In recent groups and interviews for my work with the chaplaincy at Macquarie University we have been asking people questions around one particular qualifier.
As in a responsible Christianity, responsible theology – or, for the spelling bee fans, putting it in a sentence: how do we speak of God/Jesus/Spirit/Church in a way which is responsible to x; or (sentence no.2), how do we speak of God responsibly in light of y.
Before I expand on what I mean and how it’s been working I want to say that I do have two personal hesitations with this word as a qualifier. However, I’m going to put that at the end so that those who’ve come to get the pertinent info and get out can, indeed, get the pertinent info and get out.
To begin this semester we did four weeks of God-talk. We asked how we’d responsibly speak of God in light of socio-political and economic oppression, the ecological crisis, bodily shame, and suffering. This led us to talk about (or talk to people who talked about) Black Liberation theology and a God of the Oppressed, Deep Incarnation and a Creative God who works through an evolving process, an erotic God who acts to overcome shame by taking on flesh, and an open and relational account of providence. It meant that we took seriously the implications of our beliefs and articulations about God and the way they would be received by people whose lives are affected by these various circumstances or issues. We’ve since continued this model, looking at Jesus in light of patriarchy, white supremacy, broken and divided communities, and refugees. This focus on responsibility compels us to remove the blinders, abandon abstraction and do theology, speak of God, while facing up to these specific crises. Basically we’re trying to stay woke.
Because, and this has long been pointed out, too much theology is irresponsible. Theologies of submission and sacrifice have guilted too many women into staying in abusive relationships. Theologies of God as powerful monarch have made synonymous the good character of God with the virtues and traits of white male authoritative figures. Too many sermons on salvation as rescue have fostered utilitarian and anthropocentric views toward the non-human world. And this doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about, for example, Christ’s sacrificial and self-giving love, it just means that we should keep in mind the dangers and walk the path responsibly, offering the odd caveat or clarification.
It also means that our Jesus-talk or God-talk (or whatever talk) needs to be led by what we know is going on in our world and our communities. If preaching a year of sermons you could think about what’s going on around or in your congregations and devote weeks to showing how the symbols and stories of the Christian faith speak into them. For instance, knowing what we know of the heartbreakingly high levels of domestic violence (and violence against women in general) how can we go a year without addressing it in a sermon? Knowing that perhaps every fourth person in the pews is dealing with depression or anxiety how do we go about ignoring that – or telling people that God says have no fear, but never pausing to address that for some people their life is controlled and debilitated by fear induced by chemical imbalances? Knowing what we know of the conditions of Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres, or juvenile justice system, we need to think about how we speak of God responsibly in light of the ongoing suffering being endured in those hidden places.
Yes, all theology should be responsible to the world and community where it is performed, but it isn’t. Too much talk of God or Jesus or Spirit or Church or Bible or yadda, yadda, yadda, is carried out in ways which support, prop up, ignore, permit the death dealing and oppressive practices, systems, structures, and attitudes of our world. Responsibility is often just about thinking twice, about pausing for a moment to consider a perspective different to yours, a circumstance or situation at odds with the one we presently find ourselves in… all I’m saying and all we’re trying, is to do the same with our faith and its expression. To develop a theology and practice that is responsible to those who suffer when we are irresponsible.
The first is the use of any adjective qualifier before the word Christian or theology. This is sometimes the reservation or critique of labels such as “progressive” or “conservative” Christianity, or “contextual” theology. Taking the latter, one issue some point out is that inserting the qualifier, contextual, implies that some theologies aren’t, or that contextual theology is a branch limited to particularities and bound by subjectivity whereas systematic theology is universal and objective. In my mind contextual theology is a temporal term, by that I mean it’s something we use (to quote Avenue Q) “for now”. It is a corrective term, because although all theologies are contextual – some just haven’t admitted it yet and until they do, until we embrace that contextual is part and parcel of any and all theology, the term retains merit. (Just by-the-by: Geoff Thompson in his book Disturbing Much Disturbing Many has a good challenge to contextual theology – and any use of adjectives before Christian – and offers the interesting notion of contingent theology).
Returning to our word of the day, is it redundant to speak of a responsible theology, a responsible Christianity? Shouldn’t that be assumed? Well – with much the same logic that people speak of contextual theologians – much theology (much Jesus-talk and God-talk) is irresponsible to the world in which we find ourselves, and so the qualifier responsible is an important corrective, for now.
The second hesitation is with the word itself. Is “responsible” the best choice – I mean, could contextual be enough? Or is responsible too broad or too open? There are a lot of words in the English language, Liam, are you sure you chose the right one? Well, obviously I don’t know for sure, but I’ve made my case and I’m sticking with it… for now.