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

Hymn remembered thinking of Tonga and the Pacific

Tectonic plates beneath the ocean's surface,
uplifted, twisting life and limb and wave.
The landscape that was home has lost its features,
we wonder there are any left to save.

An empty chair amid such devastation
where cars like toys, are lifted, spun about;
and here we wait and pray in helpless anguish;
and 'where is God' we want to cry and shout.

Incarnate God we need your present spirit
to live within your people at this time,
to energise our prayerful words and actions,
to offer grace to life's discordant rhyme.

God offer hope to those who feel forsaken,
to those whose lives have spun and turned around;
to those whose grief defies all consolation,
bring grace and love and hope and solid ground.

Words: Andrew Pratt (born 1948) © 2011 (alt by author 2022) Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, www.stainer.co.uk.
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.


Suggested tunes: Highwood (StF 3; H&P 236); Intercessor (H&P 411)

Pulsar discoverer Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins Breakthrough Prize – Hymn – In quasars, quarks and pulsars

This hymns was written over 30 yeaars ago after reading Stephen Hawking's Brief history of time

1	The God of cosmic question
	Surprises by his birth,
	Not in some new dimension
	But on this ravaged earth!

2	In quasars, quarks and pulsars
	We seek the cosmic truth:
	The ground of our existence
	That set creation loose,

3	And human senses lead us,
	Through all they analyse,
	From arrogance to wonder,
	To spiritual surprise.

4	But senses have their limits:
	Unanswered still there lies
	The single, deepest question
	Our intellect supplies.

5	Yet history proffers insight:
	The Christ of time and space
	Speaks of a God incarnate
	Amid this curious race:

6	Alive within our compass,
	Upon this ravaged earth,
	The God of cosmic question
	Surprises by his birth!

Andrew E Pratt (born 1948)	
© 1991 Stainer & Bell Ltd 
7 6 7 6 Iambic Tunes: KINGS LYNN (also COSMIC QUESTION)
Published in Blinded by the Dazzle

Alternative second verse -

2	At scientific frontiers
	We seek the cosmic truth:
	The ground of our existence
	That set creation loose,

Hymn responding to Prof John Evans’ Seminar for Bramhall Methodist Church Climate Change Series

Prof John Evans
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Southampton

To work with God we need to learn 
each nuance of this earth, 
the way the planet shifts and moves,  
its treasures, all their worth.
We search out every finite source, 
yet sometimes lack the care 
to measure out just what we need, 
to leave some resting there.

And now we start to comprehend 
not just this worldly wealth,
but how its use can build, enhance, 
or damage earthly health;
not just the strength of humankind, 
but climate’s synergy, 
the balance on which life depends 
for its vivacity.

So now we learn to understand 
the calling of our race, 
to stand in watch, to call and act, 
within each time and place; 
not just renewing white bleached bones 
or raising dead to life, 
but clothing every word with love, 
where hatred once was rife.

7/6/2021 Andrew Pratt
Words © 2021 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd
Metre: CMD

More information click here

Climate change song – Crises drive us from our comfort

Crises drive us from our comfort
to the edge of vital choice,
children speak the words we’ve hidden,
simple words we’ve failed to voice.
Will we listen to the judgment
warning us to change our ways,
change essential in this moment
making way for future days?

Cut the greed, this present moment
is a sacrament in time:
calls for change in our perspective,
hearing reason, mending rhyme.
Here we have just finite tenure,
stewards of this planet, earth,
handing each new generation
sacred space to come to birth.

Space and time are lent and trusted
into each receptive hand,
ours to tend, maintain and offer
clean, refreshed: each cherished land.
Yet our science says we’re wanting,
faulted in our craft and care.
May the future be forgiving
of the love we failed to share.

Andrew Pratt 8/12/2019
Inspired by Greta Thunberg

Words © 2019 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.stainer.co.uk.
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.