WelCom June 2020:
Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Arundel and Brighton on England’s south coast, concludes his six-part series for WelCom.
Theology: moving from DISCORD to DISCOURSE in religion
Go into a shopping mall and ask people about ‘religion’ and they are more likely to see it as a danger rather than a blessing. Religion just leads to conflict – and looking around the world where religion is tied up in so many wars and conflicts it is hard to disagree. Religion seems to promote discord. And so, the argument goes, if we can get rid of religions we reduce the fire-mass that threatens humanity. But we Christians are to proclaim discourse – that it is exact meaning of logos in John 1:1 – and peace and love. So we must think about transforming discord to discourse.
Making God in our own image – what are the limits of tolerance and mercy?
One of the depressing aspects of being a Christian is that whenever one hears of narrow-minded intolerance, how often one finds that this intolerance is backed up by people who are loud in their professions of their Christian faith. I met a gentleman recently who was not only homophobic, but saw all contemporary tolerance of homosexuality as misguided and inviting divine wrath to come upon society for ‘putting up with it’. He summed up his basis in this phrase: ‘It’s against the law of God!’ And in the conversation I could hear two other hidden assumptions: laws need a penalty, if they are to have any bite; and just as human legal systems punish ‘accomplices’, so God must punish those who ‘connive’ with those who break his law.
Around the same time Pope Francis was reported as ‘changing church teaching’ by saying that the death penalty was incompatible with Christian teaching. In response, a news programme interviewed a US-based Catholic who said this was all part of the slippery slope of the ‘church losing its way and going soft on sin’. For this person, God was the final policeman and creation was a kind of police state with God watching everything and biding his time before releasing his vengeance.
As I watched it, I wondered just where the message of love fitted with this answer: perhaps love was not what it was about, but power? Certainly, both the man I met and the other I heard would have seen divine power as more ‘real’ than divine love. But while we can argue about whether or not ‘the bible’ is for or against homosexuality or whether or not the death penalty is needed and permitted, in both cases such arguments are only addressing the presenting level of the problem. I suspect there is a deeper problem: we think about the world around us, we have views on ‘justice’, law and order, and the role of power in human relationships, and what we do is that we build a god in our own image, a god who ought to work as we would work ourselves – if only we had a chance.
The nineteenth century hymn writer, Frederick Faber (1814–63), proposed a very different vision which seems to come to the very heart of the issue:
There is a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven.
There’s no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
What a wonderful piece of theology – though, alas, it is a hymn we hardly ever sing! God’s love is broader than the measures of our human minds, and so we must be wary of ever presenting anything but mercy and gentleness lest we betray the God we claim to serve. But this level of mercifulness is not just a human trait nor a psychological or social disposition: it is the very challenge of discipleship. Such a level of forgiveness and tolerance, the level the world needs if there is to be peace, can be seen on reflection to be itself a gift, a grace, and so something for which we must be eucharistic. In formal theological jargon what those two men who wanted a god of vengeance had done was to assume that justice was a univocal concept in the human and divine spheres, and so drew God down to their own level. What Faber did was to say that if you can imagine the widest reality you can – for him it was the sea and for us is might be the light-years that separate the galaxies – then that is less than the ‘wideness’ of God’s affection for us.
“God’s love is broader that the measures of our human minds, and so we must be wary of ever presenting anything but mercy and gentleness lest we betray the God we claim to serve.”
Theology is not a body of ideas, nor the ability to provide the exegesis of doctrine, nor knock-down arguments to those who challenge Christian beliefs; it is an invitation to imagine beyond our imaginations’ bounds. I have responded to those who men’s visions of a god with a piece of poetry, because theology is, in the final analysis, more like poetry than prose.
“Theology is not a body of ideas, nor the ability to provide the exegesis of doctrine, nor knock-down arguments to those who challenge Christian beliefs; it is an invitation to imagine beyond our imaginations’ bounds.”
Theology and theologies
Theology is not just about knowing ‘what you are about,’ but having the skills to think about what you know and do, clarify what is obscure and confused, and then help others in their quest. God’s infinity, Deus semper maior, is most truly recognised in God’s mercy; but appreciating the range of that mercy and seeing what response it calls forth from human beings is a most complex challenge – and skill in theology is one great facilitator in this task.
In this article series I have worked outward in a set of circles:
- religious questions that concern me as an individual;
- religious questions that concern me as a member of the Catholic Church;
- religious questions that concern the Catholic Church in relation to other Christians;
- religious questions that concern Christians in relation to other religions;
- religious questions that concern ‘religious people’ – those who believe in the Transcendent with other human beings;
- religious questions that concern every human being – though many would not see themselves as asking religious questions.
We all inhabit each of these circles simultaneously because each of us is the centre of a world whose outer reaches – and they might be just next door or even among our closest friends – interact with the whole of humanity. Being a believer in this world – exploring my own doubts and questions, working with other Catholics and other Christians, encountering others every day of every religion and none – calls on us to think through our choices, what it means to follow Jesus’ Way of Life and to reject the Way of Death, and to bear witness to hope and love. This vocation is neither easy nor straightforward. We both follow a well-mapped route which our sisters and brothers have travelled before us and we have to explore new routes and carve out new paths – and on this journey being well-skilled in theology is like having a compass as well as a map.