Thought for the Day : Friday 25 September

Thought for the Day by Robin Fishwick

Readings: 1 Kings 11:26-43 and Acts 18:1-21

Outside the box

We have started the new academic year at the Chaplaincy this week, including our first discussion in our series “Engaging with Theology” which is pretty much what it says on the tin and I found this cartoon a good conversation starter. Whoever drew it has a poor view of theology, but I also remember how years ago I think it was the late Owen Conway, a former vicar of St Michael’s who advised me “You can never have too much theology”. What is it about theology which incurs suspicion from some and enthusiasm among others? And what is the relationship between faith and theology?

I suspect that the cartoonist would have been making the same point if they had not labelled the box, but labelled the man. Is the cartoon really targeting theology or theologians? If some theologians are guilty of putting God in a box, does that invalidate the whole discipline of theology? To me that seems equivalent to blaming accountancy errors on mathematics. The aim of theology is partly to help us mortals have a better understanding of the nature of the divine and there are two ways of doing that. The hard way, the better way, is to improve our comprehension; the sloppy way is to try to make God more comprehensible. Too often, trying to make God more comprehensible really is like putting God in a box. I hope the cartoonist was not oblivious to the irony of the fact that by depicting God in the traditional way of a man (presumably) in a white robe, they too were putting God into the box of traditional portrayal.

Is there also a suspicion of “clever people” influencing the cartoon? Is there a fear of the intellectualisation of faith? Is the complaint not just of God being put in a box, but being put away in a box, out of the reach of ordinary mortals? It certainly is an occupational hazard among “career” theologians to become fascinated by the intellectual conundrums that theology throws up and that might leave the rest of us feeling we are not clever enough to understand God. You begin to see how difficult it is for these theologians – they either oversimplify God, putting God in a box too small, or go on about how incomprehensible God is, thereby putting God beyond our reach. Is there a Goldilocks zone of cleverness- the right degree of cleverness to have a healthy faith? The bad news is that there isn’t. Well actually, that’s the good news. The Good News include a story of theologians being astounded by a young boy and stories of that boy growing up to marvel at the faith of people displaying little or no theological credentials.

So was I misadvised all those years ago, about the need for theology? If theological prowess is not essential to faith, can we do without it? Quite frankly, I’d like to see us try. Theology is something we all do whether we are Christians, Buddhists, Wiccans or Atheists; whether we are helping the Pope with an encyclical or drawing a cartoon about God. And if we want to have a relationship with God, we cannot avoid thinking about God. That leaves us two choices, either to try and place our idea of God into a box of our comprehension, or to take the harder way and de-limit and unshape our concept of God – to think outside the box. That does not demand cleverness so much as a sense of humility and wonder. And faith,too; not a faith that keeps you in its box but a faith that summons you out into God’s greater reality.

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