Where is theology happening? Who makes theology? What is theology?
There are so many tensions in researching, writing about and holding space for theology, and sometimes the word starts to blur and refract, as when I repeat any word over and over. It gives me a strange sensation, as if the shape and sound of the word remain intact, but the content/ meaning/ substance dissolve. The canvas slides out of the frame. Sometimes it gives me a moment of terror that I am experiencing the first hint of some kind of aphasia, like one of Oliver Sacks’ case studies.
Theology theology theology theo logy the ology theologytheologytheoloooooooooooooooooooooo
θεολογία θεολογία θεολογία θεο — god — λογία — “utterances, sayings, oracles”
It is a habit and practice now for me to qualify the word “poet,” even if just quietly in my own mind. Female poet. White bodied cis-queer-female poet of Romanian immigrant educated background and American accent. How many power relationships are active? Similarly, I think most often theology means Christian theology (but it doesn’t have to), and sometimes it’s Western/ North Atlantic white-Jesus Christian theology. The language is ugly, but I feel like Isaiah after the vision in this week’s lectionary: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a [wo]man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen (____)!” The next part is astonishing:
6:6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.
6:7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
The people of unclean lips are not any particular people, just all people whose words have ever been thoughtless, villainous, lazy. I will use the ugly language to remind myself that, for a long time, when people wanted to say “human,” it was normal to say “man,” which was understood to mean “white man.” I am not sure what serves as the live coal from the altar, and who is the angel who puts it to our lips — what makes it possible for us to speak and not harm each other?
I am thinking back to b b b b b b b b in Claire Schwartz’ poem a couple of weeks ago — is there a regression from sign to a representative image that can feel like a homecoming? And here are my early lessons in poetry, the “tenor” and “vehicle” of the metaphor, the “sound” and “sense” of the line of verse, how we relate the Thing to the Container/Medium. Then, I think: I want a theology of relationality, but isn’t all theology about relation? Now I am beginning to say what theology is. One theology describes a god that wanted to know itself, and in order to do so, it needed to create instruments — us, the world — for self-reflection, or maybe it was for self-creation and self-knowledge (this is sometimes referred to as a doctrine of revelation). As soon as I start to say what theology is, I immediately feel the edges of the word softening, and myself drifting.
Like Religion and Spirituality, Theology — the word/ Word — reflects more than it illuminates. I’m trying to zero in on what I think are common understandings, beginning with theology as academic, what is learned/ claimed/ theorized and taught about divinity (but then there is teaching to inform, transform or transgress). And, therefore, theology can be a secular pursuit. I get the sense that people think of spirituality as what is experienced in solitary reflection? In nature, in a yurt, along a pilgrimage. Religion: what one does, adheres or belongs to, Believes In. This is not an exact science.
I am, for the time being, most concerned with theology, and with its academic aspect. In Collins’ dictionary: “Academic is used to describe work, or a school, college, or university, that places emphasis on studying and reasoning rather than on practical or technical skills.” These distinctions are blurring everywhere — schools, colleges, universities are places where SO MUCH practical education can happen, from campus activism and unionizing, to more conservative forms of politics. The distinctions also blur in the case of theology. I tend to view this as a good thing, though, I also remind myself that there is genuine value in spaces designed especially for thinking (a lesson learned from witnessing Dr. Gina Dent once so lovingly rescue a student from the despair of always reflexively asking, “Yes, this thinking is good, but what can I do?”); one problem is that so many thinking spaces nominate themselves as the only legitimate spaces where IMPORTANT IDEAS circulate and where KNOWLEDGE HAPPENS. It’s easy to see why this is so: academics are conditioned to believe that the brain-mind is the only place in the body where thinking happens, or that thinking is the noblest thing that happens (but here I am, trying to generate real desire for the subject about which I think so much, because desire seems to be the only thing that gets me to write). This conditioning comes from centuries of Cartesian mind-body/human-nature splitting, built upon neo-platonic-Christian flesh-spirit splitting (we can talk about this, it is even in this week’s lectionary, specifically in the Letter to the Romans and John text).
I don’t have a smooth transition here, but this week I wanted to share some of the accounts I follow on Instagram that engage directly with theology/ ministry (oh, Ministry — that’s another one!). Or maybe the transition is that theology can happen anywhere! Not only in divinity school classrooms, or in solitary PhD research (this isn’t about theology, but it is so good). Like you all, probably, I have a complex relationship with social media. Sometimes I resolve to follow only the 50 accounts that nourish me most. Sometimes I resolve to delete the apps forever. Sometimes I resolve to stop flagellating myself and receive what I have chosen to expose myself to, filtering out what I don’t need. Anyway, I appreciate these accounts mostly for how they bridge the academic and the practical, and sometimes for the opportunities, publications or events they anounce.
I love Danté Stewart’s account about Jesus and James Baldwin. This is the one that most inspires desire for the love that thinking can produce.
I love Cole Arthur Riley’s Womanist focus in the account Black Liturgies.
I love Tricia Hersey’s account about the politics of rest.
The Rev. Jacqui Lewis leads Middle Collegiate Church with prophetic love.
I find good resources in the account of the journal Feminist Studies in Religion, the theo-political art of Bridge Projects, the poems in Poetry is Not a Luxury, the texts in the Womanist Reader account, webinars offered by the Wabash Centre. There are many others, and there is a lot of good theology that doesn’t go by the name of theology (and vice versa), these are just the ones that immediately come to mind.
Coffee Hour is a lightly facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (today it is: Theologeee); the video conference link is: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021