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#Theology in Isolation 19: The Academy - Lessons from Lockdown

08:25 27/04/2020
#Theology in Isolation 19: The Academy - Lessons from Lockdown

 

At times like these, theological reflection is theology's first responder, Kirsty Borthwick argues.

***

Can I be honest?

When I first saw the Theology in Isolation series advertised, my initial reaction wasn’t wholly positive. I’d reacted similarly to news of Covid-themed conferences. “Is this really the time for theology?” I asked.

Part of that reaction had to be the frustration of trying and failing to find the headspace to finish writing a PhD whilst moving with little to no notice, settling into a new rhythm of life largely spent online, and spending far more energy than I can spare on the anxieties of our current circumstances. As others in this series have articulated so well, productivity and trauma, however mild, are uncomfortable companions.

Of course, theology is so much more than what we write. It’s the air in which the church lives and breathes, the heartbeat by which it fulfils its vocation to love and serve the world. Theology in such times of crisis is to be discovered in the service of those running foodbanks, the head-scratching of our politicians and their advisors, the expertise and compassion of our medics, and the weeping of those who mourn. Because the Christian God is one who, in the incarnate person of Christ, responds to the question “what is truth?” not with clever reasoning or carefully crafted words, but with silence and suffering and death on a cross.1 Christ partakes of the darkness of death before he rises anew. Theology too must reside in the darkest and hardest of places, as well as the safest.  When the people of God are there to encounter and witness to God’s movement in these places, there the art of theological reflection is born.

In their introduction to Theological Reflection: Methods, Elaine Graham, Heather Walton and Frances Ward describe the practice thus: “theological reflection enables the connections between human dilemmas and divine horizons to be explored”.2 Elsewhere they list the tasks of theological reflection in any given context: 1) indicating what it means to be a Christian; 2) what it means to “be the body of Christ in this place and time”; and 3) communicating the faith to wider culture.3

It strikes me then, that in our present climate, theological reflection is theology’s first responder. As the church seeks to minister to its flock and all those in need, and as the academy seeks to reflect on and process the changes Covid-19 has cast on our experience of the world, it is theological reflection that gets there first, answering the call of God in the darkest of places, providing comfort and context and the tools to heal. The time for more traditional academic theologians to do their work is yet to come.

I’m both training to be a Priest in the Church of England and finishing a PhD. Like many others, my public identity sits directly on the porous boundary between church and academy. And so, as our lockdown has continued and my grumpiness has softened, “is this really the time for theology?” has become “what can the academy be learning from the church?”

I want to suggest that the practice of theological reflection offers two answers.

Firstly, the importance of careful listening. Take Jane Leach’s recognition that pastoral theology is an act of paying attention, including to absent or silenced voices.4 Where are those silent voices in the life of the academy? And how might those voices be elevated? In the day-to-day life of administration, research and teaching how can we be raising the profile and experiences of those barred by having fewer academic credentials, or those underrepresented, in whichever demographic. If God is to be found through the breadth of human experience, surely a comprehensive theology has to listen for those tucked away quietly in the back row of the lecture hall, or beyond the academy’s walls?

And when the time comes to produce papers and monographs in response to Covid-19, those of us managing fairly easily must remain silent long enough to hear the voices of those who take longer to respond. We must have the patience to hear their experiences – of caring for children, mourning the dead, and healing from illness. As Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ teaches us, their most essential needs must be met first.5 Intellectual pursuits come later. Those experiences will belong to many in the Academy.

Secondly, the one who theologically reflects must be equipped. I often wonder if part of the reason my fellow ordinands and I famously switch off whenever theological reflection is mentioned, is because too often we’re introduced to models for reflection before we’ve had the opportunity to dive into biblical studies or church history or systematics. No one is going to enjoy a jigsaw puzzle that comes with clear instructions, but no actual pieces. Theological content matters.

And far too little is available outside our university libraries. As many of us seek to continue our reading and writing in lockdown, the limits of online material is beginning to show. Take Laurie Green’s famous model for theological reflection in his Let’s Do Theology.6 Even with access to a world class library and its plenteous online subscriptions, and access to the many digital resources available to ordinands in the Church of England, I could not lay my hands on a copy in order to reference it in this piece. The keen eyed among you might notice there’s a page reference missing in two of the footnotes to this piece. Again, page numbers not available online.

There’s a whole world of theology out there, but right now much of it is trapped in hard copy form, behind closed doors. Or costs too much for your average reader to afford. If I’m struggling to source reading, what about those without the luxury of resources like these? Those whose voices might speak fresh wisdom into our theological thinking?

And what about the rich positives, lockdown has brought? Many churches have responded creatively in moving worship online. We are slowly becoming accustomed to online worship, preaching and teaching as the new normal. For many this has been their only means of encounter with church for many years. How might the life of the academy and the church be enriched if more of what the academy does day to day were freely available online? Which seminars could be opened up to the viewing public? What courses could people take from the comfort of their own sofa? How might our more traditional universities catch up with the likes of the Open University in their web-based resourcing? Lockdown is certainly reminding us that much is possible online, if only we set out to achieve it.

I’m still not convinced now is the time for ‘theology’. At least not in the narrow academic sense. But when that time comes, I’m excited for what the academy might rediscover in all that’s been happening in the meantime.

Kirsty Borthwick is an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, and is writing a PhD on trintiarian models of prayer.

***

[1] John 18.38ff.

[2] Graham, E., Walton, H., and Ward, F., Theological Reflection: Methods, (London: SCM Press, 2019).

[3] Graham, E., Walton, H., and Ward, F., Theological Reflection: Methods, (London: SCM Press, 2019).

[4] Leach, J., ‘Pastoral Theology as Attention’, Contact 153, no. 1 (2007): 19–32, https://doi.org/10.1080/13520806.2007.11759074. My thanks to Bec Wilkinson and Vanessa Hadley-Spencer for fruitful conversation on the place of listening in Leach’s pastoral theology.

[4] Maslow, A.H., “A theory of human motivation”, Psychological Review, 50, no. 4 (1943): 370–96, https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346.

[5] Green, L., Let’s Do Theology: Resources for Contextual Theology, (London: Mowbray, 2009).