I looked out on the sunset – personal thoughts on doing theology

This brief essay began its formation when preparing a lecture delivered to Unitarians at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. It has bee recently published on Theology Everywhere blog

I looked out on the sunset. The sky, deep red, but fading, could not be captured by a camera’s lens, held for eternity. I mused. Different wavelengths of light refracted by the atmosphere, received by a retina, passing through a tangle of neurones, conducted by chemical and physiological interactions, perceived by something we might label consciousness. And is this all? Later I played with water colours, fluid, wet on wet, running into one another out of control, unpredictable. This was nearer to what I believed I saw. But this did not explain or make sense of it. And a realisation rose rather than forced itself on me of something ‘other’. Call that conversion if you will. It was a glimpse of the ‘other’, I will go on calling it that for want of anything better, that changed the direction of my life. Marcus Borg spoke of the light that glances into our lives rendering significance which, he felt, was something of the shared experience of the mystics. And it began an exploration that could never be complete, a pilgrimage that could never achieve its destination. I was seeking understanding of experience, trying to make sense of all that life opened up to me of joy and elation, of pain and sorrow, of love and anger, of all that is. This would encompass all of existence, birth and death and all that lay between, but also beyond, before and after. This was immanence and yet transcendence. If anything this was love.

The problem, the danger of such exploration, is that we categorise and constrain. We seek to fit into boxes an understanding greater than our human capacity can grasp. We organise it, then call it faith. And when it breaks the bounds we have set for it we say that we have lost it. Really all that has happened is that we have discovered the truth that you cannot hold or constrain that which is boundless. Neither do we have language to express the inexpressible. Yet that is what theology is often reduced to.

My early theological training was dominated by systems in which concepts and doctrines were organised. Any challenge to that organisation was viewed as dangerous, even heresy. But you can only organise things you understand and understanding suggests power, control and knowledge. By definition a total understanding and knowledge of God is a contradiction in terms. In the book Thirteen Moons, the author, a native American, ponders:

Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.[1]

I have pondered on this. So often this is what our systems of theology have done. Poetic imagination fired the prophets to enable change, to allow the understanding of God to develop, evolve. Poetry has more freedom than prose. Hymns have so often reversed that process, pinned down our theology, closed it to speculation or changing context. Sydney Carter saw folk music as owned by the singers, generation to generation – a sort of sung liberation theology, always changing.

But I return to art. A few years ago the, then, youngest member of our family was taken to Tate Modern. She reported back on the experience, ‘It was weird!’ So called modern art isn’t always easy ‘to get’. And that’s it, I think. Theology is trying ‘to get’ what is beyond our human capacity to understand, or express. Mark Rothko painted massive, single colour panels. To many they mean nothing. Others report a profound sense of the other when they view them. If ‘the other’ is such as I have suggested, perhaps these are honest admissions and, as such offer that glimpse that mystics seek, and a representation beyond words or understanding of that which we seek.

This is not to deny the validity of theology, but to recognise that theologians need to draw on the  widest possible range of disciplines. These should include, but not be limited to, scriptures, languages, art, science, poetry, philosophy, music. Even then we need the honesty to admit that any theology that we elaborate can never, ever be more than a very crude approximation of the subject we are seeking to address. The quest must be open ended, never closed down, never dogmatic.

[1] Frazier, C., Thirteen Moons, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, p 21

Andrew Pratt 20/2/2023

Searching for the other – seeking God

A few years ago the then youngest member of our family was taken to Tate Modern. She reported back on the experience, ‘It was weird!’ So called modern art isn’t always easy ‘to get’. People tend to look at a canvas or a sculpture and then ask what is it? They are trying to work out what it represents. What does it picture or model? Often I think it is the question that is wrong. The piece of art simply ‘is’. It is itself and to ask what it represents isn’t helpful. It isn’t like anything, it is itself. That’s the point!

When people look at the plain canvases of colour that Mark Rothko painted they speak of experiencing something that we might well describe as nothing less than religious. Somehow these large works become a medium mediating something gracious. We might even judge them to be sacramental. I remember visiting such an exhibition and wondering how I might experience these paintings. I had an open mind. Adjacent to the Rothko exhibition was a display of surrealist art. I had been fascinated by surrealism for thirty or forty years. My real intention was to view the Rothkos and then move onto the things I really wanted to see. In the event I was held by these vast monochrome panels, taken into them, absorbed. The other exhibition was an anti-climax. It almost seemed fraudulent. There was nothing wrong with the choice of paintings or their execution but they felt ephemeral. If I was to use a scriptural parallel, it was as though the surrealists enabled me to ‘see through a glass darkly’. With Rothko it was face to face. It was like a window into ‘the other’.

As my own pilgrimage in faith progressed over the years I have been less, rather than more, sure of God. In case you misunderstand me let me explain. When I began to go to church of my own volition in my early twenties I was a bit unsure of faith and of God. People were quick to point me to who and what I should believe in, toward what God is like. Here was a clear picture of the triune God, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I learnt how, though this was not explicit in the Bible, it was a true representation of God. This, it was asserted, must be patently clear to any intelligent person.

A whole raft of theology followed on from this, built like a tower block on the firm foundation of scripture. The trouble with tall buildings is that they can be toppled. This happened to me first between Christmas and New Year one year when I was meant to be taking a Watchnight service covering for a minister who was taking a Christmas to new Year break. My faith, better my belief, was broken but then rebuilt, but the edifice was very different. I thought that was it. Over time there has been much building, demolition and re-building. Over years the background blue-print has been that scriptural one, backed up by reason and tradition. What was lacking was science, art, music and imagination. I’ll come back to that.

Theological training was once dominated by systems in which concepts and doctrines were organised. But you can only organise things you understand and understanding suggests power, control and knowledge. By definition a total understanding and knowledge of God is a contradiction in terms. The moment we begin to believe that we have full knowledge of God we are fooling ourselves. Scripture enables us to explore, alongside other things, the nature, actions and being of God and is complete within its own terms. But other faiths are just as certain of the truth of their scriptures. Gather all those scriptures together and we are presented with a mass of contradictions out of which we might draw some common threads.

That last word might just be the key to a way of opening faith to those who are sceptical about scripture and doubtful, or totally dismissive, of doctrine. Threads – imagine beginning to weave a piece of cloth. You have no control over the yarn you will use, no pattern to follow. You are going to weave for an infinite time. Already I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of the process. It is at once impossible, futile and incomprehensible. And might this just be a metaphor for how we understand God? From our perspective we pick up a single thread of a limited length. From that we try to imagine the whole. We cannot.

Or again, we are composing a symphony for a thousand, no ten thousand, perhaps an infinite number of instruments to last for a millennium. How will it harmonise? Where will the melody go?

These imaginary processes, if we immerse ourselves in them, might begin to get us closer to the essence of the divine. To borrow a phrase from Sidney Carter we are entering an exploration which will never be either fixed or final. Just when we reach the conclusion new possibilities open up and these are endless.

Perhaps the way into this exploration could be through science, imagination, music or art. Richard Feynman pointed out that science is always provisional. However important an academic, whatever her or his name, if their work does not stand up to scrutiny it could be wrong. How much more difficult is it to pin down God?

This is where for me art comes in. I have never been trained as an artist. I have no taught understanding of how paint and paper behave. Like life it has just been a matter of trial and error, experience and learning. My mother began to paint using painting by numbers, filling up spaces with predetermined colours to produce an expected picture. I tried but I soon got bored with this. I use water colours painting wet on wet. One colour flows into another. No lines are drawn. I have no idea, no expectation as to how a painting will turn out. Many are thrown away as rubbish. Some are recognisable as sea scenes. Plenty are sunsets. Occasionally they are random, but to my eyes unexpectedly beautiful. I can take no credit for this, but I enjoy the process and it takes me out of myself in a way that I can only describe as in some way mystical, nearer to God, perhaps sacramental.

The other medium in which I work is words. More often than not these are used in rhymed verse. At their best I hope these approximate to poetry. I began writing to understand systematic theology, to make sense of a language which, as a scientist, was foreign to me. I experimented. As I became more adept with the medium I used different rhythmical structures, varied poetic patterns. I had one advantage in this process. Being new to hymns I could write in contemporary language. I felt a freedom to use non-religious language. I wasn’t familiar with John Bell, Fred Kaan, Brian Wren, or Thomas Troeger, nor even Fred Pratt Green at that time. I began to plough my own furrow. I found my own voice and my own subject matter.

One consequence of this exploration has been the danger, or opportunity, of flirting with heresy, of pushing the boundaries of theology beyond the classic forms. I have found myself challenging and disturbing things I had been taught to regard as ‘gospel’. The motivation, when it has been conscious, has been to re-think theology when it has not matched what I have read in scripture, or experienced in life. I have not always set out to consciously explore different perspectives. This is nothing new. Walter Brueggemann has pointed out the way in which in the Old Testament imagination drove Psalmists and Prophets. It seems to me that Ezekiel 37 is one such example. The imaginative vision of a valley of bones being enfleshed and coming to life is vivid. That imagination challenged the accepted theology of a God lodging in a sacked Jerusalem. The ‘divine’, Ezekiel imagines, is in the dust and ashes of a broken people in a desert place. Not only this, but those bones might live, rise up, walk, dance and re-inhabit the home from which they have been exiled. The key here is a God who is omnipresent, not limited by time or space, quite a leap! It is this sort of stimulus that encouraged the likes of Marcus Borg to re-think theology with that label, anathema to many, of ‘progressive’.

There is some evidence that the whole of the Hebrew scriptures were pointed for singing  so that the poetry we read in pretty remote translation was once sung with vigour. Think of the way in which you can be lifted as you sing, how you are bonded to your neighbour and, if you are able, how you can improvise and add layers to a melody, a descant to your song. Take this a stage further. Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist, composed music for his wife’s hymns. But for hymns there is that rigidity of structure, metre, verse. Think of a purer form of jazz that cannot be held in a recording because it is inherently spontaneous, of the moment, unrepeatable. I hear a musical metaphor of creation, a melodic mirror of the wet on wet watercolour.

Then coming away from clamour, the movement, the energy I am taken to a lakeside. There is a low morning mist draped across the water. I lean on the railing of a wooden bridge looking away over water. Beyond the trees coloured for fall are the Great Smoky Mountains beginning to show their form as the day lightens. And I know I can never in a photograph or a painting capture this moment. But I also know that I have been changed by being here. I have been re-orientated, glimpsed something of the divine. I will never be the same again. But this is not the end. And I walk on.

There is no final resting in the pilgrimage. The road leads me. There is more, infinitely more. And I cannot freeze this in time or hold it in a creed. At the next glimpse of the God-head my view will be different, my perspective changed, my creed challenged.

For now I must continue through science, art, words and music to touch the divine, to come close to God, to know God better, yet never completely. This is the dance which we are all called to join, the mystic choreography in which we circle and move, gliding, glancing through light and shade.

It is not God changing, but I must. For now I see through a glass darkly. Just now and again, the view clears. I must be attuned for the next time. I hope I’m ready, prayerfully ready. May love deepen with me. May I care more deeply for those I meet. And just perhaps I can prompt others to imagine, to probe, to explore, to listen, perhaps to see, and above all to love.

© Andrew Pratt 26/9/2017