Twitter can be frustrating. Trying to find a way to explore the deep and meaningful in 140 characters with the incessant chatter of the twitterverse in the background makes for a difficult conversation — similar to trying to chat to a drunk friend in a nightclub about the benefits of the fiscal cliff!
But last night a conversation did emerge that bucked the trend. It began with, what seemed to me, a cry from the depths by Richard Passmore. It simply read:
…..Feeling a big disconnect between the practice I am engaged in and most of current theological thinking I am reading ☹
As a theologian, and a practical contextual theologian at that, this immediately caught my attention.
A conversation ensued ….
….. you can read it all here.
The conversation is fascinating because it pulls together so many different threads: The relationship between practice and theory; The place of theology; The role of tradition; The limits of context; The limits of theology; The influence of academia ….
At its heart it was a dialogue that was trying to make sense of an emerging world where ancient tools seem obsolete. Where both a language and a method are cumbersome and even burdensome for the task ahead. This sense of bankruptcy keeps popping up. I sensed it at a conference I was at recently that was exploring Fresh Expressions and Pioneer Ministry — the theological assumptions (never said but assumed as theological norms for all gathered) were no longer valid. I sense it as I read comments on Facebook by folk who are no longer dissatisfied with the church, but are instead deeply suspicious of the theological and philosophical underpinnings that form its ecclesiology. I sensed it when I watched the occupy movement shift the political goal posts, when Arab Spring leaks through the cracks of oppression, and now in the political mess created in Ferguson because the maintenance of a system is more important than the killing of a young man. I sense it as I read Russel Brands book Revolution — a possible Cyrus for the people of God.
But this places me in a peculiar position: as a theologian I haunt the corridors of academia as a lecturer and writer. As a practitioner I belong to a missional collective called immerse whose primary purpose is to run a community centre on a relatively deprived housing estate. (I love this juxtaposition by the way — it keeps me alive). So I embody this contextual, practical theology and my part in the conversation is simply as a practitioner theologian or pioneer theologian. I’m not a poet, I can’t paint or sculpt, immerse is not a mega church or an inspirational movement that the ‘church can be proud of’, but if this conversation is to be worth anything, if it is to have any pragmatic use, then it will need the poets and artists and inspirational leaders to participate in it.
What would be the purpose of such a conversation?
For me its about expression, or what I called on twitter performance. It is the public articulation that validates, or witnesses to, alterity. That expression comes in a variety of forms: in the lived out reality of a persons life; in the written text of a thinker; in the culture of a community; in the painting of the artist; in the hospitality of a nation; in the statue of a sculptor. Whatever form it is offered it lends itself to a glimpse of otherness, it doesn’t negate it.
So the purpose is to add to that expression. It is to find new vocabulary and metaphors; new shapes; new colours to add to our palette. So that when we begin to express ourselves again we can draw upon an ever expanding range of tools and resources. We don’t have to live in the shadow of bankruptcy, instead we can revel in the riches of paradox fashioned with new tools.
Why does it need to be public?
If theology is a reflection of the otherness in reality then it needs to engage with the stranger. If it is manifest by the ultimate Other then it somehow needs to be demonstrable in its engagement with others. In that sense theology is not a private affair. It is not a painting that I paint and then put in a cupboard — for my eyes only. That kind of personal piety disguised as religiosity is of little use to the world. But a public expression that leaves itself vulnerable for (mis)interpretation and critique is evidence that the other is taken seriously. It means I am unlikely to discover ‘truth’ but a range of ways to describe the indescribable. It means that some expressions will be so context specific they will make little sense to anyone else. It means that I might just discover a new elucidation that offers me a new vista, a broader horizon.
Where will it lead?
I genuinely don’t know! but i hope that it leads to new utopias. Places and spaces where humanity steps closer to realising its own latent potential. A potential that is sourced from eternity and lived in reality. Where the gap between the rich and the poor diminishes; where the earth is nourished rather than drained, where difference is celebrated rather than bombed out of existence, where expression is a rich polytextual cacophonic tapestry of hope and joy — pain and disillusionment, where love ceases to be sentimental folly, but is restored as the radical ancient lore that governs the universe.
So the conversation goes on. There is a hashtag #cmpfire. Those of us engaged in the conversation so far are using the campfire imagery to give a virtual setting to our meanderings — it might even become a real place for us to meet. So pull up a chair, warm your hands on the fire and listen … and when your moment comes …. express yourself.