Friday, June 07, 2013

But is it theological? theology as celebratory, communicative, critical

What is theology? Earlier this year, I had an chapter – engaging popular culture then turning to work with one systematic theologian – turned down for a book project. The book, I was told, was in the genre of systematic theology and my piece, while imaginative and of a high quality, did not fit.

I sat in a post-graduate class recently, with a person doing an outstanding presentation on their research. It would involve talking to people about what God was doing in their lives. And the question was asked – but is it theological?

I have a friend with a passion to share the gospel. They want to be able to do this apologetically, engaged with the questions being asked by the culture, by everyday people in everyday conversations. They also want to do PhD study. Can the two mix? Can ordinary communication find a place? Again the question – what is theology?

Rowan Williams, in On Christian Theology proposes that theological activity occurs in three styles.

First, a celebratory style. For Rowan, this type of theology is nourished and nurtured in the language of hymn and prayer. Examples include the theology of the Psalms, the sermons of Gregory of Nyssa, the icons of Orthodoxy and the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Theological activity as celebratory occurs because of the intention, not to argue, but rather to “evoke a fullness of vision – that ‘glory’ around” which theology circles.

Second, a communicative style. “Theology seeks also to persuade or commend, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment.” Examples include Clement or Origin, engaging Stoic and Platonic thought with “enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.” Or more recently (for Williams), the use of Marxist categories in liberation theology and theological readings of feminist theory.

Third, such experimenting often leads to a degree of crisis. As Williams describes it “is what is emerging actually identical or at least continuous with what has been believed and articulated?” This becomes the critical style of theological activity, a self reflection on continuity and coherence. It can be conservative or revisionist and has two ultimate directions, one a nihilism, the other a rediscovery of the celebratory.

Williams observes that each of these styles of theological activity has a different public. Celebratory is for a believing public. Communicative is for those to whom Christianity, in both vocabulary and grammar, are strange. Critical often occurs within the academy.

So what is theology? Often it is deemed to be the third area, the critical area, among the academy. But using Rowan Williams typology, a chapter in a book that explores popular culture and theology is communicative theology. And researching lived experience of people, if they are inside the church, is celebratory and if outside the church, communicative. And a concern to apologetics, for the gospel in everyday life, is communicative.

Hooray for Rowan Williams and the place of hymn, icon, story, gospel, culture as well as textbook and academy.

Posted by steve at 06:00 PM


  1. Thank you Steve. Well said. Consideration might also be given to “Ordinary Theology.” Professor Jeff Astley, from Durham University, UK, writes that “Ordinary Christian Theology is my phrase for the theology and theologising of Christians who have received little or no theological education of a scholarly, academic or systematic kind”. Astley comments that, while Ordinary Theology has its own identity, a communicative mode and its own critical element, “much of ordinary theology is a great deal closer to the celebratory style than to the other two categories that Williams has rehearsed.” Best wishes, John.
    Jeff Astley, Ordinary Theology Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology (Aldershot, England, Ashgate, 2002):56,75.
    Ordinary Theology Project

    Comment by John Littleton — June 8, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

  2. Thanks John. I’d also suspect there’s a good slice of communicative-but-silent. Trying to make sense if faith in light of current events eg earthquakes, experiences,


    Comment by Steve — June 9, 2013 @ 11:11 am

  3. Thanks Steve. This gives some reinforcement to what I’m attempting in my thesis. Would be good to further chat with you on this.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — June 10, 2013 @ 10:34 am

  4. Sure Bruce. Shout me a coffee and I’d be up for a chat,


    Comment by steve — June 11, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

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