Tag Archives: Theology

More Poetry and Literature, Please. A Brief Reflection on the Rilke and Eliot Symposium

Today, March 21st, is World Poetry Day, which is really just an excuse to offer a brief reflection on the Rilke and Eliot symposium held at St. Mary’s earlier this month. St. Mary’s hosted a number of scholars to discuss  Rilke’s Duino Eligies and Eliot’s Four Quartets with intentionally theological and philosophical lenses. Alongside organizers Judith Wolfe and Thomas Pfau were Malcolm Guite, Kevin Hart, David Wellbery, and Rowan Williams, as well as St. Mary’s own Christoph Schwöbel and Gavin Hopps. The discussions from these scholars were enlightening and the spirit of the poets seemed to be conjured in every session. The event was as affective as it was enlightening.

A comment was made in an early session about theology’s bad habit of conscripting poetry into a theological way of thinking without substantive references to the text; a pithy quote from the likes of Virgil, Dante, or Hopkins can easily affirm an essential point, but rarely represents a real engagement with the poem or its author. What has reverberated in my mind since the event is learning to take seriously poets and poetry as distinct modes of theological and philosophical inquiry. Our horizons are broadened by reading poetic sources; poetry should be part of the multiplicity of methods that reveals truth, especially theological truth!

Considering poetry’s place of prominence in the theological tradition and in Scripture, it’s odd that poets rarely make an appearance on a syllabus. If poetry offers its own distinctively complex mode of inquiry into theological and philosophical ideas, then scholars (and aspiring scholars) should be intentional in bringing these sources into the larger theological conversations. Thus, allow me to offer a small reading list of books that exhibit what theology looks like when its steeped in poetry and literature:

Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love , by Rowan Williams

Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, by Malcolm Guite

Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry, by Kevin Hart

Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being, by Anne M. Carpenter

Beginning with the Word, by Roger Lundin


A Theology of Literature: The Bible as Revelation in the Tradition of the Humanities, by William Franke







The Case of Iconoclasm

By Dr. Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University, currently visiting St. Andrews under the “Baylor at St. Andrews” program. She is the author of Image and Presence and Beauty

Though the term iconoclasm has expanded its meanings and associations over time, it still evokes a more Protestant than Catholic approach to church life. Not only are Protestants on the whole warier about the dangers of images, but Protestantism was birthed in the pangs of Reformation iconoclasm. Even Anglican and Episcopal churches, many of which today commission and display powerful art, refused for a time to tolerate anything image-like, including crosses. Queen Elizabeth was rebuked for the silver ones she kept in her chapel.

In my own Protestant upbringing, I attended a church that did tolerate crosses, but little else. A floor-to-ceiling wooden cross positioned directly behind the preacher was the sanctuary’s lone adornment. There were no paintings, no sculptures, not even any windows. The carpet and chairs were dark brownish-orange, as if anything pleasing to the eye might prevent worship of the invisible God.

Like all official determinations, these aesthetic decisions were made by the elder and deacon boards, comprised entirely of men. Sometimes the women rebelled against the bleak setting by arranging flowers for the front or sewing Advent banners. I remember my own mother on more than one occasion trying to brighten the pulpit by wrangling greenery around it. It was fake, of course, because there were no windows.

And yet despite the possibility that aesthetic anxiety can lead to such dreariness, I want to commend an iconoclastic impulse as salutary to image-loving traditions like Catholicism, even like much of twenty-first century Protestantism. I believe the iconoclastic impulse need not lead to visual austerity, for it can actually help Christians love images better—and might even help Protestants and Catholics find more common ground on images. Attempts to maintain a stark contrast between iconoclasm and iconophilia break down in a way that leaves room for ecumenical hope. Certain forms of iconoclasm, like many images, can be modes of fidelity to Christ.

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Sacramental and creaturely tradition

There is much here to which I gladly say Amen, but I am yet to rejoin the Catholic fold and so I still murmur.

Professor Lewis Ayres was clear in his stance that the best ecumenical discussions which he has pursued are engaged with strong articulations on all sides of distinctives at their most theological level. In this vein I deeply appreciate his articulation that this sacramental account depends on Christ as the sacrament and the Church as mystical body, and that tradition is a Spirit empowered human act with particular content within this ongoing sacramental and eschatological anticipatory reality. This is the basis for a magisterial tradition which contributes effectively to the salvation of souls. I can see how this follows for Ayres, but without adherence to the initial positions I’m yet to be convinced of the consequences.

This leads me to wonder if Ayres’s thought may be transposed in a Protestant key without sacramentality and without the consequent magisterium of tradition. Do Protestants have the resources for a theology of tradition, which for Ayres is a theology of theology? Professor John Webster believed that a theological account of theology was possible for him and his thought was progressing towards reflection on Christian thinking and the practice of exegetical, doctrinal, and moral reason. (In his presentation Professor Ayres twice referenced the essay he contributed to Webster’s feschrift.)

I affirm many of the theological claims which bear Ayres’s account of tradition forward. In his incarnation, thanks to the hypostatic union and empowering by the Spirit, Christ reveals the Father in a way that no other creature may. The salvation won by Christ brings his people, through the blessing of adoption in the Spirit, into a fellowship which mirrors the perfect triune fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit. The Church embodies an eschatological reality before the nations. The Church participates in a Spirit overseen history in which we wait. The Scriptures call for focused theological attention as the constant referrant by which the living Christ speaks to his Church. Christian thinking, even critical reflection on Scripture, is unfruitful when severed from the ministry of the Spirit and the embodied history of and practices of discernment within the Church in which the Spirit has overseen for generations past.

This leads me to ponder how much work “sacramental” is doing in Ayres’s proposal. My protestant ears heard this meaning an “embodied and lively social and temporal reality overseen by the Spirit” but I fear I have missed a far richer and deeper reality being alluded to. Nonetheless, I wonder if tradition may be characterised as an “embodied and lively social and temporal reality overseen by the Spirit” which is distinctively creaturely (without sacramental nuances) and this remain at all satisfying. (I highly respect Professor Ayres and humbly wonder out loud in what follows.)

Ayres guards his sacramental account from distortion by appealing to the qualifiers: mystery & act and unity & eschatology. For me, the Creator-creature relation is fundamental even here. Creatures acting in a properly creaturely mode retains robust double agency and the inexhaustible mystery of divine action as being itself remains gift. The spatial and temporal finitude of creatures means they find themselves in relation, first with their Creator, and then with each other, in a mode of embodied communal history and practice, which for rational creatures includes the practices of Christian intellect and will. Unity of the Church is thence spiritual union with their Head awaiting eschatological consummation, without this compromising or altering her being as creature. Further, I retain a hesitance to characterise creaturely reality, even new creation reality in the Church, as first and foremost sacramental. I’m very open to being challenged at this point, but at present my concern for “the Christian distinction” remains too strong.

Therefore, I wonder if some of the labour, for which Ayres reaches to sacrament, might be accomplished by creatureliness and indeed new creation creatureliness. Perhaps I might call for historical dogmatic rigour which is not philosophically or hermeneutically naïve based on the ongoing creaturely reality of the Church. A strong sense of the providentially Spirit guided Church might result in a firm but ministerially role for tradition. The properly creaturely Church might nurture spiritual discernment and practices of Christian thinking with rigour in the present while also aware of her past and her future. The creature’s awareness of her dependence on the Creator, the depths of sin, the fullness of salvation, the ongoing ministry of the Spirit, the embodied history of the Church, the hope of life to come, might lead to refreshed discipline in the practices of intellectual humility, generosity, and patience, as Christian thought attends to Dei Verbum.

Rebekah Earnshaw

(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St. Mary’s College.)

…Totius Traditionis Mirabile Sacramentum

For the second meeting of its spring semester, the St Andrews theology research seminar was privileged to welcome Professor Lewis Ayres. He is Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University and kindly made the trip north of the border. Professor Ayres is an authority on trinitarian theology in patristic and modern thought as well as Augustine; his books Augustine and the Trinity and Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth Century Trinitarian Theology will be known to many.

Ayres presented a paper which forms part of a larger project investigating theologically the nature and practice of theology. This paper was previously presented to the Ad Limina Apostolorum conference in Washington, DC, which invited responses to the documents of Vatican II. In his paper Ayres addressed the question of how Dei Verbum might serve the task of theology and Christian unity. His paper is titled ‘…Totius Traditionis Mirabile Sacramentum: Toward a Theology of Tradition in the light of Dei Verbum’ and responded most directly to the conclusion of Dei Verbum’s second chapter.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

After preliminary remarks concerning historical context and his method of reading the council, Ayres sought a theological foundation for how tradition might ‘contribute effectively’. He argued that this may be found by primarily considering tradition as the act of “handing on” and framing this within Church as sacrament, which is itself grounded in Christ as the sacrament. Tradition is therefore a fundamentally theological act rooted in both Christology and Trinitarian theology.

Ayres’s sacramental understanding of salvation and the whole of the divine economy is vital to his argument. The hypostatic union means salvation is intrinsically sacramental and the need for visible and bodily encounter does not cease with the ascension and sending of the Spirit. The Church is a sacramental reality and Christ’s mystical body. The visible society of the Church is a sign for the nations of eschatological reality. Ayres disciplined his sacramental position by noting the ongoing mystery and divine action in the Church, as well as the reality of unity of the Church which foreshadows the eschatological reality: ‘the Church in via has both a beautiful and a tragic guise’. Tradition is the sacramental practice of the waiting Church, which is accompanied by spiritual discernment and guidance.

Ayres finds this sacramental perspective generative for considering how “handing on” may contribute to the salvation of souls. As act, this “handing on” is an embodied and lively social and temporal reality overseen by the Spirit within the sacramental time of the Church. (Ayres takes his lead from the trajectory of Möhler, Newman, Blondel, and Congar.) At significant moments of “handing on” the Spirit works in sacred history to empower and quicken human intellect and will so that they ‘are gradually better ordered to their true end’. The Church learns to think in light of revelation by faith and thus the City of God is built.

Ayres contests that “handing on” is theologically essential to the sacramental Church. Interpretation, imagination, and speculation are unavoidable for Christian thinking this side of eternal bliss. Discernment and formation of tradition is the action that Spirit formed Christian thinking takes. This demands careful theological attention without simplistic reduction of complexity or claims of “having arrived”. Ayres maintains a robust account of double agency with appropriate measures of prayerful confidence and penitant humility. Under his sacramental theology of “handing on” Ayres advocates robust historical investigation under the auspices of the Spirit.

Ayres concludes by considering the place of Scripture in this sacramental economy and returns to Dei Verbum explicitly at this point. For Ayres, Scripture’s status in the Church depends on a strong account of tradition. Christ remains the bedrock of revelation. The living Lord continues to speak in manifold ways, with Scripture as the constant referrant for the Church’s attention.

Ayres’s account is compelling as it seeks a theological account of the practice of Christian thinking. Ayres considers a broad dogmatic basis in Trinitarian theology and Christology but also drawing on Pneumatology, Sacramentology, Ecclesiology, Salvation, Eschatology, and Anthropology. The result challenges an unmoored exaltation of Christian thinking, even thinking which critically reflects on Scripture, apart from the life of the Church. Ayres contextualises individual present insight within the theological context of the convenant fellowship of God’s people from Beginning to End.

The discussion after the paper pursued how this proposal might respond to weaknesses within the tradition and tragic elements during the period of waiting. Ayres also filled out how this theology of theology differs from reception and sentire cum ecclesia. Further, he admonished us to be more philosophically and hermeneutically astute in the dogmatic historical task.

I eagerly anticipate the longer volume of which this thought is a small piece and thank Professor Ayres for the moment of “handing on” he shared with us.

Rebekah Earnshaw

(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St. Mary’s College.)

The Safety of Abstraction

As much as I was engaged by the content of Dr. Alistair McFadyen’s seminar, I was even more engaged by his method of embodied reflection. As both a theologian and a police officer, he is uniquely situated to discuss “Loving our Enemies,” such that his experiences mold his theology and his theology molds his lived experience. This dialectic seems to strengthen both his ability to think in a way that humanizes others and to act in a humanizing way. When he thinks abstractly about how to treat someone who wants to do him bodily harm, the mettle of that abstraction is testable. Theology should be able to pass through the crucible of experience—not that experience should determine theology—but a theological paradigm which cannot be lived seems to be a valid criterion for revisiting its coherence.

Though I am only in my first year in my Ph.D., I can already feel my tendencies to relegate the experiential to the category of “irrelevant” and to try to pursue some “objective” truth. The problem is: I’m embodied. I live among the embodied. And, my theology is predicated on the embodiment of a certain Person a couple thousand years ago (who called himself the “truth,” oddly enough). This radical condescension dignified the human person and the human body in a fresh way. Not only that, but Jesus physically moved among the discarded, the tainted, and the unclean. What do we see him doing? Touching them. Healing them. Teaching them. Dignifying them. He perfectly united his theology about the Kingdom of Heaven with his embodied experience. Ultimately, this unification cost him his life in the radical expression of loving his enemies.

While I’m studying here I hope to do solid theoretical work, but I also hope that I am not lulled into the safety of abstraction. I want my final project to bear the tiny fingerprints of my little girl, to echo of the voices of my friends who have been alienated by some theologies, and to advocate for those disadvantaged both near and far. I want an embodied theology—and I want this to simply be Theology.

Christa L. McKirland

(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St. Mary’s College.)

On Having Enemies

Our first Theology Research Seminar of 2017 welcomed Dr Alistair McFadyen, Senior Lecturer in Theology, University of Leeds, and author of Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. Dr McFadyen spoke on the topic, described as “cheerful” by a faculty member, of “On Having Enemies: Terror, Torture, Theology & Policing.” McFadyen brought humility, humour, and a practical edge to bear on our theological conversation. At one point he described the cross as “pretty awful” and at many points he reflected on the implications of our discussion when exercising his role as a police officer in West Yorkshire. It was a thought provoking and engaging morning.

McFadyen’s paper responded to the lack of theological literature on the topics of terror and torture. More particularly, based on the few works which are available, he observed the absence of any talk of enmity. McFadyen noted that the public imagination is often engaged by narratives which dehumanise or demonise the other. In response to fear and hate, as well as both perceived and real enmity, the voice of resistance seeks to put “us” in the picture and overcome polarising dichotomies. The counter-narrative advocates for the vulnerable, promotes protective love and solidarity, and erases all enemies. All are victims.

Wrestling with strong reverberations of “love thy enemy,” McFadyen sought to overcome the assumption that love is the antithesis of enmity and that loving means denying the presence of all enmity or erasure of all enmity. Rather McFadyen asked, “How should Christians have enemies?” and “How might love qualify a relationship with an enemy?” He rebuked a “zero sum” avoidance of having enemies in favour of pursuing the humanisation of enemies. He advocated for a Christian practice of enmity shaped by love which resists harm and creates space for worship. For McFadyen the social good of the kingdom is a far larger vision than absence of torture. The practice of such loving enmity is complex and requires an understanding of human motives, accepting responsibility, and confession on all sides.

Following his presentation, McFadyen engaged with our questions. He offered clarifications and many examples of his practical “cop friendly” approach. The discussion ranged from the cross to human rights, from domestic violence to the vision of the kingdom, from sacrifice in popular discourse to abuse as impairment of worship. McFadyen modelled his approach to “ministerial theology” and his refusal to compartmentalise theology from the reality of life.

Overall, McFadyen presented a fruitful proposal with great scope for further exploration both in terms of his larger theological framework and its application. At a time where the narrative of fear and dehumanisation shouts loudly, today is the day to richly and theologically understand (and act on) Christ’s call to “love thy enemy.”

Rebekah Earnshaw
(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St. Mary’s College.)