Theological Reflection: Outward, Not Inward by Kelly Brown Douglas


Rev.-Dr.-Kelly-Brown-Douglas - Version 2I was asked recently what frustrates me most about theology. I am a theologian, and love doing theology. Nevertheless, I do have my moments of frustration with the theological enterprise. I am most frustrated when theology loses its dynamic edge and focus. Too much of theological reflection has become “navel gazing” falling prey to the infamous accusation of Medieval theology, that is, wondering “how many angels can dance at the end of a pin.” It seems to me, that we must not lose sight of the fact that the foundation of theological reflection is the revelation of god, which is nothing less than god’s movement that is god’s dance, in human history. All that we know about the transcendent reality is made known to us by that reality making itself known by entering into our world. The best of theological reflection, then, is a response to that revelation, wrestling with the meanings and challenges of god’s revelation to us. Again, far too often our theology is consumed by intellectual strivings as opposed to struggling with god. We, as theologians and religious thinkers, find ourselves debating the essence of god—who god is in god-self, what we call the godhead—as opposed to who god is in relationship to us and our world. Too often we focus our attention on the appropriate pronouns and nouns that we should use to define god as opposed to the verbs that describe the very movement of god in our world. And so, despite the fact that we do not know god in “god-self” or in the god head, theological reflection is spent debating it, and has a long history of debating it. In the meantime, the world stays just as it is—which is anything but a reflection of the gods/goddesses we claim to follow. Even as we can assume that who god reveals god-self to be is a reflection of the very essence of god, theological reflection is best served not by this upward, inward turn to god, but by following god outward into our world. As god moves toward us and into our world, so too are we to move toward one another and into the world, for this is where we will find god. Theological reflection must not be about who god is in god-self, but rather about who god is for us and who we are to be for god. Theology, as it is essentially grounded in the notion that god acts first, is at best an attempt to discern how god is acting so that we can act back in a responsive and responsible way. So what does this mean?

It means that in many respects theology must be as disruptive as the revelation of god is disruptive. To engage in god-talk is to engage in the kind of talk that exposes, deconstructs and disrupts those “demonic” structures, systems, ideologies and ways of our world and living that keep us far from reflecting the justice and compassion of the transcendent beings whom we claim to follow. Our theologies should, put simply, disrupt our world for the better, not the worse. And, so too should our religions.

Far too often our religions are at war with each other—be it a war of words or an actual life and death battle—as opposed to being at war with those things that oppose the good and loving compassionate justice that is no doubt the measure of the gods/goddesses in our lives. Karen Armstrong has rightly reminded us that as religions emerged during what she identifies as the “axial age” they were not about a way of believing but a way of being in the world. This is a way defined not by right beliefs, orthodoxy, but by right acting, that is orthopraxis. This surely is what Jesus meant as he pronounced on many occasions that he was the way. He was, for those who choose to follow him, the way to a better world, again a world defined by compassionate justice for all, such a way was for Jesus a way that would bring his followers closer to the ways of god.

As a theologian, I admit that I have grown weary concerning the debates about what to call god, what god looks like etc. and whose theology or religion is better than the other. These debates become about us, and not about that which is divine, that which is god, and thus, these debates take us away from the very tasks of theology and the very meaning of god for us. And so, I would rather be engaged in a debate over where god is acting in the midst of a world where girls are deprived from education and thrown into slavery, where a pregnant woman can be killed because of her religion, where women are killed because of presumed adultery and where women and men are killed because of their gendered identities and sexual orientations. If theology is faith seeking understanding, (faith, i.e. pistis, meaning loyalty, commitment to a way of life) then we must strive to understand the meaning of our faith in this, our broken and violent world. It is not about god being on the side of angels, it is about god being on the side of women and men who cry out for dignity and life. It is about god being on the side of compassionate justice. The challenge of our theological reflections is not to wrestle with the dance of angels on the end of a pin but rather to wrestle with the dance of god in a broken world.

 

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

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Categories: Christianity, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, God, Interreligious dialogue, Theology

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7 replies

  1. Hi Kelly, your frustration with heady theology is very real to me, especially regards the need for more disruptive liveliness, like Jesus overturning the tables in the Gospels maybe.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Kelly. Years ago I read “God Is A Verb” by Rabbi David A. Cooper. That simple change in perspective changes everything. While Rabbi Cooper wrote from the perspective of mystical Judaism, the Truths hold true in all forms of mysticism — Christian, pagan, Moslem, Buddhist, etc. Miraculously, the book still sits on my bookshelf. I think it is time to read it again.

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  3. “To engage in god-talk is to engage in the kind of talk that exposes, deconstructs and disrupts those ‘demonic’ structures, systems, ideologies and ways of our world and living that keep us far from reflecting the justice and compassion of the transcendent beings whom we claim to follow. Our theologies should, put simply, disrupt our world for the better, not the worse. And, so too should our religions.” I agree with this statement completely. But for me one of those ‘demonic’ structures is the way we think in binary dualisms in this culture, which in my understanding is a major underpinning of the religious wars you talk about in your next-to-the-last paragraph. Orthopraxis and orthodoxy are related. If you don’t have the language for orthodox practices, they won’t exist. It seems to me that sometimes reflecting on the mystical nature of God/dess (“navel gazing,” “inward direction”) gives us indications of how we need to live in order to be “responsible and responsive,” as you say, just as reflecting on God/dess’ action within the world can help us understand our part in it. As a practitioner of Wicca, my mystical understanding that I am part of the interdependent web of all existence — for me the Goddess — necessitates a responsible and responsive relationship with all the other “parts” of that web, be they human or other. I believe that when we tap into the divine within ourselves, we are able to see, feel, and intuit our immersion in this dynamic web of relationships which is the God/dess’ cosmic body.

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  4. I share your frustration with theologies that are not morally-ethically engaged or perhaps are engaged in supporting the status quo of injustice. They are legion. On the other hand, I wonder if we can separate the question of the nature of God from questions about how we should be acting in the world. Your statement “that the foundation of theological reflection is the revelation of god, which is nothing less than god’s movement that is god’s dance, in human history” is full of implications and perhaps assumptions about who or what the divine power is. Speaking personally and theologically, I do not think God or Goddess acts in history, at least not in the ways we have may have thought “He” did–but I do think Goddess or God wants us to shape human history in the direction of care, concern, and greater justice and enjoyment of life for people and for all living things. I also do not think questions of the gendered language and imagery about Goddess or God are irrelevant to the struggle for justice. Ntozake Shange’s “i found god in myself and i loved her fiercely” was very much about a woman’s awakening to her strength, power, and value as revealed in a community of women–and from there her ability to resist those who had or would abuse and kill her and her children. This moment is not the whole story of the human relation to divine power, but it is an important one, nonetheless. For me the “nature” of God is to be related to individuals in the world and to care about how human and other beings shape the world for ourselves and others. For me, there is no God who is not related to the world, but I also think a God who “could” exist apart from a relation of care and compassion from this or any other world is a wrong conception of God–that itself has ethical implications. Thanks for this post and the opportunity for dialogue.

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  5. ‘We, as theologians and religious thinkers, find ourselves debating the essence of god—who god is in god-self, what we call the godhead—as opposed to who god is in relationship to us and our world.’

    I loved reading this. That we can conceptualise God in such a way as a loving relationship with God is possible, affirming and enhancing for us, is wonderful. But the reason it is wonderful is that it enables us to love and serve God in each other, to work for a kingdom of justice, peace and loving-kindness. Getting stuck in the defining is dangerous and counter-productive.

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  6. @Kelly – powerful food for thought. @Carol – enjoyed your reflections on the article immensely.

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