Friday, August 10, 2007


Two days ago I was discussing with a friend what might be an appropriate title for a new church study and reflection group here in Exeter. Soundings came to mind, because its maritime metaphor connotes both a commitment to unbounded intellectual curiosity, and the recognition that in order to plumb the depths we need some kind of anchorage in turbulent times - a hybrid notion which acts as a suitable antidote to two fashionable but misplaced intellectual trends.

The first is the idea that there can be such a thing as un-traditioned, wholly autonomous thought (this fails to recognise the true debts we owe when we try to think freshly, and the need to build a reflexive account of these into what we offer). The second is the idea that 'tradition' is inherently about fixity in method, scope, reference and interpretation (which fails to acknowledge the diversity and dynamism of what we inherit, build on and modify).

In terms of theology (the articulation and exploration of Christian hope in reasoned discourse) Ken Leech comments well on this in the fourth part of his Samuel Ferguson Lecture 2006 given at the University of Manchester on 19th October 2006 (The Soul and the City: Urban ministry and theology 1956-2006). Cultivating a constructive "abnormal discourse" - in the sense he evokes from Rorty - is certainly the kind of approach we are committed to on Ekklesia. Not least because the conventions surrounding the discussion of religion at the moment, both anti- and pro-, are so stiflingly inadequate and forgetful.

"Theology begins to change when the ground on which we stand begins to crumble, or, to change the metaphor, when we find ourselves in the midst of violent storms. This was how many Christians, not least in the urban areas, experienced the 1960s. The sense of turbulence in theology was expressed memorably by the Chicago-based theologian Langdon Gilkey in 1965.

The most significant recent theological development has been the steady dissolution of all those certainties, the washing away of the firm ground on which our generation believed we were safely standing. What we thought was solid earth has turned out to be shifting ice -- and in recent years, as the weather has grown steadily warmer, some of us have, in horror, found ourselves staring down into rushing depths of dark water. (Gilkey 1965).

"It was not surprising that a number of the influential writings of this period were inspired by Paul's navigational escapades recorded in
Acts 27. Soundings, edited by Alec Vidler, was followed by Four Anchors from the Stern and Praying for Daylight, while the inimitable Eric Mascall contributed his Up and Down in Adria.

"However, this encounter with turbulence has led to new creativity, new approaches, new insights, new methods of working which have served to liberate, to break the mould, to challenge and subvert accepted ways of working.

"How does this occur? Clearly it is not inevitable. (Many Christians, confronted by storm, cry out, 'Hide me , O my Saviour, hide / Till the storm of life is past'!) A clue lies, I believe, in the notion of 'abnormal discourse' described by Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Rorty argues that much discussion and thought runs along predictable lines, based on certain accepted conventions. Abnormal discourse is 'what happens when someone joins in the discussion who is ignorant of these conventions or who sets them aside. . .The product of abnormal discourse can be anything from nonsense to intellectual revolution, and there is no discipline which describes it, any more than there is a discipline devoted to the study of the unpredictable or of 'creativity' (Rorty 1980: 5, 320-1).

"I believe that much of the progress in recent urban theology has come from such abnormal discourse, supported by abnormal practice, which over time has become normal and common."
[Pic: Kenneth Leech]

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