Embodied Theology

god sexuality and the selfI was reading God, Sexuality, and the Self by Sarah Coakley today. Chapter Four, “The Charismatic Constituency: Embarrassment or Riches?” reports her ethnographic research of two Charismatic congregations in a University town in England. The chapter itself was fascinating in that it provided a helpful example of how to do Trinitarian theology with social science methodology in local congregations. This is the heart of my research, so it is always beneficial when I can find a respectable example from which to draw precedent.

The bibliographic material at the end of the chapter, however, is the point of this journal entry. It pointed me to Mary McClintontock Fulkerson’s book Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church ((Fulkerson, Mary McClintock. Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.)) Fulkerson’s opening paragraphs are written in an engaging, first-person narrative style that places the reader in the worship center of the church she is about to explore. She described both the physical setting and her own emotional/theological response to the experience in the way a novelist would draw the reader into a story. I found this approach appealing and affirming of how one might do contextualized, embodied theological enquiry. In other words, I might like to engage my dissertation in this fashion.

Additionally, I found Fulkerson’s citation of Tanner helpful. Here she is expounding her use of the term “situation” in the context of her embodied theology.

The task of framing a contemporary situation is not about its every detail, but the identification of certain patterns that characterize it. And not all of the patterns to be found in the phenomenon of faith are pertinent. Systematics, for example, is relevant to theological reflection, but not as a way to frame the complex configuration of the lived situation. Kathryn Tanner rightly observes the ‘belief and value commitments’ are usually left underdeveloped and ‘ambiguous’ in the ordinary practice of faith, and the pattern of a dogmatic system will occlude the contradictory way commitments occur. Nor does this mean the ‘situation is simply chaotic. Rather, situation has ‘structure’ and pattern as ‘the way various items, powers and events in the environment gather to evoke responses from participants.’ ((Tanner quoted in Fulkerson, 8. Kathryn Tanner, “Theological Reflection and Chrsitan Practices,” in Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, ads, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 230.))

Coakley also speaks of the disconnect between systematic theology and the ordinary practice of faith. The following quote is her reflection on interviews she had with “informants” in the congregations:

Likewise, it is worthy of comment that the already noted reference to Romans 8 (in relation to the crucial experience of the Spirit praying in one) did not in general lead to any clear and explicit reflection on the importance of this in trinitarian terms. The informants assumed without question that the Spirit was in some almost inexplicable way experientially distinct from the Son. But the possibility that this starting point might provide some sort of response to certain ‘liberal’ Anglican theologians then challenging the Spirit’s distinct personal existence, or otherwise dismantling the doctrine of the Trinity, was far from their minds. Such matters did not in fact come up in the interviews. Clearly these theological controversies had not consciously impinged on them at all (as indeed would be true in most parish contexts). ((Coakley, loc. 3141))

I have found this to be true in my research as well. The members of the RT were not perplexed by the Three-ness of God in the way that my theological reflection and presentation had polarized them. The RT already understood, coming into the project, that the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives and that there was a clear distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They also, however, had a clear understanding that God is one. In other words, they were not perplexed by the seeming contradiction in the way that I had anticipated. Nor did they observe the tension while dwelling in the passages from John in the way that I thought they would (or should). In all honesty, I was often frustrated that the notion of Trinity almost never came up in our Dwelling in the Word exercises. The RT, instead of being perplexed by the discrepancies of the one-ness and three-ness of God, found great comfort in the indwelling presence and hopefulness presented in the pastoral qualities of these texts.

Coakley’s observations, combined with my own, leads me to suggest that it is important for the theologian to acknowledge the lived experience of the practicing Christian community as it embraces the mystery of the Trinity. This acknowledgment will serve as an important corrective to the abstracted polarization constructed within traditional systematics. Perhaps there is a deeper knowing of God, and a deeper experience of spiritual formation than I had originally anticipated. The knowing of God, and the desire to know God and be known by God, extends beyond, and dwells deeper within any attempt to verbally articulate it or systematically present it. I believe this is what Coakley is getting after when she highlights the third category of mystic along with that of sect and church in the work of Ernst Troelsch. ((see Coakley, chapter 3 and 4. See also Parker Palmer on prayer and transcendence.))

Mystic-church-sect from Troelsch