Last Friday/Saturday, I spent 24 hours in the company of some wonderful people, in the serene surroundings of Salisbury Cathedral Close - perhaps England's oldest 'gated community' - discussing the meaning(s) and future(s) of 'radical theology'.
And yes, the ironies were noted. And, to some extent, explored.
One of the things we wrestled with was who was there - and why - and who wasn't. I think without exception, none of us would have called ourselves 'radical theologians', even if some others might use the term of us. If anything, most of us struggled with a persistent, nagging feeling that we weren't half as 'radical' as we could/should be. And we could certainly think of, and name, plenty of people that weren't there who were much more 'radical' than we were. 'Radical theology', perhaps, is almost always a call from beyond ourselves, a call to include, to move, to push or stretch or struggle further.
Most of us, in one way or another, were enmeshed within institutions. Most of us were Anglicans - that in itself highlighted a whole load of 'radical Christians' from non-conformist (not to mention Catholic and Orthodox) traditions beyond our rather 'established Church' huddle - and many of us worked within the structures of the Church of England, or colleges and universities within institutional academia. But at the same time as we named those locations near to 'centres' of power, we also named our ambivalences, our dis-eases with those centres and structures, our sense of being simultaneously close to their 'edges', of resisting their weight, their pull, their dominance. And their were costs, hurts, pains that went with that sense of 'bi-location'. In that, perhaps, was a certain kind of 'radicalism'.
We were helped to chart some of the terrain of 20th Century 'radical theology' in the UK - particularly clustering around the focuses of (1) economic injustice; (2) the politics of identity (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, among others); and (3) questioning and deconstructing dominant theologies of God (e.g. through the non-realist tradition, but much broader than just that). We explored the intersections between these (if you're female and not 'white', for example, you're more likely to be poor; hierarchical theologies of an autonomous King-God have been used to legitimise poverty and manifold social exclusions), we asked how much these broad movements might be said to have 'succeeded' (do equalities legislation and international debt relief count as 'successes', even in a world that sees Food Banks and Nigel Farage both on the rise?), and we began to wonder what the new 'edges' were when some of what was once 'radical' has become 'mainstream'.
Although the tone of the gathering was warm, friendly, and overridingly positive, some 'others' did emerge, sometimes having to be named as 'elephants' in the room. One was the institutional Church's ever-growing obsession with numerical growth (aka institutional survival), and a 'strategic' management culture which presumes to be able to 'deliver' it - the peculiar mix of an outwardly confident evangelicalism and an unspoken, but apparent, desperation. Another was the apparently all-consuming dynamics of neoliberal global capitalism, however 'orchestrated' or otherwise we saw them to be. And a third was the movement that calls itself 'Radical Orthodoxy' - more tricky, this one, as one of RO's own primary targets is neoliberalism, but its fondness for an idealised medieval Church and its arrogant presumption to 'out-narrate' all other narratives and theologies left it with little in the way of enthusiastic support in this particular room.
So where did we get to? In many ways, it was 24 hours of 'throat-clearing', of 'readying the ground' ready for seeds to be planted. One seed that had just begun to germinate by the end of our time together was around the question of 'where we find our hope'. What are our sources, theologies, and practices of hope, in our contexts, at this point in the early 21st Century where hope seems to be pretty thin on the ground? We committed ourselves, together, to go away and intentionally attend to, and reflect on this question, to let it infiltrate and permeate our thinking and acting (for some of us that includes our reading, writing and teaching, but also our engaging, relating, listening and most practical 'doings'), and to seek to bring those fragments together, over the course of the next year. There are 'radical theologies and practices of hope' out there to be identified, gathered, shared and celebrated - and perhaps we can be some of those that do that work of identifying, gathering, sharing and celebrating.
But there were other questions too - related, almost certainly - that offered teasing loose ends to tug at...
Is attention to place 'radical', within the 'dis-placing' dynamics of global capitalism? Is place where economic injustice is seen most clearly, and yet also where a host of differing identities find themselves in contact, potentially in relationship and interdependence? Is place where God-talk can be challenged and re-invented in both its radical immanence and its radical transcendence?
Is 'church' something that we can just let get on with whatever it is it is doing, leaving - with liberated indifference - the 'desperately-managed-survival thing' to do its thing, and trust that 'church', in some form, might be unintended outcome rather than focus and direct objective of our struggles and creativity?
Is there a vital key to be found in the connection between 'mysticism' and 'activism' - that only in seeing, experiencing, practising our connection to everything that is, can we discover right and radical actions towards everything that is?
Does our faith give us the self-discipline to hold off the inclination to blame, even those who are giving obvious offence - not refusing action or resistance, but being able to identify within ourselves the same capacities that we see in those others, and to find ways to be penitent, publicly, which invite others - even our most difficult 'others' - to join us?
What are the nouns, the apparently 'fixed states', that we deploy in our everyday language and thinking, that need to be turned into verbs, dynamics which can change and be changed? What happens, for example, when we see 'poverty' as the dynamic of 'impoverishment' - or 'God' as the dynamic of 'Godding'?
Can we do radical theology from places of joy and beauty, as well as from places of pathos and suffering? Is it even possible to 'do radical theology' in the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral?!
I would add one more question. At times in our conversation, hopeful possibilities were offered as potential 'third ways' between two uncomfortable poles. Political 'Third Way' language also made its appearance once or twice. I found myself wondering how often 'third ways' are either possible or even desirable. It struck me that much of what we touched on - with our words and, in more vulnerable moments, with the wounds that we carried - did not allow for happy, easy 'third ways', but rather testified to the necessity of staying in, dwelling in, negotiating and bearing the pains of the 'broken middles', where we find ourselves inhabiting both the 'centre' and the 'edge' and know that the two cannot be brought together. Discovering a language, and embodiments, of hope in that - apparently endlessly - 'torn place' is perhaps our greatest challenge.
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