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.