Making a theological statement

I have never really liked theology. It would be easy and boring to associate this sentiment with some self-aggrandizing notion of how my beliefs are so original and idiosyncratic that they cannot be contained in existing theological discourses. But this was the case even when I was primed for theology, when I was seeking theology, when I just loved Jesus and wanted to be smart too.

Perhaps it was simply the case that I was exposed to bad theology early and never recovered. Going to a small evangelical bible college I still have images of the brick that is Millard Erickson’s systematic theology. From what little I remember it was basically an exhaustive attempt at creating a logical system of proof texting the Bible in relation to God. It seemed that unconsciously I sensed that theology tried to make of the Bible something other than what it already was. I always enjoyed the Bible, or at least from my early formative periods of faith. The Bible was just something that my faith led me to be immersed in. In the Bible there was more than I could possibly understand.

Evangelical apologetics were equally inscrutable. Why would ‘God’ be subsumed to reason or logic, wouldn’t that make logic or reason God? I mean, I understood what people were trying to do in apologetics but it never made sense, that is, I couldn’t actually do it. I remember taking an apologetics class and for my class presentation the only thing I could come up with as ‘proof’ was how interesting it was that over millennia a community gave what seemed like unbroken testimony to something.

My aversion to theology only continued and it was not really for lack of exposure. I toured through various ancient and modern theologians with some holding more and some less interest. My only really sustained engagement was with Rowan Williams. Williams was the first theologian for whom theology seemed non-reductive, that is, he seemed to let his theology roam as wide as his faith. This may not be advisable as an academic discipline but it was invigorating at the time. This period also aligned with my time worshipping in an Anglican church. It felt as though perhaps I found an intellectual and spiritual home. But at that time I also began reading works by Philip Goodchild and Daniel C Barber. Significant to their work was a critique of the function of transcendence within Christianity (and so also modernity) and its attendant schools of thought. The critique that I drew from them was how evoking transcendence (that is the existence of another plane of reality inaccessible by direct contact from this plane) was almost always a power play, always a matter of who was mediator, priest, of the pathway between realms. To be on the side of transcendence was to be an unassailable authority (perhaps benevolent perhaps not). Goodchild unpacked this in terms of the difference between imagination and attention. Put most simply imagination projects beliefs onto the world while attention allows for the possibility of mutual transformation engaging the world. Confessional statements of faith could not be protected when one is committed to paying attention. This was the undoing of my Anglican tour of faith. Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) was on trend at that time for intellectuals and artists of faith, Anglican theology (and its attendant liturgy) offering a drama of life in which creation is taken up into its vision of life. Everywhere I turned from then on all I could see were acts of imaginative projection (which ultimately is just another term for supremacy). I am not saying I have rid myself of Christian supremacism but Anglican theology was ruined for me.

In the last ten years I have come across theology that has moved and shaped me; James Cone, Delores Williams, and Marcella Althaus-Reid are a few that come to mind. What these theologians modelled for me was the type of attention that facilitated a sense of relay with life, or living. This attention privileges suffering as a reality which is excluded or rejected from dominant discourses and imaginations. Suffering is the site which can have no meaning. This resistance to discourse, which is perhaps also resistance to the world comes close to my definition of holiness drawn from the Israelite tradition of anti-idolatry, leaving nothing at the center worship. Here attention is drawn to that which is not figured, not of this world but also not transcendent; not a meaning maker from another realm.

God and God’s holiness is that which moves otherwise than the figuring of the world. This is of course not a consistent theme in the Bible. To impose consistency would already be to adopt an intelligible discourse of the world and ascribe holiness to it. The Bible does, however, offer a surprising multitude of clashing discourses, meditations on sheol and darkness, rigorous demands of holiness, and calls to value what is not. This swarm hardly makes for theology in any standard use of the term.

In the place of theology I consider my intellectual practice one of study. Study is necessary unfinished, necessarily attentive and formative. There are of course many forms and types of study but the holding of faith and intellect draws me time and again to absurdities, dreams, traumas, and the unbearable for these places necessarily clear so much of the world from it that the possibility of holiness seems somehow inevitable if one is able to learn how to sustain attention, for these things so easily cast us off or cast us down or elicit rationalizations and denials. It is from here that my understanding or worship and even church appear. It is in the gathering of those at such sites of attention that the practices of faith sustain our attention and await something that we might call resurrection.

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A neighbourhood shrine

Imagine cute kitten with caption 'hang in there'.
Imagine a cute kitten with the caption ‘hang in there’.

I walk by this house twice a day. I will hopefully try to layer the description to give some minimal sense of what is happening here.

The fence is rotted with many pickets missing. It cannot stand up on its own.
The fence is secured by what literally looks like a frayed shoestring that has been knotted a few times in the middle due to tears.
The shoestring is tied to a tree that is dead and cracked down the middle.

This would be sheer comedy or pure metaphor if not for the fact that it is actually someone’s fence. This is someone’s boundary marker. This is the extent of their strength in being able to secure a sense of stable self in relation to external forces.

I am often critical of ‘fences’ because of how much more easily and effectively the wealthy and powerful are able to manipulate them. But this is all the more reason to be attentive to what sort of boundaries the more vulnerable are able (or not) to maintain. And of course even here this is in the context of someone who is able to rent or own a home and so already the type of boundary is radically different from the material transience or instability that many others experience.

Walking past this place daily I find its affective presence just as striking. As I mentioned earlier this really is comic. This image presses to the extremes the definition of what a fence is. This is a boundary marker that cannot stand alone. This is a symbol of protection and safety secured by a shoestring. This is a house of cards.

In some ways it is surprising that no one (or perhaps this is where the knots came from) has simply grabbed the fence in passing and yanked on it to snap the string; to end the farce. I am guessing there is some sympathy for this fence. I wonder if people find themselves in this scene and give the fence its due respect.