Slow theology: John Swinton and Matthias Scheeben

Everything else seems to have a ‘slow’ version–why not theology? I feel as though ‘slow’ is just the way I do theology, more by necessity than by choice. Reading and writing happen slowly, and my ideas unfold over time. Sometimes I think I’ve got a giant percolator for a mind, one in which life experience accumulates (like coffee grounds) and then everything I read goes through it. Then, of course, experience filters through the whole mess of reading and previous experience, and so on. No wonder I read so slowly and write more slowly still. Mind you, I am not saying that this is a better way. It certainly isn’t, if what you want is to ascend. I’m not ascending; I’m barely treading water.

becoming friends of timeSince this is my mode of theological and intellectual operation, I found myself delighting in John Swinton’s recent book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. He calls out modern culture of efficiency into question, and suggests that God has given us the gift of time for love, not for achievement. In God’s time, humility and gentleness trump speed and efficiency. (Check out the symposium on Syndicate! ) It was in reading John’s book that I began to think seriously about the possibility of slow theology. There is a methodological slowness in doing theology as an intellectual practice that fits with my own (often frustrating) experience of academic-theological work, and gentleness is at the heart of it.

In a way, it is gentleness that appeals to me in the work of a no-longer-widely-read dogmatic theologian, Matthias Scheeben. My attempts to read my way into Scheeben’s work were revitalised by Bruce Marshall, who wrote a perceptive and hortatory essay suggesting that ‘Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.’ These virtues, together, shape a practice of theology that takes time. ‘Dogmatic theology,’ Scheeben shows us, ‘must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ.’ Scheeben’s deep attentiveness to these mysteries shows through clearly in his (aptly titled) The Mysteries of Christianity. It’s a book that an mysteriesacademic theologian would have difficulty publishing today, I expect. His erudition (which Marshall describes as staggering) is balanced with an equally profound piety. Scheeben’s study of the mysteries of God, revealed in Christ, is a discipline at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual.’

Another aspect of Scheeben’s study reveals the second of the virtues Marshall identifies:

Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. 

Although Marshall doesn’t name it ‘gentleness,’ the respect Scheeben shows to his interlocutors is just that: gentle. Much scholarship advances in less constructive and more critical ways, as if the only way to make an argument is to show where others have gone wrong. (I suspect that Scheeben would not have had much time for snarky comments on Facebook, but that might just be a little bit of hero-worship.)

The virtue that perfects the others, on my reading, is humility. Indeed, Marshall finds this to be ‘the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing.’ In particular, Scheeben sustains this attitude ‘before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand.’ Scheeben’s attention to these mysteries shapes his engagement with his interlocutors and his understanding of the character of the theological task. His piety (which is an aspect of the first virtue) and gentleness (which is the essence of the second) are bound up inextricably with his profound humility before the mystery of God.

Scheeben wasn’t a slow theologian in the sense that his writing took a long time. (Neither is John Swinton, by that measure.) As Marshall points out, the foundations of his theological work were already mostly laid ‘by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries…at the age of thirty.’ But his attention to thescheeben divine mysteries had been formed by a theological culture marked, as Marshall puts it, by ‘breadth and sympathy.’ Scheeben might have been a fast learner, building a knowledge base in his twenties that I can’t hope to match if I keep at it until I am eighty. He was, however, measured in his judgements and not dismissive, never rash.

If there is any advantage in the glacial speed of my own theological work, it may be that I have no fast-track through my intellectual process: the knowledge I acquire drips slowly through the ‘grounds.’ This means that I have to say things like ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let me think about that.’ And so, I lose arguments frequently, and do not seek them out. There’s no virtue in losing, of course. But there is some healing that comes with the realisation that winning–which tends to come by being the strongest and the fastest–isn’t everything. There is more to be said, much more, about the possibility of slow theology. But I’ll just have to let it brew.

 

 

 

 

A bit of UK politics: Tim Fallon’s resignation letter

UK politics is not something I know a lot about, actually. And it seems to be as much of a mess as politics in the US. But I noticed the resignation of Tim Fallon, leader of the Liberal Democrats, even though I hadn’t really followed the campaign closely. Fortunately, the letter was handed to me this evening, and I read it with great interest. If you care about Jesus, it’s worth reading, even if you don’t care about politics. So here it is (addressed to my husband, who is a member of the Lib Dems):

Dear Lewis,

This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election. 
That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election.

Most importantly the Liberal Democrats have established ourselves with a significant and distinctive role – passionate about Europe, free trade, strong well-funded public services underpinned by a growing market economy.

No one else occupies that space.  Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do.

From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith.  I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience.  Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith.  I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.

Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit.  The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.

A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I’m a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.

In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.

That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I intend to serve until the parliamentary recess begins next month, at which point there will be a leadership election according to the party’s rules.

This is a historic time in British politics. What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations.

My successor will inherit a party that is needed now more than ever before. Our future as an open, tolerant and united country is at stake.

The cause of British liberalism has never been needed more. People who will fight for a Britain that is confident, generous and compassionate are needed more than ever before.

That is the challenge our party and my successor faces and the opportunity I am certain that they will rise to.

I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party.

Imagine how proud I am to lead this party.  And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.

In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.

Thank you,

Tim

 

in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

The Revolution of Tenderness: TED talk

Over the last decade or so, the TED talk – the 18-minute messages given by prominent artists, techies and other cultural figures – has become shorthand for showcasing the ideas the speaker most seeks to put into broad circulation. And at this week’s marquee conference for the program in Vancouver, the usual roster of celebs…

via “The Future Has A Name: Hope” – In TED Talk, Pope Seeks a “Revolution” — Whispers in the Loggia

Good Friday

Good Friday at our house is not the somber occasion I often think it ought to be. But we begin with Stations of the Cross with our local Faith & Light group, which is something, anyway. Tonight for supper, it’s pizza (no pepperoni!) in the shape of a cross–a request one of my sons made a few years ago. And I will listen to this a few more times, in quiet moments:

Pisces

Who said to the trout,
You shall die on Good Friday
To be food for a man
And his pretty lady?
It was I, said God,
Who formed the roses
In the delicate flesh
And the tooth that bruises.
                             -RS Thomas

Lazarus at the gate

Earlier this week, I passed an evidently homeless man in the street. I passed by; I was in a hurry; I didn’t have any change in my pocket; I didn’t want to fumble in my handbag for money. I passed by on the other side of the street. Fortunately, he has been following me around–not physically, of course; I doubt he even noticed me at the time, since the street was fairly crowded. But in my mind’s eye he sits outside the shop, slightly sunburned, and the words ‘whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me’ float in the air around him.

Yesterday I lamented to a friend that I often feel as though I live in a bubble. Situations of real, desperate human need don’t usually cross my path. It’s not entirely true. Though my friends and neighbours may have more than they need, people cross my path one way or another every day who are in a vastly different situation. Every day: in the news, in emails from Caritas (like today) or the Missionaries in Africa, or on the streets of the town where I live. Lazarus does beg at the gate, even now, if we are looking for him.The trick is to be attentive. Easier said than done, I know.

So the email from Caritas today arrived in my inbox. Usually I pass by, as it were, on the other side. But today I found in that email, somehow, the image of the man I passed last week, like a reminder of Lazarus at the gate. And I am glad that he has not left me: in him I ought also to see Christ.

Deo gratias.

Canticle for Laetare Sunday

I will sprinkle clean water upon you,                                                                                                     and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses,                                                                          and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you;                                             and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes                               and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Ezekiel 36. 25-27

Makes me wonder what all the fuss about free will is about. ‘I will put my Spirit within you,’ says the Lord, ‘and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.’ I will cause you to follow the law: this is how God consoles a wayward, hard-hearted people–not by relaxing the law or even by forgiving and forgetting. The Lord forgives, but does not forget: he remembers that we are but dust. He washes our sins away but remembers our fallen condition and provides for us accordingly. As St Paul observed, at the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

In Christ we have more even than what Ezekiel promises: a paradigm. Christ is the one with the heart of flesh; he is the one in whom the Spirit dwells fully; he is the one who keeps God’s law perfectly; and he does this all freely. That is the work of the Spirit, to restore our freedom. God does not cause us to follow the law by thwarting our will and desires, but by healing them, transforming them. Under the Spirit’s guidance, we do not act as puppets. We act as we were created to act. We live according to our creation in the image of God. The Spirit does not cause us to follow an alien law, but the law that has been written on our hearts.

I suppose this is the natural law, in the view of philosophers who study such things. It is the law, that is, of our nature. In our fallen state, however, being true to our nature as creatures of the living God requires grace. Fortunately, it seems pretty clear, from Genesis all the way through, that grace is exactly what God wants to give us.

Deo gratias.