#TheologyinIsolation 3: Karen O'Donnell - 'Theology from the place where it hurts'
Continuing our #TheologyinIsolation series, Karen O'Donnell reflects on a strange time of hope, innovation, and pain.
I don’t know about you but certain parts of my social media feeds have been largely places of great joy and compassion over the last week or so. I scroll through my feeds to find stories of great generosity and compassion. I will not pretend I did not have a little cry watching Gary Neville’s announcement that he will not be making anyone redundant and that he is opening his hotel to support the most important workers in our society. I have thoroughly enjoyed the extensive threads of people homeworking with pets, advice on appropriate dress for the homeworker, recipes for store cupboard dinners, and the multiple ideas of things you can sing or recite whilst washing my hands.
But the thing that has brought me to regular tears have been the theologians (and yes, clergy, I mean you!). I have seen so many examples of clergy experimenting with social media and digital resources as they think about how they might continue to be and do church in the light of recommendations for social distancing and self-isolation. This has included saying the Daily Offices together online, beautiful pieces of music recorded and shared, celebrations of the Eucharist via Periscope, and a great flurry of twitter prayers. Liturgist theologian Porter Tyler even gifted us with A Liturgy during a Pandemic with a brief explanation of how to pray this at home or via video call during the Covid-19 outbreak.
I spent three years working in a research centre for Digital Theology, primarily thinking about how we are human and corporeal in digital spaces (you can read more about those ideas here). I could never have imagined this kind of scenario would be the one in which my research would resonate so strongly and that so many people would be experimenting with what it means to be church in digital spaces.
Whilst this mode of being and doing church might be new to many people, it is not a new thing! Pretty much since the internet has been around, people have been doing Christian things online. There have been online churches, experimentations in online worship, and theological conversations about sacraments, prayers, and worship in digital spaces for at least the last twenty years, if not longer. The expert in all things online church is Tim Hutchings who has literally written the book on this subject – Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community, and New Media (2018).
It is these experiments in worship and community—and the conversations that both provoke them and are provoked by them—that gives me hope. Many years ago now, a theologian I greatly admire said that she always wanted to do her theology from the place where it hurts. I have found this to be an incredibly generative and challenging statement and I have returned to it many times as I have considered the kind of theologian I want to be. It also hints at the richness of the place of hurt for theological reflection and for creating new theologies that do justice to our experiences and honour the lived realities of our bodies.
As someone who predominantly works in the field of trauma theology, I recognise the incredible creative opportunity that lies before theologians at this time. I am not usually the person who rushes toward hope! In fact, my work has been criticised for not giving enough space for the Christian ideal of hope. I have strongly argued against the tendency to rush toward the resurrection—toward the hope bit—as something that does a disservice to the reality of traumatic experiences. Sometimes there is no hope and we simply have to survive.
But there is hope here. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, these strange and frightening times have brought with them a creative outpouring of new ways of being together and being church. Perhaps this is not surprising. This crisis has rolled through our lives and our communities like an earthquake and we are still in the midst of the rupturing. The familiar touch points and landmarks have slipped from our view. This ruptured landscape is fertile ground for creative, imaginative, and life-giving theological innovation. As ever, much of this is driven by a pragmatic need to do something today and to have something to say today. This ‘on the ground’ theology is rich and nuanced and deserves unpacking and exploring when we have all found our equilibrium once more. In the meantime, keep your experiments in being church in digital spaces coming. Keep innovating. Keep imagining. And keep being together in whatever way you can. It’s moving this theologian, at least, to tears.
Karen O’Donnell leads the MA in Christian Spirituality at Sarum College. Her latest book, co-edited with Katie Cross, is Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective.