Monday, August 17, 2009

Away from my Desk

Answering Service Theology, Continued

For some reason, I have recently been finding analogies to, or suggestive links for, theological issues in the whole technology of telephone answering systems; (about these, let it be said I know next to nothing except that contemporary ones are diabolical and the early technology relied on machines that had reels of tape that frequently ran out, resulting in a series of alarming beeps).

The Task of Theology

Of course, some have said that every problem is ultimately a theological problem, every issue, a theological issue, and so it is not surprising that an electronic voice triggers a theological response: rather like a European Mayor on a visit to NY, surveying the city from the top of the Empire State Building and responding to the question, “What are your impressions?” with, “It reminds me of sex”. The startled guide asked why that was so. “Oh, I don’t know, everything reminds me of sex”. Such a position has its problems; if everything is theological what meaning is left for considering a theological position in contrast, say to a sociological one? If everything is a theological issue, is anything so?

Theology must be in touch with the surrounding culture, but that is not to say all questions are theological. Professor Werner G. Jeanrond of Lund University puts it well. “Theology must…always be sensitive to the surrounding context and to its questions, concerns, values, expectations and fears…A theology that does not engage critically with [contemporary] culture runs the risk of talking only to itself [presumably other theologians] or at best to those members of the Christian community who do not want to confront any change in church and society”. (Christianity, The Complete Guide, Ed. John Bowden - CCG, p 1175)

On Another Line

But this to get ahead of myself. It is, perhaps, possible to understand how listening to endless lists of menu options delivered in that inimitable electronic voice might suggest parallel theological frustrations of a theologian who wanted to look at, for example, ethical issues in the light of contemporary knowledge of physics, genetics, neurology and so on, or to consider our reading of the bible in the light of historical, manuscript and textual research.
This time, it was not an endless menu that triggered a theological reflection. I had to make a series of calls to an Insurance company as a result of a gentle sideswipe by a teenage driver. Amazingly, I negotiated the Menus, only repeatedly to be told: “I am away from my desk or on another line”. Taking a firm stand against my (what I might call), “pantheologism”, I told myself that there wasn’t even a trace of theology here. My resolution did not last long: what about questions of theodicy? what about the Old Testament’s insistence that it is not possible to ‘see’ God (perhaps there had always been a Deus in hoc machina?) what about the overseeing of multiple other planets – “on another line” perhaps?

Death of God Theology

My first musings centered on the defunct “death of God” movement that had a brief life in the late nineteen sixties. Various positions emerged at that time in response. The hard version: perhaps there never had been anyone (thing?) at the desk and from time to time genuine-sounding messages had instilled the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent and all-directing presence in human affairs. And then, the soft version: perhaps there was a CEO, but for complex reasons of developments in our world-view, we were now suffering from a massive blockage of perception and heard only a message of absence.

Mystical Theology

This second view, of course, was somewhat analogous to positions that had been held often before: mystical theologians had spoken of a via negativa, and of the need to negate all images. A type of theology known as apophatic sprang from the writings of the Pseudo Dionysius, formerly known by the New Testament, and rather more exciting name, of Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17.34). In his book, The Mystical Theology, Dionysius writes of God: “It (sic.) is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of non-being nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is, and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it [‘apophatic’ derives from the Gk, apofasis - ’απoφασις ) a denial, a negation] , nor name nor knowledge of it”. (Quoted in CCG p 512; Art. God by George Pattison).

Influence of Dionysius

In Dionysius, He/She/It certainly seems away from the Desk with a vengeance! Lest we dismiss this approach as Neoplatonic (which it certainly is) or Gnostic (which it often echoes), it is worth recalling that it was a very powerful influence in Mediaeval philosophical theology, particularly on the “Angelic Doctor”, Thomas Aquinas. Moreover, Pattison goes on to point out, the same strain is found in a less philosophical form in Mediaeval English texts like The Cloud of Unknowing, where we read, “that of God Himself can no man think”. “It should be added”, he continues, “this denial of any intellectual…access to God is complemented by an insistence that we can, nevertheless, come to ‘know’ God in the mode of love…These kind of texts certainly resonate with modern uncertainties as to how to think and speak of God”. (p 512).

Johannine theology is surely one of the sources of this mode of ‘understanding’ (note the paradox) access to God by experiencing rather than by ratiocinating: “‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father;’”. This might possibly suggest a rather Blake-like view: divinity is in perfect humanity; be that as it may, it surely endorses the main Old Testament position that direct vision of God is not for human beings. (Jn 14.9; see also, Jn 6.46; I Jn 1.18 & 4.12).

Unquestionable Directions from God

Is the upshot of this to say something like, “Deal with my Personal Secretary who knows exactly what’s on my mind and in whom I have absolute confidence”? Of course that is heretical, certainly “Subordinationist”, possibly “Sabellian”, but note what Paul says in I Corinthians 15.28, an awkward text for Chalcedonian theology.

At the very least, this approach should be a warning to those who in a cavalier fashion imagine that they have direct contact with God who will give them His (note that) daily orders about the ordering of life, and if they be political leaders, explicit directions in domestic and foreign affairs.
Statements like, “It is clearly God’s will that we…..” or “God’s Word has settled the issue” should trigger immediate questioning. What God wants of us is not to be learned from a morning message on the red telephone, but in the patient waiting on the guidance of the Spirit, which comes through the myriad changes and chances of human existence, both sacred and secular.

A Second Answering Service Reflection

The absence message also triggered a second reflection, which resulted from wondering if it was altogether a bad thing if the boss was “away from her desk”; this further reflection brought to mind something in David Jenkins’s book with the somewhat quirky title of God, Miracle and the Church of England. As an aside, you may recall that David Jenkins was the Bishop of one of the leading Dioceses in England, and it was his fearless pursuit of the difficult, but insistent questions that face both theologians and thinking lay people that led to a mounting outcry against him from the evangelical right. Instead of David, we now have Tom Wright, an exchange that might suggest something about the current politics of the Church of England.

The Action of God in the World

Jenkins is exploring how we can conceive of the action of God in human affairs; he has fun with a ‘thought experiment’ about the death of the emperor Theodosius, which had significant repercussions at the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.): his successor, the Empress Pulcheria, first of all deposed Bishop Chrysaphius, the political intriguer who had been protecting Eutyches; she then married a Thracian army officer, Marcian, who was a firm supporter of Pope Leo.

Thus Theodosius’ fatal fall from his horse, “ensured” that the Greek tradition based on the Nicene settlement of “speaking of the ‘one nature’ (=one Person) of Jesus Christ” was trumped by the Western tradition, which had been defined first by Tertullian in the terms that “Jesus Christ is one Person, and that in him are two natures of Godhead and manhood” (R.V Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon, pp 96f., quoted in Jenkins, p 45). So, presto! Theodosius falls off his horse and the Definition of Chalcedon emerges. As David Jenkins points out, this has been, and still is, frequently used as ‘proof’ that the Definition is a kind of hot line from God; by this admittedly circuitous route, (viz. causing Theodosius’ horse to stumble, this killing the emperor) God so organized events that the final and definitive information about the Incarnation was given to us (from the horses mouth, so to speak). So, let no one question the direct message from God.

Meddling with the Molecules & the Problem of Evil

The question, then, for the thought experiment is, “Did God push the Emperor Theodosius off his horse on 28 July 450?” (p. 61). Not surprisingly, Jenkins returns a resounding “no”, but points out, as I just noted, that many discussions about current happenings in the church often seem to imply an affirmative answer. In summing up this section David Jenkins writes, Unless we can be clear that between the scientific and historical causalities of the universe and of the world on the one hand and the actions and transactions of God with persons on the other there is a space, (italics added) then the problem of evil is absolutely overwhelming.
I personally would sympathize with those who find evil overwhelming in any case. But as a Christian who believes that there is a real and basic sense in which God interacts with the world as he is in Jesus, I do not believe this. Nonetheless I am increasingly clear that God is not an arbitrary meddler nor an occasional fixer.” (p.63).

Then with what seems to be an allusion to a form of process theology, the section concludes: God is “a God of open personal transactions who insists and persists in a self-giving way of risk, and a self- denying way of invitation that has not yet established anything like a total persuasive sway over or in a universe which – to borrow Austin Frarrer’s phrase – God has made so that it has to make itself.” (p. 64) (I have a strong feeling that Farrer wrote, “can create itself”, but perhaps the difference is only of interest to philosophers).

Perhaps, a CEO who is not always at the desk suggests a good ‘management style’, an ability to delegate and to receive feedback, certainly not a puppeteer responsible for every single thing that occurs. One would suppose that Organizations that have a micro manager at the top might not prosper. If the leader is so busy checking up on every leaking tap, every latest graffito that needs cleaning up and every “environmental worker” who has left a small pile of dust in some corner or other, it is most unlikely that She/He will be attending to the overall situation, working for a successful outcome (eschaton?).


I can already hear, as it were proleptically, shouts of derision, joining the chorus of the ages, insisting that the analogy of the CEO is silly, weak and inappropriate. What folly to suppose there is any comparison between the omnipotent God and a shadowy human pattern. Well yes, but ‘omnipotent’ is also analogous language and the problem of this particular “omni” in conjunction with a whole host of others (…scient, …present etc.) has presented significant problems for philosophical theology. There has also been considerable discussion about the meaning of omnipotent anyway. Can God do self-contradictory things, and if not is that a limitation of total power? Perhaps at some future date I will revisit the Mediaeval chestnut: “Can God create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it?”


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