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.
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.
 Frazier, C., Thirteen Moons, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, p 21
Andrew Pratt 20/2/2023