As I wrote in my last piece, I’ve been looking back on the last couple of years of training for lay ministry, and a few moments have stuck in my mind. During one of the seminars on doctrine, I asked a question and my tutor answered it in a way which I found very thought-provoking. Not just because it changed my opinion of the topic in question, but because it modelled an approach to theological discussion which I have often found absent elsewhere.
She was outlining a series of models of the atonement, from penal substitution to Christus Victor and others, and quoted an account of one. (I don’t actually remember whom she quoted. I didn’t say I was a good student…) It focused on the atonement as an act of demonstration of God’s love and transforming power within the world. During the later discussion, when she asked for our responses to the theories she’d presented, I said I had found this model compelling, but I had some problems with it. If theories of the atonement were concerned with the “work of Christ”, then this model didn’t seem to “do” enough. If we were concerned in some sense with what happened on the Cross, then this seemed a bit thin as an account of change. Simply looking at something, and find it inspiring, seemed a bit emotive and vague. What was I missing?
Her answer touched on a number of points. She said she could see how the quotation might strike me that way. She suggested that I might want to think why suffering seemed to “do” more than revelation or adoration in the world. Christ’s suffering was not to be discounted, but why did my question assume that it was the operative hinge? She went on to suggest that those of us in more Catholic traditions within the Church often had a high doctrine of what “looking” and “seeing” could do, as seen in the practice of praying with icons. She hinted that revelation and understanding, at their most profound, were not matters of standing back and observing, but of deep union.
As I said, her answer was very thought-provoking, but I’m not mentioning it here because I want to argue for particular theories of the atonement. In any case her answer was not the end of the discussion. (And since it was quite a while ago, I may not be quoting her accurately.) But looking back I remember it as showing a way of dealing with theological questions which I found valuable. It is also rather rare in a lot of the Christian writing I have come across in the last few years.
Firstly, she took my question seriously, and she took the subject seriously. That is perhaps a low bar, but I’m afraid it’s one I have too often seen people bang into accidentally. The number of times people in the Christian churches apologise for mentioning theology or doctrine astounds me. This is understandable in sermons or homilies, when a congregation might not have come to hear a disquisition on doctrinal history, and where there is not time for a long lecture. But in books on Biblical studies, or Christian history, on public talks and in training sessions, I have been very surprised to hear the regular refrain. “I’m going to talk a bit about theology, but then we can get on to the practical stuff”, “I know you didn’t come here for theological talk”, “We don’t want to get tied up with a lot of doctrine, but…”, “You don’t need to worry about the terminology, we can leave theologians to argue about that”.
There seems to be a widespread embarrassment about the idea that theology might be worth talking about, or might have useful insights to offer. This is especially confusing when a book or talk is presenting Christian thought or teaching. I don’t know whether it’s an impatience with the idea of expertise, a suspicion of hierarchical authority, a lingering sense that English-speaking Christianity escaped from the hair-splitting of scholastics, or a combination of other factors. But I kept encountering this attitude. And as someone deliberately studying Christian history and doctrine, my tutor’s baseline seriousness about the endeavour was comforting and exciting at the same time.
Secondly, she probed the assumptions which underlay my question. She didn’t suggest that I was proposing these assumptions as conclusions, or that I was stating them outright, but she rephrased my query in a way which showed it in a new light. Why, indeed, did I think suffering “did more”? What was I dismissing by assuming that “looking” was a distant and analytical mode of engagement? What did I think about Christology, if those assumptions were part of my approach? Did it drag my ideas about the Incarnation in a particular direction?
I suppose this is related to the question of taking theology seriously, but her response pointed out the connected quality of doctrine. She was making me think about the way that individual ideas cannot be held in isolation from each other, but that my ideas of the atonement would potentially affect my ideas about creation, incarnation, and so on. If I found I was thinking something in one area which I didn’t believe in another, then something had gone wrong. Moreover, what I assumed and held on one topic could quietly and subtly mould my beliefs elsewhere.
This is another form of taking theology seriously, which I don’t always find in Christian writing elsewhere. In The Bible Made Impossible, Christian Smith somewhat provocatively counts up all the books on doctrinal issues entitled Four Views On, which present (generally Evangelical Protestant) authors putting forward positions which Christians might reasonably hold. From this Smith calculates the something over a million distinct combinations of theological views which Christians could hold. In doing so – with an admittedly polemical flavour – he presents an image of Christians choosing the views on any given topic which they find compelling, or comforting, or attractive, whilst ignoring how those views might interact with other questions.
One doesn’t have to take him literally to recognise, with a wince, the outlines of the caricature. I must admit to doing something similar at times, or to indulging in the allied activity of looking to simply pick the “most progressive” or “most orthodox” option from any set of ideas. My tutor’s answer reminded me of the fact that we weren’t selecting which doctrines compelled us, but we were dealing with a subject outside ourselves, with its own coherence and complexity.
Thirdly, with the reference to icons, she underlined the connection between theological discussion and our practical lives. Lex orandi, lex credendi is a favourite saying amongst Anglicans, meaning something like “the law by which we pray is the law by which we believe”. The liturgical texts we recite (or sing, or chant), the gestures we make, the rhythm and movement of our worship, embodies something of our belief, and in turn shapes how we articulate that belief.
This was another matter of consistency: that ideas about icons, and about other forms of art, also had theological implications. But it also opened up the discussion beyond principles into questions of religious life, devotion, aesthetics and traditions. Some of the most persuasive passages in Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison’s For The Parish are where they discuss the rich physical and symbolic worlds of religion. The meanings which cluster around the use of incense, for example, or the lighting of candles. They argue that reducing these to objects which might help people concentrate, or which might relax them, strips out a world of meaning into which worshippers can be drawn, and through which they can participate in the Body of Christ.
It was only a relatively brief exchange in a seminar, and I expect she has forgotten all about it. Nonetheless, it stuck in my memory as a guide to some of the ways in which I should approach theological thought and doctrinal talk. Perhaps the most significant was the first: that theology is to be taken seriously. She didn’t declare that, but she assumed it. She didn’t say that my personality type probably meant one model of the atonement attracted me more. She didn’t say that I should just pick whichever theory I thought suited me. She didn’t say that the Church had believed a number of these theories in the past, but for modern people they were obviously impossible. She offered me a way of thinking about them which assumed that the answer to theological questions was to go more deeply into theology. That strikes me as a rather radical principle.