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.









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’.

David Kelsy on Paul Tillich

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. (If you interested you can link to the THL512 subject overview on the right hand panel.)  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.  Well, here goes nothing… first up – Tillich (delicious!!)

(Kelsy, David H. ‘Paul Tillich’. In David F. Ford with Rachel Muers, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918 (third edition) pp. 62-75 (Massachussets; Blackwell Publishing, 2005))

Paul Tillich is trying to make sense of a German Christian theology that had been so accommodating to the Nazi regime. He has the benefit of the Schleiermacher – Barth conversation of the early twentieth century and now his integrative task seeks to answer the trauma of Christian conflation with such a violent socio-political system. He proposes a ‘correlation’ between that which is theological anthropology and that which is divine revelation. His Systematic Theology volumes lay out a resolution to this problem with a surprisingly socratic method: culture poses the questions to which Christian Theology provides the answers. By asking and answering some basic existential questions, Tillich outlines an understanding of humanity’s essential nature, the problem of estrangement from our essence and the spiritual dimension where healing and actualisation of our essence is possible. The essential nature of human beings is a finite system of transactions which strives to keep in balance a number of polarities. The first of these is a need for individualisation on the one hand and participation in community on the other. Another is the dynamism to the process of existence which is kept in tension with solid and static form. A third is freedom verses destiny. When these polarities tip off the scale to lose it’s opposite truth, we experience existential distruption. Only God – that which is experienced as pure essence without finite existence – has the capacity to unite human beings with the essence out of which they have been birthed. Living life with a spiritual dimension working towards self-transcendence seeks to achieve a balance in these polarities. Tillich primarily deals with Scripture as Revelation, as befits his German Protestant context but the presentation of scriptural truths is not the endpoint of theology. The application of Scripture to the questions and dilemmas of faith lived in the real world requires theology to be a critique of culture and context.

Final reflections on UK worship experiences

In late August – early September 2011 I spent a month in England exploring contextual worship and community, art and spirituality. During this time I blogged about my experiences of worship in transitional contexts. This included 3 days at the Greenbelt Christian Art, Justice and Spirituality Festival, where the worship events I went to were entirely of temporary construction. For most of the rest of the trip there were events where I was a minority transitory worshipper – a visitor. But then there were also big cathedrals where the majority of the congregation were transitory – a cohort of pilgrims. A semiotic understanding of liturgy is absolutely critical to understanding worship in transitional contexts.

What made worship work in a transitory context?

There are two elements I think need to be satisfied in a ‘successful’ Christian worship event. First, the Mysterious God of the Universe is Revealed – thinking here of Karl Barth’s understanding that we know nothing at all about God unless God in God’s Self makes the initiative in Revelation. The Word of God therefore must be recognisably presented in some way. The second criteria for a ‘successful’ Christian worship is that there must be genuine connection with human souls – thinking here in rather generic terms of a psycho-dynamic definition of soul as the centre of a human person. The place within the human person where the Spirit indwells and the Self is known. I noticed three things that made a difference to the success of the worship event, thus defined.

Even when the congregation was temporary, relationality is still essential. Establishing the ground rules for the relationships of a crowd are critical to the creation of a ‘safe place’ for worshippers. Deep engagement with one’s soul is not possible in the presence of others if this relationality is not in place. This is often down to careful management of the ‘welcome’. In every event I was greeted by a person whose role was to direct me from being a stranger at the door to a member of the community gathering for worship. I needed enough instructions to be able to know what was expected, these expectations needed to be confirmed by the unspoken relational dynamics once I had entered the room. I needed a moment of genuine connection where I was ‘seen’ and acknowledged as a person by the warmth of a person’s smile, eye contact or hand shake. Two examples stand out and in both cases I very quickly fell into deep prayerfulness at the start of the liturgy. The first was at Moot which started with coffee and informal chat. The second was at Holy Trinity Brompton where I was smiled at and spoken to by 4 people directing my path along a complicated route to the front door.

Further to this, the transitional context draws attention to the nature of the congregation as a liturgical symbol. When Lathrop talks about the ‘Things’ of worship he conceives of the congregation in this way – people are one of the ‘things’ required for worship to take place. As such, establishing the nature and structure of the congregational relationships becomes an exercise in semiotics – giving meaning to the symbol. The relationships need defining in order for us to play our part – are we participants or spectators; are we fellow human beings adrift in a meaningless universe or are we fellow Christians with a shared experience and understanding of God.

A second element I noticed, which was particularly important for those transitional worship contexts with a temporary community, is the need to concentrate on the transcendent. What unites a diffuse group of people together? For worship – they come to engage with God, either consciously or unconsciously. Even when a person is seeking the divine unconsciously, by focusing on the human dynamic of a community in worship, it is the intrusion of the Divine which makes such experiences powerful. Hence, for worship in a transitional context to be effective, it must give special attention to God in the liturgy, over and above the human elements. The Sunday Communion Service at Greenbelt was a particular example of this not happening adequately. St Paul’s Cathedral on the other hand did it very successfully by working with the power of it’s architecture.

In Bernard Lonergan’s conversion theology, he distinguishes between different levels or forms of conversion within the human person – intellectual, moral and religious. We may be convinced or converted by rationality, and then at a deeper level become motivated to change our behaviour, but it is at the very deepest level of human consciousness that religious conversion takes place – the experience of transcending one’s self into something beyond, bigger, mysterious and wonderful. Lonergan describes this process using the analogy of falling in love. A Being-in-Love is someone who has encountered themselves in an Other. In transitional worship there is no time for a slowly evolving romance, where the worshipper and God might spend time getting to know each other (intellectual conversion) and gradually spend more and more time doing things together (moral conversion). If there is to be transformative engagement with God it must be love at first sight!

Finally, during my UK trip I paid special attention to the place of art and beauty in creating tranformative moments. It seemed to me that those two words may helpfully point to different aesthetic experiences. In general, beauty seems to have the effect on the human soul of comforting, calming and soothing. Art often takes a role of confronting, questioning, challenging. In the context of worship, both are useful. Beauty creates a safe space where God may be encountered, where worshippers are invited to relax into the moment and become vulnerable. Art on the other hand, is powerful to communicate something about the Transcendent God or God’s challenge for our lives – often an experience that is not comfortable. Art takes us beyond the everyday, even in the very act of engaging with the everyday and ordinary.

When DeClerk discusses the adage lex orandi:lex credendi he comments that application of this as avatar becomes problematic in a time of transition. The symoblic nature of liturgy means that its meaning always requires application, and as Hughes emphasises, human beings can only make meaning from those meanings that are available to them. When worship takes place in a transitional context, the possibility of multiple interpretations of the liturgy is high. In the current cultural epoch of post-modernism (itself a transitional culture) this ambiguity or plurality to meaning is embraced. Theologically this is seen as reclaiming the mystery of God who cannot be contained in any single human construct or any single definition of the Revealed Word of God. Again here is the importance of understanding semiotic meaning in transitional contexts – it is essential for both a theological and a psycho-spiritual understanding of what is happening in the liturgy. Hence, because of their semiotic capacity, art and beauty have become essential elements in liturgy for post-modern Christians – be that forms of ‘alternative worship’ or recovery of ancient practices.


De Clerck, Paul ‘“Lex orandi, lex credendi”: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage.’ In Studia Liturgia 24 (1994) 178-200.

Hardy, Daniel W. ‘Karl Barth.’ In The Modern Theologians (3rd Ed) (Massachussets; Blackwell, 2005)

Hughes, G. ‘Liturgical Theology.’ In Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 219-254.

Lathrop, G. W. ‘Things.’ In Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1993) 87-115.

Lonergan, Bernard Method in Theology (London; Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973)

‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage

(Studia Liturgica 24 (1994) 178-200)

My first assignment for the session 2 unit on Worship and Liturgy takes it’s cue from this article by French Theologian and Roman Catholic Priest Paul DeClerck.  Lex orandi lex credendi is a latin phrase that has framed the theological questions of liturgy since the 5th century:  “the law of faith [is] the law of belief.”  DeClerck notes that this works really differently in a time of change such as our present.  In a time of stability it makes sense to say, ‘see how the church prays, and you will know what it believes.’  But in our time, “is it not in terms of certain new or renewed ideas that one intends to revise practices or texts which no longer, or badly correspond to them?”  My present experiences of church worship seem to circle around the theme: ‘see how the church prays, and you will know how disconnected what they believe and how they behave really are!’  (Let alone how disconnected from everyday life and the ‘outside’ world.)

So DeClerck raises the question, how do we understand the relationship between theology (what we believe) and liturgy, or worship, in it’s broadest sense?  Do we work out good doctrine and then re-write the prayer book?  Do we research the historical witness of the church through it’s liturgies and re-write our doctrine?  His answer is subtle.  When the lex orandi lex credendi rule is applied too tightly from one end, it tends to be redressed too tightly from the other end.  He illustrates by showing how Pope Pius XII did a complete backflip on a centuries old understanding of the adage in a 1950 encyclical which, from the middle ages to the twentieth century, was interpreted as “the rule of prayer determines the rule of belief”  (or liturgy is a source of authority for the construction of theology).  Pius XII was reacting against the kind of modernist definition of religion discussed here recently in relation to Schleiermacher.  George Tyrrell was an English Roman Catholic arguing for an understanding of the christian liturgy as “begotten by a mysterious, abiding contact of the human soul with God; and the Creed is but the record of the gradual unravelling of the meaning of that experience through the collective spiritual labour of the Church, guided by the Spirit of Christ, into all truth.”  Well, if that’s what your polemical partner is saying, the redress is to argue that no, Holy Mother Church is the keeper of the keys to all conceptions of god and She will determine therefore how and what we pray!  (Sorry, please forgive my gen-X, anti-establishmentarianism.)

So, strangely, I am back to a familiar reddresstheology theme – we are emerging from a time in history where the pendulum swung one way too far (Enlightenment Humanism) then, I think, another way too far (Authoritarian Response from Inherited Church) so that what we need to do now is stop, take a deep breath, and find the middle ground.  This is actually the exercise in liminal rationality that I wrote about in the liminality essay.  The task is critique and where possible integration, where not possible, a willingness to leave uncertain, integrating each of the snippets of wisdom available to us on their own merits.

The importance of non-dichotomous thinking is really well demonstrated by deClerck in this law of prayer:law of belief maxim.  He splendidly employs the language of this adage as an ‘avatar’  to describe the (Riceourian) way in which these words act as a kind of symbol.  For non-science fiction and gaming fans, you will probably need to do what I did and grab a dictionary!

1: the incarnation of a Hindu deity (as Vishnu)
2a : an incarnation in human form   b : an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a person
3: a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity
4: an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user (as in a computer game)
It’s the third meaning that DeClerck has in mind:  lex orandi lex credendi is shorthand for a certain understanding of the connection between theology and worship.  However, the blessing and curse of symbols is their slippery attachment to a definitive reference.  Hence, over a couple of millenia, the meaning of the adage has the opportunity to get completely disconnected from it’s original intention.  Herein lies my dilemma and the reason I am struggling to write an essay on this topic which needs to be submitted in 3 days!  How do we determine the reference point for definition?  Does there need to be a reference point for there to be any useful meaning in the avatar or is that just our addiction to Platonic epistemology?   Why is the original meaning of the avatar the reference point for all other meanings, particularly when it involves complex historical argumentation to unearth it?  And is there anything wrong with having more than one interpretation of an avatar anyway? 
Postmodern approaches to epistemology have much more subtle ways of dealing with these questions and even though deClerck is essentially arguing for the primacy of the original meaning above other historical avatars, I think he is on to something with the swinging pendulum.  There is usefulness in the notion that a definition does reach it’s limits.  Concepts, words, thoughts, definitions – all these things are finite as human beings are finite.  They are human constructions.  Therefore an apophatic definition might be the best starting point.  Apophatic just means ‘negative’  – we affirm what we do not know in order to define what we might know.  I use the technical term deliberately to allude to Apophatic Theology, which is an ancient theological method, and it is no accident that Emerging Theologians are re-discovering it value in a fragmented culture.
How then, do I understand the adage itself:  law of prayer:law of belief?    Well, they are a complex, interdependent human mystery!  Our heart, soul, mind and strength do not operate independently, though their relationship operates differently at different times and differently within different people.  So yes, our prayers reflect what we actually believe in our deepest selves, but also what we are told to believe by our socialised self!  Our theology reflects our conscious logic and careful considerations, but it also reflects our unconscious irrationalities and emotional motivations.  The up side is that when theology and worship go together – it enables us to sing praise and love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.

Living with Jesus in Liminality: an invitation to be ‘dead with the dead God’

Just posted a link to my 10,000 word essay on liminality on the reddress writing page.  It was a long and difficult labour, but I am inordinately proud!

Liminal, adj  \’li-m’-nel\

1.  of or relating to a sensory threshold

2.  barely perceptible

3.  of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.

This piece of writing is theology born out of my own experience – heart, soul, mind and strength.  It is also where I think the Western Church is at – the old has died, but the new has not yet come.  It is the very definition of the ’emerging’ church – finding our way through a time massive time of transition and ecclesiastical upheaval.  So I’ve written about the spiritual experience of individual believers, the power of ritual for times of transition, and postmodern cultural liminality.  In all of that I suggest that Holy Saturday offers us a spirituality which gently guides us through a really difficult time.  Here’s the intro & conclusion:

There are moments, sometimes long extended, where life seems to drop into a kind of suspended state.  There is a memory of a past with form and intelligence but the simplicity of life has passed away and no shape or meaning has yet replaced it.  This moment of ‘liminality’ is an apophatic state of continuous present.  We have only the vaguest knowledge of ourselves, God and our world by what we used to know in the past and now do not know in the present.   On Holy Saturday there is similarly no human form or constructs, the Incarnated God has passed away.  And whilst faith prompts hope that there might be a further movement to the story, any future is not yet foreseeable.  There is nothing to do here but lie with Jesus in the tomb.  It is ‘betwixt and between’, a moment of liminality.  The Christian hope in this story is that there is nothing to do but wait.  Wait for the Lord’s resurrection.  Wait for God to act.  If one waits for the Lord’s rescue, the tomb can be transcended.  This essay explores the nature of liminality as a descriptor of life in transition in relation to individual psycho-spiritual states, Christian ritual and the present socio-cultural shift in Western society.  It then considers the spiritual lessons of Holy Saturday to ask: how is the Christian to live in such a moment?  What rules still apply?  What is the invitation?  I conclude that moments of liminality invite the Christian to ‘be dead with the dead God’ (Von Balthasar)…

This essay has presented an argument that liminality is a natural part of human experience which presents the follower of Jesus with an opportunity.  Surviving liminality requires faith and understanding – that this is not the end of the story, that there has been One who has been here before.  It is, in fact an opportunity to come into intimate contact with that One who is beyond our reach in the everyday of life.  Saying yes to this opportunity means embracing the moment –  standing still in the dark, or lying with Jesus in the grave.  It is a strange mix however, for at once there is a letting go of the old, a refusal to draw on human resources, the determined act of trusting that there is a future.  Critical thinking and searching for meaning, searching for God is a liminal intelligence that refuses to believe there is nothing but void.  That there is a power beyond the grave to come to our rescue, break through the meaninglessness with purpose and redeem the old ways so that they make sense again in a new light.