Theological anthropology on Crosby beach

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.