The following is a tangential contribution to the conversations around topics of gender, theology, and ontology (and for those on Facebook see the conversations at The Theology Studio group). I typically don’t have the intellectual resources to fully engage in the critique of ideas on their own terms so I offer the following as a testimony against a particular theological formation.
I am sometimes at a loss in how to respond towards people wanting ‘proof’ that their theology/theory is misguided or dangerous. When it comes to the current conversation around the role of theology as a practice in-and-for-the-church, with its potentially self-authorizing ‘ontology’ I am coming to see that my most incisive response is one of personal testimony. So if you have interest in this conversation (and I think it is an important one) or just want to do some online lurking then bear me out.
It is easy to fill in the blanks of my childhood. Grew up in a small town that was religiously conservative (southern Manitoba). I was a straight white male, only son, culturally above average intelligence, physicality attending to the favoured local pursuits. Blah, blah, blah . . . and there I was graduating high school fully formed in Blinded Privilege. I spent a good part of my first year out of high school volunteering in California (flood relief). When there I took a trip into the Big City, downtown San Francisco. I was moved, affected, by some relatively visceral images (for a country mouse) of poverty. These images formed an orientation, a concern for why some people suffered and others did not. I was also quite zealous and active in my church and faith and began attending Bible college. I was informally introduced to strands of liberation theology and its ability to re-orient the Bible and the gospel towards the concerns and realities of those suffering.
As I became more interested and invested in theological pursuits I caught the wave of ecclesial upward mobility happening in the late 90s (at least that was when I experienced it). I started attending an Anglican church and took a course in Anglican theology. In retrospect something decisive happened during this time. My priest was eloquent and intellectual. He was able to incorporate a range of theorists, authors, and poets into his sermons and talks. I began learning about the grand liturgical imagination that the ‘higher’ church forms offered. Theology was quickly becoming an expansive reality in how it was able to engage the world. In my course on Anglican theology I read Oliver O’Donovan who criticized the Southern School (liberation theology) because it “fails to recognize the inspiration of the movement, which has been to take up the cause of the poor as a theologically given mandate.” In other words, I was not able to trust the authority of my experience of the poor but had to be sure it was authorized in a prior theological framework otherwise it was doomed to “conform to the historical dialectic of idealism.” This would lead to the empty vacuum of endless and contentless criticism. Well! I did not want that. Then read I John Milbank and the enchanting words inviting us to consider the time when there was no secular. Secularism has attempted to police the boundaries of the divine, assuming a position of being able to adjudicate and position religions. I read that there are times when prior theological commitments will lead simply to an ‘incommensurable impasse in dialogue.’ You simply cannot talk with some people. Or more specifically you cannot trust secular discourses because they are perversions, parodies of theological truths. I was ushered into another world, another imagination. Within that imagination things like the liturgical year and most of all the Eucharist took on all but magical properties. The Eucharist was now the site for resolving things like social injustice (Cavanaugh) and even trauma (Marcus Pound). I began focusing my creative and professional/pastoral energies around considering this new found power.
This exposure to a new and ever-expanding theological imagination led me to the conclusion that the meaning of life is worship. Now, to be up front I still more or less maintain this basic articulation but it has come to mean something almost entirely different. In any event, this was literally a climax. I felt enlightened, at peace within. And then something changed. A significant shift in influences and engagement surfaced. Not the least of these influences was a sustained if somewhat tragic engagement in the theo-blogosphere, back in its hay-day a few years ago (those were heady times). I tried exploring and pushing back at some of the contributions made at AUFS. My initial criticisms were quite misguided in general but it opened myself up to engage with their own broad critique of theology. Some of the basic charges laid against my thinking was that it was essentially ideological, in the sense that I was working from an internal logic that someone needed to accept ahead of time in order to participate legitimately. For instance my concept of worship was only coherent when someone also accepted my basic understanding of how God works in the world, which is through the practices and imagination of the church. Those who would not ascribe to this view were necessarily false or suspect in my articulation.
Around this time I was also reading through Kierkegaard’s published works and two thoughts stood out. First, Kierkegaard at one point considers the Christian position valid only if it is able to face squarely or non-evasively the forms and expressions of thought in the world. That is, it does not preemptively structure the thought it encounters. It is affected by external thought and experience. And, in another place (I think it is in Stages) notwithstanding or perhaps precisely because of Kierkegaard’s obsession with transcendence Kierkegaard understands clearly that to think is to think immanence. There must be an attending to the network of relations and not the importing of self-authorizing judgment.
These influences, as well others, became a sort of watershed. I could have remained committed to a particular project and articulation of orthodoxy but I could not do this in good conscience re-entrench because the critique of my expression simply fit. I was not engaging the world, I was simply projecting. In this way I am coming to consider quite a wide swath of what would be considered Orthodoxy (my experience is primarily in the Anglican form of this) as potentially harmful.
In this way I have become more appreciative of what Philip Goodchild (often evoking Simone Weil) would call attention as opposed to imagination (simply contrasted reception/projection, formed in relation/formed in mind, finite/infinitely persistent). This is also not unlike how I have been influenced by the work and resources of Dan Barber in attempting to think immanence. This has left me in a precarious position in relation to my profession and faith. I still attend to what I would call transcendent concerns and possibilities but I no longer feel able to project such realities as meaning into the world, or at least I try to be much more mindful of how and when I do that. I attempt to practice the discipline of allowing myself to affected by the modes and forms of thought around me so that whatever position I come to it is formed in relation to more concrete expressions.
The result of this shift has opened up an entirely new (from my experience) way of engaging what some of my initial and formative concerns around suffering and inequality led me towards. It was, at least in part, a particular theological imagination that began to demand a prior accounting of what was valid and even what ‘suffering’ or at least what ‘inequality’ really was. I am now much interested in attending to the spaces and flows of how cultural, material, political, economic, etc., power effect certain segments of the world. The hope is that through this attention and mutual affection there can emerge the work and thought necessary for flows of new life, hell, re-birth.
To come full circle I offer this as a testimony of how a particular mode of theological imagination actually de-railed me from initial concerns of how to be faithful to the gospel message towards those experiencing bondage. I was wooed into being faithful in worship to a transcendent God who it so happened also offered a structure of meaning and perspective that rendered anything outside of the church suspect, while also being able to consider itself vulnerable before the transformation of this God. A theology that was earnest in its confidence to out-narrate.
This is my single testimony offered for those who may want to re-consider their theological orientation.