Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why Method Matters

Red Vineyard at Arles (1988) by Vincent van Gogh
Image from www.commons.wikimedia.org
I spoke to a group of graduate students in a theological method class just over a week ago. Admittedly, methodology can be a very dry subject, but it is an important one, for the method one uses sets one on a certain trajectory, and I think the direction we are heading is pretty important, especially in theology.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a young man in a theological school classroom. He was finding the lesson dull and boring and he began to wonder why the writings of great theologians were being presented in such an uninteresting format. At times he actually stuffed paper in his ears to drown out the lecturer and instead, surreptitiously read theological writings of the early church fathers which he found much more exciting. His question was this: what has gone wrong with theology to make it so boring? Instead of letting this question turn him away from theology, he set out to discover the answer, and in the course of doing so, came up with some innovative approaches to the subject.

The young man was Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), and he found that his experience studying in the Neo-Scholastic tradition at a Jesuit school in France contradicted his belief that theology should be the study of fire and light that burn at the centre of the world. In his book, L'Action, French philosopher Maurice Blondel wrote: "As soon as we regard [God] from without as a mere object of knowledge, or a mere occasion for speculative study, without freshness of heart and the unrest of love, then all is over, and we have in our hands nothing but a phantom and an idol." Similarly, Balthasar believed that God cannot be reduced to an abstract concept or an idea to dissect. So what did Balthasar suggest instead? He wrote: "It is not a question of recasting theology into a new shape previously foreign to it. Theology itself must call for this shape; it must be something implicit within it, manifested explicitly, too, in many places."

Balthasar decided that the starting point of theology should be beauty. He said that doing theology is like a person gazing at a great work of art. In my talk last week I showed the students a reprint of Van Gogh's Red Vineyard at Arles (1988). I asked them to describe it to me in one word or with a short phrase. They used words such as "harvest," "sunset," "work," "countryside," and one student even remarked that the painting made him feel hopeful. I then asked them why no one described it as a piece of particle board, approximately 11 inches by 12 inches with 60% of the wood being covered in red and yellow tones and 40% being covered in blue and green tones. The answer was obvious to all: because that is not how one engages with a work of art. A good painting has heart, soul, and passion, and one must engage with it on those levels. The content and the presentation of a subject cannot be at odds with each other. Content and method should be in harmony, one reflecting the other.

If method naturally reflects the subject matter, then theological method should reflect the character of God. In other words, how we do theology should reflect the creative, communicative, generous, relational nature of God. In writing about method, Balthasar noted a distinct difference between the German words Historie and Geshichte. They can both be translated as history, but Geschichte also carries with it the sense of story: "Historie is the exact science of history, but its results are always hypothetical; Geschichte is the past as it continues to influence the present, experienced as a living reality." The two phrases which stand in contrast here are "exact science" and "living reality." For Balthasar, theology always fell squarely in the category of living reality and never that of exact science.

Theology, then, should reflect the vibrant, in-the-flesh, living reality which we find in Jesus Christ. Theology's driving force should be that God is Love, and its trajectory should reflect this love being continuously communicated throughout history and in our present time in ways which are culturally relevant and yet stand above culture. It is interesting to note that Balthasar's quest for a dynamic theological method came out of disappointment, and it is my experience that some of our greatest questions are birthed out of disappointment. Let this also be part of our theological method: that disappointment drives us to ask great questions which lead us to search for better, more creative ways.

Practically speaking, it means that theology becomes a community endeavour, an interpersonal dialogue, a place of generous exploration, a place to experience revelation, a place to encounter beauty. When studying theology, I usually feel a bit overwhelmed and undone. I never want to lose that sense, because it is a sign of wonder. And theology is all about wonder. Sometimes theology can leave us confused, conflicted, and disappointed, and sometimes it can make us joyously excited. Whatever the case, let it always invite us to draw closer to Jesus and learn from him.

It seems to me there's so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of. - Vincent van Gogh in "Vincent and the Doctor," Doctor Who, Series 5, Episode 10.

There is nothing more artistic than to love others. - Vincent van Gogh

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