Barefoot Theologians, Twitching Experience.

For some weeks now, I’ve been wanting to write about Willliam Lindsay’s commentary at Bilgrimage, on Bendedict XVI’s encyclical on Caritas in Veritate.  William has a remarkable ability to find something fresh to say on subjects that are widely discussed elsewhere (he did it on Rowan Williams, he did it on Caritas inVeritate, and has done it again this week, with his observations on gays in the churches, which also deserves comment.)  But before I discuss either of his substantive reflections, I want to delve into the “prefatory remarks” in his post on the encyclical.  These are important, and should be deeply pondered by all of us in the Catholic church.

William is a trained, professional theologian – but, he says, in his blog he deliberately chooses to write about theology  in plain language:

“I could, if I wished, frame what I’m about to say as a scholarly theological reflection, citing significant theologians and texts. I could well use technical theological language to make my points here.

On this blog, I have chosen to write at a different level and to a different audience. As I’ve noted since I began Bilgrimage, in my view, academic theologians do a disservice to the church when they write only in an abstruse language accessible primarily to other trained theologians. The entire church has a vested interest in the theological enterprise. The calling of theologians is a ministry within the church, and that ministry builds the church when it is exercised in a way that draws “ordinary” lay people—with their rich theological insights, stemming from their lived experience of faith—into the theological conversation.”

There you have it.  An observation that I, as an untrained amateur, speaking from my iognorant passion, have often tried to make here, but coming to you now from a professional.  The simple fact is, they need us as much as we need them.

Much of the theological vocabulary and the theological thought-world with which we’ve ended up as a result is, frankly, stultifying, anti-intellectual, and heavily skewed in a male-dominant, clerical-dominant direction. I refuse to reinforce that vocabulary and worldview. In my view, it represents the dead hand of one tiny but all-powerful and privileged contingent of the people of God, the clerical elite, on the church and its future. And because that tiny, all-powerful and privileged elite is also necessarily male, at this point in history—due to John Paul II’s and Ratzinger-Benedict’s insistence that clerics must be male—this vocabulary and worldview reek of patriarchal assumptions.

I want to speak in another voice on this blog, and in my work as a theologian. My goal is to speak in a voice that makes sense to a wide range of people of good will, whose experience of God is every bit as valuable as that of male clerics—and perhaps ultimately far more valuable to a church that wants to have a viable future.”

Michael’s attitude is in marked contrast to so many clerical theologians, who quite deliberately choose the opposite.  (Michael states that much of this is deliberate, in an attempt to maintain control.  But as this goes closer to his substantive comments, I will not comment more on that here). This contributes to the gulf in the church between “them” and “us”. I believe this chasm of understanding is unhealthy, destructive, and contrary to the spirit of Scripture itself.

As Richard Cleaver (“Know my Name”) shows, the heart of Christ’s ministry was talking not to the scholarly class, but to ordinary people (including women and outcasts), and included questioning as well as preaching.  He fully expected people to reply, to talk back:  His expectation was clearly that ordinary people should engage in the construction of “theology” along with the experts.

The sooner we can revert to a situation where both sides can talk, and listen, to each other, the sooner we can reach the ideal of a Church which is truly understanding and responsive to the real needs of the faithful.

And so we need to move beyond the traditional one-way traffic of an institutional church “explaining” theology to us, to a collaborative venture, working together to discern the Lord’s continuing revelation to us in the 21st century.  Revelation as we know it from Scripture did not appear, miraculously, overnight.  It was developed slowly, over many centuries before and immediately after Christ’s time on earth.  The Church teaches, and I agree, that revelation continued to unfold therafter in the development of the “Magisterium”, which we need to take seriously (while acknowedging that there have at times also been celar flaws therein).  But the Church also teaches, and this is less widely recognised, that a third wource of revelation is the continuing message of the Holy Spirit speaking directly to us in the hearts of the faithful.  (Benedict XVI spoke of this in his Christmas message to the curia last year. unfortunately, these important remarks were obscured by the ensuing fuss over the remarks he made at the same time on gender and homosexuality).

The institutional church needs to be not only teaching, but also a listening Church.  How are they to hear us, if we lack the voice to speak? But there is a fundamental problem.  Theology as we have it today has been developed by scholars over 2000 years of church history.  It is inevitable that much of the professional discourse will be in specialist terms, a theological, shorthand, intelligible only to other professionals, or in easier to understand “theology for dummies”, passed down from on high to an unquestioning laity who are simply instructed in what they ought to believe.

In struggling to find a way around the problem, it occurs to me that there are at least two models from other academic disciplines that could usefully be applied here.

Writers on development studies often use the image of “barefoot doctors”, to describe a particular model of expanding health services in impoverished areas.  These are not literally professional doctors who have dispensed with shoes, but a metaphorical construct to describe  partially trained, low pay health workers who support the true health professionals, taking some of the burden off them.  (Similar models are also applied in other areas of social services).

A second model comes from the disciplines of astronomy and ornithology. Both of these are developed by highly trained academic professionals, applying serious scientific analysis to empirical data – but in both fields, the work of amateurs is valued in supplementing their own data.  Amateur birdwatchers are notorious twitchers, compiling lengthy lists of the birds they have seen.  Some of these meticulously record all manner of supporting details, which the professionals are often delighted to accept as empirical raw data. In the same way, amateur stargazers often submit their records to professional astronomers, who are grateful to have them.

And so, I suggest, there are two ways in which we as ordinary Catholics can help the Church improve its theological communication skills:

First, we should aim to become “barefoot theologians”, accessing the writing of professional theologians where we can.  (In the modern world, this easier than ever before, with mass market publishing and the proliferation of websites and blogs).  Then, we need to collaborate with people like William Lindsay in further disseminating it, in conversations (live or on-line) of our own.

Then, setting aside formal theology, we need to be like birdwatchers and stargazers,  twitching and recording, collecting data for the experts. We must have the courage to speak up about our experiences, even (and especially) where they contradict official teaching.  Instead of reserving our talk of sex (for example) to the confessional, where we speak of our “sins”, we should also be able to speak at times of the joy that we have found, of when sexual encounters have sometimes been healing and lifegiving – even where they may have been outside of officially approved boundaries. For unless we do, the academic clerical theologians, with minimal llived experience of their own, will continue to build elaborate edifices of sexual theory, with not a shred of empirical data to serve as foundation.

To William Lindsay (and others like him), thank you for your plain speech on theology.

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2 Responses to “Barefoot Theologians, Twitching Experience.”

  1. William Lindsey Says:

    Terry, thank you. I am touched and honored.

    But even more, I’m grateful to have you and a number of other theologians, both trained and n0n-trained (in the academic sense) as dialogue partners in blogland.

    The dialogue is far richer than any I have ever had with my “trained” theologian-colleagues, who all too often do speak as though only we exist. And count.

    And I’m convinced that’s just not how God sees things.

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      Thanks to YOU William. My faith world was turned upside down when I first encountered the idea that we all have a part to play in making new theology, that it is not all done and dusted by dead professionals – an idea sparked, as I noted , by Westley’s Redemptive Intimacy. Since then, I have found that this a fairly orthodox view, but not one the establishment particularly promotes. So I have to shout out the message wherever I get an excuse – and will continue to do so.


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