Some thoughts on studying theology ... I remember the pre-digital age as a child on school trips to Edinburgh and York, with my beloved camera. I was so excited to be seeing new things and I wanted to remember them, so that old Canon 110ED instamatic was an important piece of equipment. And an expensive one. There was one roll of film to capture the essence of a five day trip. That meant 24 exposures – every click counted, and snap-happy people found that they had no film left for the last few days. The flash was bigger than the camera itself, a translucent plastic thing like an ice cube tray with individual little cells, maybe eight of them. It clicked into place on top of the camera itself, meaning eight indoor pictures might turn out visible. Each flash shot was accompanied by a sound like an ice cube breaking and the faint smell of smoke.
There was no panoramic function on the old camera, and sometimes there was a view that was worth two or even three photos. Say for instance Edinburgh Castle and that part of the Royal Mile and New College viewable from Prince’s Street. That was a big investment out of a 24 exposure film. At least it was outdoors, i.e. no flash required. So I’d photograph one side, then move the viewfinder to contain a landmark turret or spire as a shared landmark to make it easier to create a panoramic view later from two or three photos. My panoramic view was made by carefully overlapping prints and gluing them in place in a scrap book or photo album.
Other times, say from a height like the Castle Walls, there were beautiful and therefore photograph-worthy scenes below, but maybe not enough of a view to justify a prit-stick panorama job. So I might snap the view from one side and then another, taking in north and south, say, but ignoring the less exciting east and west.
I wonder if other school children employed these low-tech photographic solutions?!
I was thinking the other day how the Salvation Story of the Bible is a bit like leafing through a photo album. Often leafing through reminds us of important things in our past that we do well to remember, good times and bad. Albums, well constructed ones at least, tell a story, perhaps missing out lots of less remarkable days and emphasising significant milestones in our lives.
But it’s another similarity with photo albums that I pondered recently. It’s the way they are designed. We flick through. We might start looking in detail and then skip more superficially over a few until one catches our attention. Think about the way the mind works. We find a picture that stands out, or that chimes with us, and we look at it, start to drink it in. Probably, we look at the centre first, or the subject in the foreground, and then let our eye flit around the sides and the background as we place the subject in context.
In the written Word, there are lots of pictures. There is a surprisingly small amount of theological exposition. There’s lots of theology, but it’s mainly presented through stories and images, analogies and metaphors. St Paul develops theology in embryonic, logical texts, but even these are found in pastoral, practical letters addressed to young churches and particular leaders with problems to deal with and decisions to make. The Bible did not descend from heaven, and was not dictated word by word by an angel or disembodied voice. It was written by many people from varied backgrounds across centuries, all inspired to write through their grappling with faith, trying to make sense of their life experiences and open to the prompting of the Spirit to see the sacred in everyday life and events and to discern deeper, more eternal purposes. No wonder it isn’t an easy book!
Here lies a problem for us (I say problem, but I could equally say advantage). Different people notice different photos. Everybody has their own favourite. Sarah and I had a hard job choosing which of our wedding shots made the album, and relatives and friends who wanted copies for themselves all chose different ones. In the Christian community too, people are drawn to different pictures. Some like clear, practical shots, others like mystery and symbolism, more or less arty ones, real life or posed. Within Anglicanism, we have Catholics who like mystery and holiness, a sense of Otherness. We have Evangelicals who like clear, concrete answers (and others who like ambiguity!). There are liberals who just love portraits of people smiling. We have traditionals who like the picture to be composed just so. We have innovators who want something different. And we have lots of people who don’t easily fit into any of these caricatures! It’s part of the wonderful diversity of the church, in terms of theological perspectives, and probably temperament and personality as much as anything more doctrinal!
I think when we see the Bible as more of a technical user’s manual, we can get into trouble. When we force metaphors into procedural, literal boxes, we really get into trouble.
A clear example of analogy is the Church as the Body of Christ. The church is like a human body as far as it is made up of different parts that function in a coordinated way. It has a head that basically governs what the rest does. None of us get ourselves in a twist about the literal meaning of being a body. Maybe because ‘body’ has come to mean ‘organization’ or ‘team’ in addition to its basic meaning of torso, limbs and vital organs.
A much more debated metaphor is the legal view of Christ’s death that some call penal substitution. We were guilty, but we go free because Christ took our place. As a literal doctrine, this can be hard to understand for a number of reasons – legally, how can one person’s punishment be acceptable in lieu of the punishment of many individuals? What is the role of forgiveness if the wrath was simply unleashed on an innocent person? . But there it is, an image in our Album, this legal process, whether or not we call it ‘penal substitution’. It’s not for any of us to remove it.
So how do we handle it? We look at this image, let it confront us, let it change us. We try to make sense of it. All sorts of mental associations fire impulses from our own life experience, the court system of where we live, crime statistics on the news today, our feelings about mercy versus justice, a time when we got the rap for something someone else did. All the sermons we heard preached on the topic. It’s hard to drown out all those associations when we look at the image as framed in Scripture.
In our desire to make more sense of penal substitution, we look around the subject for clues. How does this fit into the bigger picture?
We might be tempted to ‘fill in the gaps’ and speculate what doctrine knits this into a whole systematic theology. I think there’s a lot of speculative theology about the harder doctrines – predestination, say, or the chronology of end times. We spend a lot of energy arguing about it, too.
Anyway, back to this difficult photo. Penal substitution (at least, that’s the caption some write underneath it). On the same page, there are related images: ransom, redemption, atonement, re-birth and renewal. Another temptation might be to take the closest other image and to overlap them, push them together, and glue them in place. But they don’t quite match up. There are lots of these bumpy bits in systematic theology. There are lovely smooth lines of thought, and then bump – we have a problem.
(Anglicans tend to be above average for tolerating the bumpy bits and the gaps!)
Translating these images to text, a scientific copywriter would approach it in a very different way to a poet. I would suggest that images – analogies, metaphors – in the Canon of Scripture are more like poetry than physical, five-sense descriptions. Saying that x is y, or calling Jesus a shepherd, or explaining the cross as penal substitution, these are ways of understanding eternal realities using cues from lived experiences on earth.
I am not advocating a platonic understanding here, claiming that a table on earth is just an attempt at making the great, ultimate table out there in the spiritual realm. It always struck me as a bit of a random philosophy. But I am suggesting that much theology is based on images rooted in the created world, while the truth behind them is much, much more ancient, from before creation. But how can humans understand except in language and images we can relate to?
Let’s take an example. God is our Father. If we take Father as a metaphor, we understand that there are aspects of ‘making’ us and giving us life, sustaining and caring for us, being wise and leading us. Over the millennia, and from one culture to another, the exact idea changes but basically we get the idea.
Unless – we project onto God our own ideas based on taking the metaphor too far. Say, ‘God is male because he is Father, not Mother’ or the dangerous idea that a father can invoke God’s right to judge and punish in whatever way he sees fit, confusing rage and frustration with God’s holy anger. For far too many people, God as Father is not an immediately comforting thought.
Thematic photography, you might call it. Bible analogies are ANALOGIES. Not saying one thing is another, but one thing is like another in some ways. Anthropomorphic language, especially male-centric language, has to be understood as it is – analogy. Father doesn’t mean God is male. Penal substitution can’t become doctrine beyond what writers wanted to draw as analogies with secular law. Every analogy breaks down at some point.
There is plenty of diversity within God’s collection of images of his Salvation Story. Different lenses, techniques, styles and genres. No surprise there – he created diversity, he loves it. We needn’t worry that he sometimes zooms in on one nation and at other times pans out to take in the panorama. That he shows us pictures of the same thing seen from another angle. Some people will be drawn to prophetic images, others to practical advice, others still to stories of miracles or songs or even scary apocalyptic stuff about giant locusts firing from their tails.
A cell can be dissected and understood accurately in terms of its structure, its functions and processes. But as soon as it is dissected, it dies. Art too – words, images – can be dissected and understood, but at a cost. Understanding the images in the Bible is important; our brains are a gift from God as much as our hearts, souls and every other bit. But doctrine is not the ultimate aim. The eternal purpose is the worship of God, and for us union with the Holy Trinity in the Reign of God on earth as in heaven.
Here’s the way I see it ...
In the beginning: God.
At some point in eternity, God made space and time.
At some point in space-time, creation reached its pinnacle and God made humans as sentient beings, in his own image.
Things went wrong at the Fall and humans messed up the relationships with God and each other.
God started a long, slow, patient pedagogy, reaching into our encultured lives in ways that we would understand, all in order to bring us back to him and make things good again, like it was supposed to be in the first place.
In communicating with us, he used images that are anthropologically quite universal, such as father, fire, wind, rest. And he used images that are quite culture-bound like shepherds, bread, tents and wine. These images are placed in a Great Narrative, the Salvation History of the Bible.
Images help us on our way. Our response to these God-revealed pictures should be to fall down and worship. Understanding may come, even fleetingly, questions may be answered. But confronted with Great Salvation Story, we fall to our knees in grateful worship.
I hope as I continue to study that I can keep admiring the wonderful images in the Scriptures, enjoying them and being transformed by them, and not get too distracted by the bumpy bits where we add two and two and make fifteen, and the rough sketchy bits we've added because we're scared by the blanks.