One of the very few, but brilliant, sparks of hope to come out of the debacle at St Paul’s yesterday was the comment from the Bishop of London that when he went to the ‘Tea and Empathy’ tent in the campsite he was ‘surrounded by serious theological conversation’.
It is not, believe me, something you find everyday. On the whole, people are content to keep their theological thinking, if they do it at all, very much to themselves.
Crisis and suffering can bring it to the surface. When we suffer, or see a loved one suffer, we often ask ‘why?’, or, ‘how can a powerful God allow this to happen?’
The protest has of course bright to new prominence a form of ethical theological question: ‘what would Jesus do?’
It is an interesting and intriguing one. But it must be used with care. It needs to be a conversation starter but is often used as a conversation stopper. Jesus’ followers found him unpredictable 2,000 years ago. There is no reason to suppose that we would not find him equally surprising today. If we are confident we know what Jesus would do then we are probably deluding ourselves. And one of the most important insights that we need, in order to be able to engage in worthwhile theological conversation, to appreciate that our capacity for self delusion is enormous.
Not that this should stop us thinking and talking theologically. And the Bishop’s phrase ‘theological conversation’ is apposite and telling. It is dialogue that matters: the exposure of thought and reflection, insight and analysis to the open and critical minds of others.
But if theological conversation matters who is going to take part and where is it going to happen?
The short answer is, of course, anyone and anywhere. Theology, talk about God, is hardly a subject that can be policed. No door can keep it out. St Paul’s has been seeking to become a place of theological conversation and public dialogue in recent years. Well, it has certainly become that now. And the role of ministerial and spiritual leadership is perhaps to take part in the conversation in such a way as to help it to become ever more honest, self-aware, creative, expansive and truthful.
The question of ‘where’ is important too. It is the question of’ context’: and over the last generation or so many voices have helped us to see that all theology is contextual. A ‘Tea and Empathy’ tent is very different context from the nave of a great cathedral. Theological conversation can spring to life in many such arenas and all possible media.
Face to face encounter, whether one to one or in small groups, will always, perhaps, be the normal place of theological conversation. But social media open up new possibilities. You can ‘do theology’ or ‘engage in theological conversation’ on the phone or by text or on facebook or even, by blog. You can even do it more traditionally and slowly by writing journal articles or publishing books. And there are advantages to that in terms of depth of thought but disadvantages in that the process itself can easily exclude most people who might want to join in.
There are no rules with a capital ‘R’ for public theology but here are some rules with a little ‘r’ that might help make theological conversation healthy and worthwhile in multi faith world where issues of justice and truth are pressing.
- Agree that while words are integral to the conversation gesture, symbol and silence all play their part too.
- Desire truth and justice more than being right.
- Bring your heart and your passion to the party and encourage that others to do the same.
- Recognize that theological conversation has been going on a very long time.
- Appreciate that theological conversation is new every morning.
- Accept that whatever has been said there is always a right of reply or of silence.
- Try to see your own self-delusions more vividly than we see the vanities of others.
- If you are a person of faith, read and share your scriptures and your spirituality generously and gently.
- Be prepared to have this conversation anywhere, indoors or out, in private or in public.
Let’s rejoice that theological conversation is alive and well. And do what we can to help it generate more light than heat.