Contemplating God at Exeter St David’s

I was in Exeter this week, travelling by train, and so came again across Bridget Hall’s wonderful murals in Exeter St David’s, on the stairs from Platform 1. This one is the clearest clue to what’s going on: the train guard leaning out and gesturing imperiously from the dining car is a pastiche of Michelangelo’s depiction of God the Father creating the sun and moon, from the series of images depicting scenes from the book of Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Hall’s murals are witty pastiches of some of those images.

To catch the allusion is to enjoy the joke: the serious subjects of Michelangelo’s paintings in their exclusive, sacred and awe-inspiring setting at the heart of the palace of the purported Vicar of Christ become whimsical mundane characters at work or waiting for a train in a British railway station. Smile and walk on to your platform or the exit. Yet they’ve stayed with me, and I think deserve a little further thought – without losing sight of the joke – as examples of theology done in public.

I’m not claiming to know what Bridget Hall was thinking in choosing to nod to Michelangelo. But by putting Michelangelo’s God in a dining carriage on Exeter station, and in alluding to other scenes he painted from Genesis, she makes her murals theological. And that invites reflection.

The depiction of God the Father is as I say, the most obvious. Compare it to the original:

Michelangelo’s muscled God zooms toward us, sending sun and moon spinning into place from nowhere by his gesticulated command, his determination to order etched upon his frowning, bearded face, while cherubs attend in wonder and amazement. Hall’s God looks alone and less certain, less dynamic, leaning rather than zooming, and framed by a window, rather than defining the surrounding space. His gesture, still too large for the setting, might be to point out the right platform to an enquiringly traveller. He has been brought down to earth. This is God as one of us, a stranger on a train rather than a bus, but who might at least be able to point the way home if we’re lost. We don’t suppose even the Pope in Rome will be calling on the phone. (Apologies to Joan Osbourne).

The Exeter mural, precisely by its humour and pathos, pays a wry homage to Michelangelo and passes comment on his deity. That comment could be construed as socio-cultural commentary: God is no longer in his heaven as far as many of us are concerned, no longer a figure of power and command, the paternal archetype of the Christ the Judge of the Sistine rear wall; the tide of faith has (the mural suggests) receded in Devon as on Dover beach. The timetable, standardised time as a universal measure of mechanical causality, rules in place of God, and frames what we make of God. Hall’s God as conductor or ticket inspector could be taken as a wry comment on a deist deity or ‘God of the gaps’, fitted awkwardly into the frame of a cosmos ordered without reference to him, a hypothesis of which we have no need in our World Come of Age.

Alternatively, it could be taken as Feuerbachian or feminist analysis: Hall’s image tells us that Michelangelo’s deity is the projection of human self-understanding in general, and of patriarchal ideology especially. Indeed, it could be taken, consequent on all these analyses, as negative theology: the divine patriarch of the Sistine chapel, and the Deist deity squatting in our universe, are human creations in our image, idols. God is not this, not that. God’s nature, in at least parts of Christian tradition, is beyond comprehension, unnameable, beyond adequate conceptual or visual representation, beyond species and genus, as Aquinas says. Not much apophatic theology, however, makes its point so wittily or accessibly!

What about the other images? I think I can identify two possible allusions. This one alludes to the creation of light and its separation from darkness, the first of the Genesis scenes on the Sistine chapel ceiling and, if I remember correctly, this is also the first mural you encounter as you ascend the stairs at Exeter. Here’s the Exeter image and the original:

Michelangelo depicts God flinging light into being and dividing it from darkness by his robed body in an image framed by possibly angelic nudes reclining against neoclassical architecture. Hall has apparently replaced the deity entirely in her version. Light is represented by an information board, which a pair or couple walk past, animatedly discussing something. The reclining nude angels have been replaced by two male passengers in casual clothing in similar poses to the angels, holding a ticket and (perhaps) a timetable. The one on the right reproduces the right-hand angel’s intense, possibly erotic, gaze at his neighbour. In fact, it is only their poses which allow us to identify the allusion. This is also an image which, in contrast to Michelangelo’s scene, includes a black person in the space analogous to that occupied by Michelangelo’s God. More of that later.

The other image I want to mention alludes to the creation of Eve:

Michelangelo has an elderly God beckons Eve from a sleeping Adam, bordered by more corpulent angelic nudes. Again, in Hall’s mural the angels are the main feature and the only clue to the allusion, transmuted into clothed, lounging tourists, neither replicating the statuesque whiteness of Michelangelo’s figures. There’s no Adam or Eve in the framed image, only a grey bearded man with a briefcase, who looks like he’s swaying backwards as a train passes.

These murals are images in which sacred history has been replaced by quotidian experiences of being in transit, of leisure anticipated or exhausted, of meaningless surprise and ordinary conversations about routes or directions. They are also images alluding to scenes before what Michelangelo, following the Christian tradition, construed as the Fall. They depict a mundane paradise of mild boredom, perhaps of bored erotic interest. In Michelangelo’s images, the human form echoes the divine and the angelic. In Bridget Hall’s murals, God walks incognito as another human, and the angels are earthly, the dramas are small-scale and intimate. These are what we are to celebrate, looking at them at eye level, in public spaces.

They are also images which challenge the hegemony of white bodies as representatives of sacred history, angelic life, and the divine.

One could read them as celebrations of travel, of a time when opportunities for leisure and the disposable income to take advantage of them are relatively widespread. But perhaps one could also see something else. In the Christian tradition, leisure has been seen as a condition of possibility of contemplating God. Perhaps another way to read these images is to see these quasi-angelic figures as contemplatives who, disabused of the idolatrous theologies of projection, patriarchy and whiteness, seek the God who cannot be seen, but whose creative action makes possible the everyday world, the ways we order it, and its dramas and mundanities. Unlike some stations, Exeter St David’s can hardly be compared to a cathedral (sorry). But through Bridget Hall’s murals it can be read as a kind of liminal sacred space where ordinary time may be suspended between journeys, and our attention diverted by images into an imageless prayer.

Harry Potter and the invisible gorilla


I’ve just finished re-reading the Harry Potter books, and now I’m reading the script of The Cursed Child for the second time. There’s so much to love in these stories: the characterisation, the excellent plotting, the detail, complexity and consistency of the world they evoke. Above all (contrary to what some Christians will tell you) they are deeply moral stories, concerned with the struggle against forces of hate and domination. They do so with considerable realism, not least in the moral ambiguities of that struggle, and the moral limitations of the good, together with moments of comedy and shared pleasures. It’s these ambiguities and limitations, especially the limitations of what is of concern to characters and readers, and their significance for Christian theology, that I’m interested in here.

Like so much of the best fantasy literature, the Harry Potter stories render the struggle against the forces of hate and domination – principally Voldemort and his death-eaters – in a profoundly realistic way. The plot and its themes are rendered through the interaction of characters and the circumstances which constrain and shape their actions, feelings and perceptions. A range of interacting forces combine in various complex ways to shape and transform those circumstances, often in surprising ways: national and international institutions, mass media, public opinion, and so on. Magic as a medium of power with its own laws, constraints and mysteries, contributes to that realism.

Above all, the possibilities of magic notwithstanding, a great deal of the outcomes in events depends in part on happenstance, in part on the virtues and flaws of the protagonists, of the institutions of which they are part, and on the bonds of family, friendship and common purpose which unite and divide them. Magical skill is important in this world but it has to be acquired, and it is limited by others’ skill. And other qualities and factors matter more: courage, wisdom, a sense of obligation, luck, greed, loyalty, pride, lust for power, hubris, jealousy, kindness, mercy, fear and of course, love.

Magic also emphasises vulnerability in Harry Potter. The characters are vulnerable, as we are, in their bodies and in virtue of their loves, in the face of enemies who can cross space and time, and the distances between embodied minds. A lot depends on what gives them the capacity to endure suffering, and they are most vulnerable when isolated. They often live with personal and intergenerational trauma and much can depend on how they live with it. In these ways  and others, it is a set of stories that speak profoundly to moral struggles in the world of readers.

The ambiguities of the magical world contribute to that realism considerably, and frame the moral limitations of the good. Magical society in the Potter tales lives under a set of arrangements designed in the seventeenth century to minimise the risk of conflict between magical and non-magical populations by hiding magical spaces and institutions and limiting the interaction of the two populations. It is an arrangement that requires heavy regulation of the magical population by a bureaucratic surveillance state, the Ministry of Magic, which seems to seek to approximate a monopoly of overwhelming coercive force and is easily turned into an instrument of general oppression. The Ministry works closely with the main form of news media, The Daily Prophet, which it manipulates to suppress, manipulate and distort information and reputations, especially once Harry and Dumbledore claim that Voldemort has returned.

With a few exceptions (like Mr Weasley), magical humans (wizards and witches) see themselves as superior to non-magical humans (muggles) – a point also made by Noah Berlatsky here. This belief is the basis for ideologies of wizarding dominance entertained by Dumbledore (albeit briefly), Grindelwald and, of course, Voldermort and his followers. It is also basic to the latter’s  racial ideology of magical blood purity. It is ideology that, like racism in our own world, cannot abide mixing, hence the hatred directed at magical children of non-magical parents, and at those with mixed heritage of this sort. It clearly evokes whiteness as a hegemonic norm of humanity in our world, and we are invited to make the connection by the way Rowling describes the Malfoy family, who embody this ideology most visibly in the early books, by their paleness and blondness. Yet traces of this racial ideology and its intolerance of anyone who troubles its terms extends beyond the Death Eaters and into the wider magical society, manifest in the shaming and stigmatising of children of magical parents who cannot perform magic (‘squibs’).

The magical population is divided into several species, which at best coexist uneasily and with considerable mutual fear and suspicion. Voldemort and the Death Eaters combine this sense of superiority with their desire to dominate non-magical people and eliminate anyone who does not fit their categories. As Hermione says to Griphook in Shell Cottage, ‘mudbloods’ and non-human magical creatures are all in the same boat. Yet the Death Eater ideology builds upon a long history of wizarding hegemony sustained, as Griphook explains, by wizards’ monopoly on the technology of wands. Wizards generally perceive themselves as the superior species in these stories, exercising a benign paternalistic but also fragile hegemony over the other species, as imagined in the Fountain of Magical Brethren in the Ministry of Magic building, while denying space to some (giants), restricting the spaces of others (centaurs), routinely abusing still others as pests (gnomes), and stigmatising characters that cross species boundaries (half-giants like Hagrid and Madame Maxime, warewolves like Lupin) as AW Green points out. The replacement of that statue, in The Deathly Hallows, with another depicting the crushing of non-magical humans and of other non-human magical creatures under the legend ‘Magic is Might’ is a sharp symbolic contrast within an underlying continuity from which even families like the Weasleys do not appear exempt, as Ron’s attitudes to other magical species suggest.

The enslavement of house-elves and its apparent normality is the most prominent, cruel and disturbing feature of the magical society which Harry Potter rejoins and which he fights to save from Voldemort. Although Harry contrives to have Lucius Malfoy free his house-elf Dobby, and eventually shows decisive kindness to Kreacher, his godfather Sirius’ house-elf, he does not appear particularly concerned with the wider fate of house-elves who not only serve individual wizarding families, but also do much of the menial work at Hogwarts, the school where Harry (like Tom Riddle before him) finds a home, lighting fires and producing the food that the students of Hogwart’s enjoy with such relish. Hermione voices a protest at their enslavement which the reader is clearly intended to identify with, but which is also ineffectual and naive, failing to take the elves’ own perspectives, experience or practical welfare into account in her efforts to liberate them. Ron seems to voice a received wisdom shared by the best of Wizarding families when he rejects Hermione’s views with an argument that echoes arguments advanced by Christians for human slavery down the ages, namely that it is in the best interests of the one enslaved.

Though Dobby is freed and dies a heroic, noble death for his friends, epitomising the ethic of self-giving sacrifice that runs through the Potter stories, the house elves at large do not seem to be liberated after the Battle of Hogwarts. It is not even clear whether they have been freed under the regime of Hermione, when she is Minister of Magic in The Cursed Child. But what is most striking about the enslavement of the house elves is not merely that it does not disturb most of the enemies of Voldemort, or that it does not preoccupy Harry Potter or Dumbledore – a flaw quite consistent with the other flaws in their characters. It is that it does not seem to disturb the readers of Harry Potter as much as we might have expected of ourselves. I think we too, enjoying the delights of Hogwarts, sharing the fears of teachers and students, and relishing the defeat of evil, find ourselves able to look past this egregious evil in the society whose salvation we celebrate in book after book.

Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons sought to demonstrate our propensity to overlook significant details in a situation when we focus on something in particular – what they call ‘inattentional blindness’ in what is known as the ‘invisible gorilla experiment’. They asked participants to watch a video showing students dressed in white and in black shirts, passing a basketball amongst themselves, and asked them to count how many times the students in white shirts passed the ball. Part way through the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit appears in the centre of the image for a short period of time and thumps her chest before walking away. Only 50% of participants noticed the gorilla.

Aaron J. Hahn Tapper uses this experiment as a way of describing prolonged inattention to issues of inequality between the sexes in his book Judaisms, and it is useful here, too. JK Rowling depicts a society in which even the morally robust are inattentive, not to the phenomenon of the enslavement of house-elves, but to its injustice. Or rather, they are inattentive to the house-elves themselves and to their suffering. This moral inattention is different from the psychological phenomenon observed by Chabris and Simons, of course. It is willful, and self-interested, and sustained by a sense of its normality as well as by the myths of wizarding superiority and elvish inferiority that help justify it.

Chabris and Simons ran a second version of the invisible gorilla test, for participants who had knowledge of the first version. This time viewers were so focused on waiting for the appearance of the gorilla that they failed to notice other unexpected events, like a change in background colour. This second gorilla test is also helpful in respect of understanding the moral failure of the good in Harry Potter. The chief anti-Voldemort protagonists in Harry Potter are so focused on the anti-muggle, pure blood ideology of Voldemort and the Death Eaters that they tend (on the whole) to overlook the wider ramifications of the Death eater ideology, their own complicity in its roots, or the plight of the house elves in particular. And their failure evokes a parallel one in readers, I suspect, as evidenced by their enormous and enduring popularity. One of the most striking things about JK Rowlings’ books is the degree to which they draw readers, past their unease, into a parallel complicity with the characters with whom they identify, even with our explicit knowledge of the injustice in question.

What has this to do with theology?

The Harry Potter books are not only moral works, they are also theological. Or at least they resonate strongly with themes in Christian doctrine. It is not so much the background Christian references to Christmas that resonate as the themes of evil and redemption, fear of death and hope and especially the central theme of love and its power, especially in self-sacrifice to protect others, evoking both the divine name of Love and the Incarnation, cross and resurrection as the demonstration of that love and its power.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling depicts anti-Voldemort characters who exhibit and celebrate this kind of love in a story of redemption from those possessed by the fear of death. Yet it is these same characters who share a wider, willful, structurally and culturally normalised moral inattention to the enslavement of house-elves. It alerts us to the possibility that those who are shaped, even deeply shaped, by the theological virtues and by the Christian story, may suffer from like forms of inattention. Centuries of slavery and its legitimation is of course the most obvious connection to make. But Christians and Christian theologians have been inattentive at best too other profound wrongs with regard to Jews, women, gender norms, race and sexuality, non-human animals and the environment.

The Harry Potter books are wonderful literature, a fabulous reading experience. But in just that way they also alert readers to their forms of inattention. They teach Christian theologians the need to examine ourselves, our ways of imagining the world, our categories of thought and patterns of argument, to uncover the ways in which theology, in the name of Love, can coexist and collude in the obscuring and justification of profound wrongs to fellow creatures.



Invocations of Christian orthodoxy

constantine and council of nicaea biblioteca capitolare, vercelli, c 825 wiki commons

One of the remarkable things about contemporary Christianity is a surprising consensus between Christians who often find themselves at odds on some powerfully divisive issues. There are vocal Christians who consider themselves progressive, and vocal Christians who consider themselves traditionalists, who are agreed on at least one thing: that, at least on some questions, there is such a thing as heresy, and we can identify it, and therefore there is also orthodoxy. I want to probe what it is about the concept of orthodoxy that makes it so attractive, why it is also a difficult concept to enact, practically, and how we might rethink it a little.

For many progressive Christians today, if twitter is any indication, white supremacy is heresy. For most traditionalists, same-sex marriage is heretical. These judgments are, of course, not mutually exclusive: I can well imagine there are those who think that marriage between a man and a woman is Christian orthodoxy who also think white supremacy is heresy. For others, their opposition to white supremacy may be linked with their advocacy of same-sex marriage, where the discourse of justice often approximates to the discourse of orthodoxy. And the converse can be true too: white supremacy can be intertwined with sexual orthodoxies to which Christian communities have subscribed. To take another example that underscores my point: in the Church of England, some traditionalists are now urging that the marking of a transition of gender identity by way of baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows departs from a historic orthodoxy about biological sex. These issues are immensely important in different ways, but what interests me here is the invocation of orthodoxy: the declaration that one position on these issues is heretical and the other orthodox. The discourse of orthodoxy, and the practice of invoking it, is alive and vigorous.

Why do we still turn to those categories? Why not just argue for the theological and ethical rightness or wrongness of a given stance, and bring forward arguments for that view or against the other? I think the answer has to do with the social, soteriological and quasi-judicial character of orthodoxy as a concept.

Of course, orthodoxy involves normative judgments. But their normative character is not simply a function of the strength of the arguments made on their behalf by appeal to warrants like Scripture, tradition, interpretations of empirical evidence or of particular experiences. Such arguments are made for all kinds of positions not declared orthodox or heretic, nor do they suffice for something to be established as orthodoxy or rejected as heresy. Those moves involve operations of human authority (however understood as backed by or mediating divine authority), which brings us to the social dimension of orthodoxy.

As used in these contexts, and continuous (I think) with many wider Christian usages, orthodoxy denotes a doctrinal consensus in respect of some matter that is exclusive of some others: that this is the right teaching we share, and these claims or practices are incompatible with it. That’s part of the concept of orthodoxy implicit, for example, in the arguments of early Christian figures like Irenaeus, when they appeal to the catholic character of the rule of faith: this summary of faith is the same across the inhabited world.

Irenaeus’ arguments in Against Heresies also indicates another ingredient: orthodoxy includes the idea of a group who are competent and authorised to make judgments about orthodoxy (bishops in succession from the apostles, Irenaeus thought).

But while the competence and authority of this group may rest formally on appeals to apostolic tradition or sanctity or wisdom, learning or especial inspiration by the Holy Spirit, those claims need to be recognised. The group’s authority and the acceptability of its judgments functionally depends on their being accepted by those for whose sake, or on whose behalf, they judge and speak. Indeed, their claims to competence and authority are usually strongest when they are said to speak on behalf of a wider Christian community and its implicit consensus or ‘mind’, reflecting the presence of God among them. Hence the concept of orthodoxy often includes a wider reference, beyond the promulgating group, to those who may not be competent to articulate doctrine, but who are competent as practitioners of the faith and to whose practices or piety appeal may be made.

Orthodoxy also includes the sense that the boundaries set by this doctrinal consensus matter before God in a way that is vital to the life and witness of Christian communities and their members, at least. Orthodoxy is invoked about issues said to be vital to what lies at the heart of Christianity, to what is essential.

st_gregory nazianzen

This relation of orthodoxy to Christianity’s essence and the boundaries that will preserve it (the essence is paradoxically vulnerable) entails the judicial and political element: the notion that it is incumbent on those who lead Christian communities to maintain those boundaries in some way and incorporate them into the practice of Christian initiation and formation, into Christian identity. We can find these ideas implicit in a sermon preached by Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century bishop, to those he was to baptise in Constantinople, January 381. He told them that the confession of the Trinity, including the Nicene consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, was ‘the ‘good deposit’ for which he lived, fought, which he hoped to take with him [in death], with which he bore every pain and scorned every pleasure, which he entrusted to them, and with which he would baptise them and bring them up again (Or. 40.41). He would inscribe it upon their souls (Or. 40.44), overwriting the heresies they may have been taught before. The same idea is involved in the notion of ‘adiaphora’, things it is safe to disagree about, because salvation is not at stake.

It is worth noting that the incorporation of boundary-markers into Christian identity has had all kinds of unhappy and unforeseen consequences, licensing violence and mobilising some of the most problematic elements of the Christian tradition, such as its supersessionism and its attachment to the human/animal binary, in support of anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-semitism and later to sanction the enslavement of some human beings through racial categories. Orthodoxy as a practice is easily turned toxic.

These elements – an exclusive social consensus advanced by a competent, authorised group which, often drawing on the mind of the community of the faithful (an implicit social consensus), establishes boundaries needed to protect the essence of Christianity for the spiritual safety of Christian communities, which are incorporated into practices of Christian formation and identification – give the invocation of orthodoxy and heresy much of its potency, far beyond asserting theological claim and counter-claim. But there is more.

I remember the power of the concept of soundness, functionally equivalent to orthodoxy, in my own early Christian formation, and the horror of doctrinal error and the associated divine displeasure it risked incurring. Orthodoxy is not simply a concept. It is also an affective economy of friendship and fellowship, of loyalty, support, fear,  suspicion and concern. That economy that runs through all kinds of activities and settings, informal as well as formal. Orthodoxy as a practice gains power from these affective elements. It has its founding narratives to help mobilise them, too: of the heroes who held the line, of the struggles of those who contended for the truth. And it has its symbolic objects as focii of attachment, not least icons and texts, especially the Bible. There is an imaginary of orthodoxy. One of the less helpful functions of the qualifier ‘biblical’ in these contexts is to run all these elements together in a way that is at once very powerful and also obscures the social character of the orthodoxies it variously denotes.

When Gregory preached his Oration on Baptism in 381, he had the support of the new emperor, Theodosius I, who had recently arrived in Constantinople. Imperial endorsement represented a victory for supporters of the Nicene interpretation of Christianity after decades of conflict that would be confirmed in the troubled Council of Constantinople, held that same year (Gregory briefly presided over that Council, before resigning the chair and his see). That victory involved only the making and sustaining of alliances between bishops, who were often members of the social elite in their locality. The making of orthodoxy is in part a matter of the assembling and deployment of power, in which some actors’ standing and authority is a function or product of wider structures of power which may bear no relation to their competence and which may often be the same structures that sustain the systemic exploitation of other human beings.

Also integral to that alliance making was an immense amount of theological labour, of theological construction. I don’t mean that the bishops were making it up, nor that their positions represented a radical departure from previous forms of Christianity (a debate for another day). I do mean that they had to innovate conceptually and hermeneutically in order to articulate what they took to be a confession essential to Christian faith intelligibly and coherently as far as possible (and they had to argue that that the articulation of that coherence and intelligibility had limits). The making of orthodoxy was complex, difficult, ambiguous and protracted politically and theologically. Orthodoxy is achieved before it is received, even when it is seeking to be faithful to what has been handed down.

Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the only legal form of religion in the Roman Empire. Here, then, we have a further element: the backing of state sanction and state power. This element is not, I think, intrinsic to the notion of orthodoxy. The example of Irenaeus, for example, indicates a notion of orthodoxy operative long before Constantine (the pre-Nicene orthodoxy for which Rowan Williams argued long ago). And we are still using it today. But particular difficulties attend contemporary invocations of orthodoxy.

In a way, the revision and promulgation of the Creed of Nicaea at Constantinople in 381 and the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ represents a kind of watershed: the farthest extent of consensus on a doctrinal boundary, backed by sacralised secular power, before the long-lasting divisions that would be engendered among Nicene Christians in centuries that followed. It is also an example of a long-enduring paradigm of orthodoxy as authorised by an ecumenical council said to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and supported by the state, that had begun with Constantine I and the first Council of Nicaea.

nicene-constantinopolitan creed

The doctrinal standard of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed promulgated by an ecumenical council, affirmed by a second (Chalcedon), backed by a pious emperor, and extensively enforced, represents orthodoxy in a form which has become ever more difficult to approximate in its catholicity, in successive forms of Christian empire, as the church split again and again over various doctrinal issues.

Where church and state have been separated, or their ties loosened, there has been a further massive shift. In seventeenth-century Europe it was, as Ephraim Radner has shown in A Brutal Unity, a solution advanced to the phenomenon of Christians killing one another and explicitly invoking doctrinal reasons – orthodoxies – when they did so (which is not to deny other factors were also in play).

These massive changes are not destructive of orthodoxy as a practical concept, but they do heighten certain dynamics on which it depends, and the difficulties which attend them. Where orthodoxies are contested between and within groups, and compete within the setting of a state that does not enforce any resolution of differences but does restrain rival groups’ resort to force, then the plurality of options, and the greater freedom to choose between them for oneself, changes the dynamics of orthodoxy as a discursive and affective practice. Questions of the competence and authority of the promulgating group; of the reality, longevity, and extent of any implied consensus of the community and the tradition to which it looks back; and of the essence of Christianity: these all come into play. They do so especially in contexts where many community members have been formed in assessing claims and their basis for themselves, especially where this formation includes a sense of the historically varied and contingent character of Christianity, and where members are also are participants in other common senses and other communities of practice and learning beyond the group.

This difficulty is not simply a matter of persuading others of the merits of an argument: of a particular way of interpreting a biblical passage, or reading sources from the tradition, or appealing to certain experiences or empirical evidence. It is about the plausibility of the invocation of orthodoxy in respect of some of its core components. Who, if anyone, is competent and authorised to make claims about orthodoxy today? What is the evidence for the implicit consensus to which they lay claim? What is essential to Christianity (a difficult question with a long history in modernity) and to what extent is it actually threatened in this case?

These forces heighten the tendency of Christians to disagree on questions of substance and to be reluctant to settle matters by assent to authoritative human bodies: to agree more about some of the normative references of belief and practice than their interpretation, as Kathryn Tanner has argued. In such contexts, long-established orthodoxies, while more widely questioned, may still command considerable consensus, coming as they do from a time when that consensus seemed wider, and bearing the appeal of antiquity (which has considerable power for moderns as it did for ancients). But on other matters, the concept of orthodoxy is at once a potential source of unity among the like-minded (and of socialisation into their groups) and something very difficult to establish as permanently settled and binding on a wider basis. The same is true, for the same reasons, of invocations of orthopraxy, which imply and usually invoke orthodoxies, too, just as orthodoxies usually entail some kind of orthopraxy as their expression.

So we need to rethink orthodoxy as a practice and a discourse, so long as Christian communities want to bind themselves to normative statements or obligations, which I think they always will, and will always need to. Much, of course, of the consensus necessary for communities to function can often be settled for a time without that language. But sometimes there will be issues where people sense more is at stake.

One thing we need to grasp is that questions of this order of seriousness arise in new ways in new contexts and they demand a lot of work and careful judgment. There have been Christians who dissented to some degree from the practice of enslaving other human beings or the subordinate status of women since early times, but it is only relatively recently that sizeable communities of Christians have agreed that these things run counter to the heart of their faith, have agreed that that judgment be normative, and have acted upon it (and so come into protracted conflict with other Christians who have come in some cases to articulate the contrary view). They can also be deeply flawed: the orthodoxy against slavery which split Christians in the UK and especially in the US did not really trouble the consensus around white supremacy, which had been built on the logics of Christian identity. (See Willie James Jennings’ excellent The Christian Imagination for one profound account of how Christianity fostered whiteness in the context of colonisation, building on supersessionism). Orthodoxies may need revisiting, renewing, and in some cases, revising or even abandoning. The question of the essence of Christianity won’t go away and likewise needs revisiting too.

That brings us to a key point. Another element of the concept of orthodoxy is its fixity, its givenness and universality. Yet historically speaking, orthodoxy is a fragile, flawed process encompassing contestations, divisions, doctrinal revisions, reinterpretations, and reformations together with some terrible ironies. It is not best conceived simply as an extension or unfolding or development of God’s self-disclosure, not unless we wish straightforwardly to ascribe that complex, ambiguous history to God’s agency (and so claim an unwarranted perspicuity about God’s providence), nor if we want to maintain the possibility of critically interrogating it from within, as it were.

It is also a process that Christians cannot abandon. For some things are radically incompatible with a common life of fidelity to God, to Jesus Christ as Lord, to walking in the Spirit, and the love of God and neighbour, and require the community developing, authorising and enacting a normative doctrinal and ethical stance.

And so, with God’s help, Christians must try to be more careful with it.

What might help?

First, we should recognise that orthodoxy is a flawed, contingent, revisable process. It involves making contested claims and building campaigns for them, but it helps if such activism does not obfuscate what is being done, including the element of newness in the appeal to something essential in regard to a matter. That means also being careful about how far past consensuses really obtained, how far they were really authorised as orthodoxies, and how far they really extend to the issue at hand (I think that’s germane to sexuality and gender, for example).

Second, a recognition that the process calls for considerable care. Inherited concepts may well not be sufficient to the judgments that need making today. Innovative theological construction may be required, and we may find the wisdom of the past, even its orthodoxies, were less adequate than we thought, and we may have to keep revisiting such questions, as well as the settlements we reach about them.

Third, orthodoxy may often not be an effective consensus we can achieve on a broad basis within or between Christian communities. In such cases, there are very difficult judgments to be made about how far, if at all, groups and constituencies, which differ profoundly on matters around which orthodoxy is invoked, can live and worship together, and what actions or structures need to be established apart from others. It will probably help, however, in making these judgments, to have a more realistic expectation about the process and its dangers, and to keep asking those questions about the authority and competence of groups making declarations of orthodoxy, and about the case they make.

Fourth, we need to recognise that processes of orthodoxy involve contestations of power and often favour those structurally advantaged by structures of power in society, and learn to question more radically how those structures affect the process and its outcomes.

Finally, we should be careful about the imaginary of orthodoxy: the symbols and stories which help give it its allure and legitimation as a task. Dietrich Bonhoeffer looms large in that imagination, for traditionalists and progressives alike. The examples of the past can be profoundly important in helping Christians take stands on various matters. They show that sometimes things are of such seriousness that much must be risked, maybe all, and maybe in the face of consensus and considerable opposition. But they can also delude us by masking the complexities and ambiguities of the histories and questions involved, then and now. Reading good, scholarly historiography and biography critically is a good habit to develop. Orthodoxy as a process is usually messier, more painful and more difficult than we would like to think.






Theological anthropology on Crosby beach

Another Place 1.jpg

Have you ever visited the installation of Anthony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’, on Crosby beach? I went yesterday. While I had seen images of it, it was something else to walk through it. Although most images I’ve seen of it are taken in brilliant sunshine, yesterday’s foul weather became part of the art just as effectively, as did we and everyone else scattered among those solid human forms, buffeted by the wind with Liverpool’s derrick lights glaring through the gloom, its docks a hazy outline. The mingling of visitors and locals with the cast iron life-size figures, and the setting of that mingling against that scene and in that weather, really intensifies the symbolic power of ‘Another Place’, its representation of the human.

There are limits to that representative power. The figures appear to be anatomically male, sturdy, they stand tall, and they are, of course, all identical: they are made from casts of Gormley’s own body. We have had far too much, for far too long, of taking the apparently able-bodied male form as representative of everyone. But these are also quite unlike the male nudes celebrated in the western imagination. They are not figures of action or command. Their rustiness makes it rather difficult to assimilate them to racial norms of whiteness, in the way that classical sculptures eventually were. They are not grouped in couples or families, but neither are they wholly isolated individuals either. They have a rather ordinary, almost anonymous particularity about them. They are not, I think, trying to be comprehensively representative of human difference, nor to subsume it under a single image. In these ways, they present fewer barriers to finding resonance and wider significance in them, I suspect, and are less unreliable as prompts for theological reflection, than many of their museum-housed counterparts.

Three features of the figures stood out to me yesterday.

First, they are obviously vulnerable, creatures of time and circumstance, overtaken by quotidian rhythms and forces of time, tide and trade, occupying their humble, liminal place in a vast, dynamic and somewhat indifferent maritime setting.

Another Place 3.jpg

Second, they look out from common location. They look out from just north of Liverpool’s docks to the sea-lanes on which a variety of craft come and go, carrying on the tide of trade on which Liverpool grew. They look toward the global nodes of that trade, and vaguely evoke its human dimensions, the movements of peoples from Britain into the world, the traffic of enslaved humans that was once part and parcel of the activity of Liverpool merchants, the movements of people from the places Britain once dominated to make these shores their home, as our neighbours. They look over and across borders.

Another Places 2.jpg

Third, they share a common orientation to the horizon. One of the reasons I was excited to go to Crosby is that for a few years I have been using images of Another Place to illustrate Karl Rahner’s theological anthropology. Rahner was one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century (and someone who understood the unfinished character of Christian theology). The infinite horizon was an image Rahner used to explore human subjectivity and its orientation to God. The human capacity to keep questioning at the limits of our understanding, Rahner argued, showed humans to be beings with ‘an infinite horizon’ (Foundations of Christian Faith, 32), which ever receded before their inquiries. This mysterious, infinite horizon also permeates our everyday activities. Every goal we set ourselves is but a provisional step, we are always ‘on the way’. We situate every step ‘in a broader horizon which looms before [us] in its vastness.’

In this way, Rahner thought, humans in their finitude experience transcendence. On reflection, Rahner argued, this experience, or pre-apprehension of the infinity of reality, and the sense of movement toward it that underlies individual movements of hope and desire and all experiences, only made sense as something freely given and received from that horizon: as grace. This transcendence manifests itself amidst our everyday cares and concerns, hopes and fears. It is the background to our living and knowing. It is the source and goal of the unity of our subjectivity, in respect of which we are free and responsible in all our thinking and acting. In this way, Rahner said, all human beings are recipients of God’s supernatural self-communication, all are recipients of God’s self-offer, and are empowered to accept or reject it.

In this rather difficult and rarefied way, Rahner was trying to express the graced character of human existence. He did so in order to account, theologically, for the condition of possibility of human beings being hearers of the gospel and to articulate in modern idiom the spiritual theology he found in early Christian writers, in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and especially in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (as Philip Endean has shown). That condition of possibility, he argued, was not something human beings had in and of themselves, but was to do with the way that they are constituted as spiritual creatures by God’s presence to them, in all they do and think, in the midst of their everyday lives, as the horizon of their actions and reflections which beckons them on, which moves them in their questioning and acting, toward itself.

There are difficulties with Rahner’s account: with his emphasis upon subjectivity, and the sense in which historical, embodied life is secondary as the medium of that subjectivity; with his sense of the basic, unimpairable freedom of human beings before God (as Jennifer Erin Beste has argued); with his lack of awareness of the diversity of lived human experience and how significant that diversity is for theological anthropology (as generations of feminist, black, womanist, disability and queer theologians, among others, have argued); with his underlying sense of human exceptionality among God’s creatures in virtue of that subjectivity.

Another Place 4.jpg

However, there is something valuable, I think, in what Rahner is trying to do, something which is evoked, for me, by Anthony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’. It is the attempt to articulate some kind of creaturely commonality to human beings in their enormous diversity that is properly referable to God as its source. And it is the attempt to make this common creatureliness – which might extend beyond human beings in various ways and differing intensities – intelligible by reference to elements of common experience bound up with, perhaps inseparable from, the experiences particular to some, and the experiences produced by the structural social divisions which shape us and our relations. It is also significant that this account is basic to Rahner’s political thinking, and his advocacy of human freedom in society, and of democracy.

It is the attempt to articulate a theology on Crosby beach which does not try to offer a master image of humanity. It ought not to be a theology which seeks somehow to anticipate or predetermine the life of others or what it might mean to learn it from them (to pick up a theme from Willie James Jennings). Rather, it would be the attempt, in a rather minimal and formal way, to articulate a connecting thread, linking us across the generations, across borders and the arteries of trade, across the sources of belonging and the boundaries with which we hedge our vulnerable sense of ourselves.

I’d like to see if it’s possible to articulate something like that, in a chastened way and a different idiom and without subverting the integrity and theological valence of particular experiences of being human. Deborah Creamer’s works on human limits, which reworks disability theology in relation to limits as a pervasive feature of all human existence, would be one example (along with other recent works on human vulnerability, so long as this isn’t valorised in itself) I would point to that suggests its viability.



(All images (c) the author)




On unfinished theology…

Thanks for joining me!

In these posts I hope to trial bits of analysis, interpretation and commentary in thinking about God and all things as related to God, from a Christian perspective. My academic research focuses largely on the theology and ethics of Hans W. Frei, the doctrine of marriage, theological anthropology and the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, but I plan to range more widely here.

Why ‘unfinished theology’?

cropped-Michelangelo-The-Resurrection-of-Christ-sketch[Michelangelo, Study for a “Resurrection of Christ”, image from The Life of Michael Angelo by Romain Rolland, translated by Frederic Lee, public domain]

In part, because it signals the unfinished nature of what I hope to post – thoughts in progress, attempts to begin to figure out a way of looking at something or other. I’m someone who has to write to work out what I think.

But also it signals what I would like to aspire to – an openness, provisionality and reflexivity about theological thinking within a contested and troubled yet (I trust) still habitable tradition, which is something I greatly appreciate in others’ work.

I’m hesitant about general claims in general, including claims that begin ‘all theology is…’  There’s such a risk either of saying something extremely tendentious or banally platitudinous. But at the risk of courting one or other of those dangers, I think it’s true to say all Christian theology is unfinished and provisional, from a Christian perspective.

I don’t mean to propose a Christian theology that is unshaped by certain commitments (including but not limited to at least a tacit adherence to some broad, minimal criterion of ‘Christian’, such as that offered by Hans Frei’s notion of the literal sense), if that were possible. Yet however rooted in specific Christian commitments, all Christian theology is unfinished in a number of ways.

It is everlastingly unfinished in view of the mysteriousness of God and God’s ways, which are past finding out, which defy comprehension by finite minds. And that means it is unfinished even when dealing with things as creatures of God and the recipients and sharers of God’s gifts.

It is also unfinished in the sense that everyone who thinks about God or things as related to God does so within history in which their concerns and categories are conditioned to some extent by their circumstances (historical, socio-economic, cultural, institutional, and all that encompasses). And they do so within a history which Christians understand to be incomplete, awaiting its final consummation.

Theology is unfinished, too, insofar as it is also flawed and shaped by histories of wrongs, including the ways in which those histories shape us, our concerns and categories, what we notice and what we do not. It is unfinished insofar as theologians continue to modulate and transmit those historical effects.

For all these reasons, and no doubt others, theological reflection should be offered as something provisional and corrigible. Theologians, therefore, ought to be open to rethinking, challenge, reformulation, and the examination of their habits of mind and of the forces and circumstances that shape what they think and do. That’s especially the case, I think, for someone like me: white, male, straight, middle class, university educated and employed, and British (English, indeed).

‘Unfinished theology’, however, also suggests reflection on something that has begun awaits completion. In the Christian tradition, theologians differ on whether to think of God’s creative work as completed or open, and tend to agree on the finished nature of Christ’s redemptive work (even if they emphasize our ongoing participation in it). They differ on whether God’s purposes envisaged God’s action in Jesus Christ as internal to that project regardless of creaturely fault or as fundamentally a restoring of that project in view of creaturely fault (even if that fault was always envisaged, even somehow intended).

But they tend to agree that the realisation of God’s good purposes in creatures of all kinds is an unfinished project, and that the redemption and reconciliation of God’s creatures is now enjoyed only in part (and is only understood partially, provisionally and obscurely): in Christian communities, in particular lives and circumstances, and, some would add, in our wider history and societies. And so theology from a Christian perspective needs to be unfinished in attending to that, and in reflecting on the Christian tradition, too, and to be open to rethinking in that light.

For better or worse, I am part of a Protestant church, the Church of England, which proclaims itself to be reformed as well as catholic. One now well known slogan within the Reformed tradition (with which the C of E has some doctrinal affinities) is that the church is ‘always to be reformed’ (ecclesia semper reformanda est) according to the Word of God. Although this slogan was apparently first predicated on the completed reformation of Christian doctrine (see here), I think it also applies to Christian theology. It’s applicable to Christian theology not only in the sense of being corrigible or returned to its sources for renewal (a trait as catholic as it is protestant), however, but also in being unfinished in this last, most hopeful sense: of the possibility of partaking, in fits and starts, ever incompletely and fragmentarily, in the anticipation of its own redemption and fulfillment.