travelling the same road totally separately and discovering very similar things along the way.  Indeed, this is not just a phenomena specific to me, but something  Ian writes is happening all over the world in emerging church communities – a rediscovery of the God who is Trinity to lead us into renewed ways of being church, doing theology, living a response to the bible, prayer, mission and so on!

God who is Trinity draws us into knowing God through our lived experience rather than a set of objectified facts.   God fills our imagination with the possibilities for wholeness in the world, as God fills our hearts with Love and redeems our minds by Grace.  This is theology that I can get excited about!

In outlining his own vision of the Trinity draws on an incredibly diverse range of theological thinkers:  Walter Bruggemann, Pete Rollins, Karl Barth, Brian Edgar, The Cappadocian Fathers and Mothers, Kester Brewin, Paul Tillich and Stuart Murray.  Ian’s main concern however, is to connect our transformational experiences of God to a transformational life.  “The decline experienced by the Western Church through-out the period of modernity and now in post-modernity, is due in the main to an inedequate theism.  Conceptions of God as one’s best friend, or as excessively immanent or transcendent, are the result of a faiture to accept the validity of, and move beyond, the critique of the enlightenment emancipators.” (p.35)  The book reviews models of church; challenges of mission in post-modernity; contextual theology; and the challenge of living communally, in light of a replenished encounter with God.

In summing up, Ian Mobsby’s words sum up the reason why I am setting aside 2011 to study:  “Theology is the place where God speaks into human discourse, and that as we do mission, it point people to the divine.  Religious truth is that which transforms reality rather than that which describes it.  In worship and mission we seek to contemplate God, who in turn touches and communicates with humanity.  If Church is truly modeled on this approach, it will meet deeply with contemporary culture” (p. 143).  Amen!