Theology as Food

When a person looks sickly, perhaps with an obviously pale complexion, and shows a distinct lack of energy — obviously not his or her normal “self” — some reasonable responses would begin with questions that look at the ill health in terms of medical care. Perhaps the person has a virus, or needs surgery? Others might wonder about psychological trauma, and thus some sort of psychological counseling. Maybe they weren’t raised right, or endured some sort of psychological abuse.

Yet is it also not the case that so often, such a person is likely not eating a balanced diet of good, nutritious food? Plain common sense tells us this is often true: not always, but certainly not rarely. The signs can be unmistakable. We see a diet that is the result of bad habits: that might mean junk food, or one trendy “diet” after another, or too often a pattern of eating “take out”, with never a home-cooked meal.

What is this person eating? — we ask of the sickly body.

Anglicanism in the West is just this sort of sickly body. By any measure, it is simply not doing well: numbers, morale, ability to positively contribute to the wider Body of Christ, holy Church. Perhaps, as I have written, it is owing to a mass “identity crisis“. How can we interact with others when we don’t have a firm sense of who we are? Yet this identity crisis (which I believe is real, but also perhaps nothing new) may be not a leading indicator, but a lagging indicator — a symptom, not the underlying cause. For if indeed Anglicanism were sickly, would it not follow that it couldn’t sensibly articulate its own identity? After all, sickness impacts the capacity for rational self-reflection. And it impacts the ability to hear what others are saying, even as they are trying to be of aid.

Perhaps we then feel an urge to “tell” the sickly person who he or she is (or write bemoaning essays that seem to think that screaming will send the person back to health). But is that the best approach? We must be honest: to a person who is laid up in bed with something incapacitating, any kind of attempt to explain who they are “supposed to be” is not exactly pastoral. Maybe it is not wrong, but it is not likely to work. First things first: we have a person, sickly. Our actions must serve a process that nurses the sick back to health.

So, the question, asked in a pastoral way: what has Anglicanism been eating?

Is asking, “what has Anglicanism been eating?” appropriate? Of course by this analogy, I refer to theology. In current Anglican practice, particularly in parishes, what has been the theological diet? Have Anglicans been consuming and digesting a stable, balanced diet of nutritious food? Has our theological sustenance been made of real food, home-cooked and filling — or has it been ready-made? Have Anglicans been skipping square meals, in favor of artificial, mass-produced substitute? Have we bought our theological ingredients from local markets where we might know the farmers, or from “big box” mega-stores that stock products stuffed with preservatives and chemical additives, its “farmers” actually corporate executives? Or do we (gasp) import all our food?

Am I stretching this analogy too far?

Michael Pollan, Omnivore's DilemmaSometimes, we need to be reminded what the actual model for “good food” truly is. For this, we usefully look to the past. In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan defines “good food” as that which your great-great grandmother would recognize as “good food”. This does not mean that the definition can’t change or alter — far from it, for life involves change. It does mean that change with respect to “food” will be incremental. Change will come, but slowly enough for there to be unmistakable continuity across the generations.

If we were to import Pollan’s idea into theology, then what we are talking about is ressourcement, the seeking of our most profound resources. To keep Pollan’s idea, “good theology”  would mean that which our great grandmothers would have recognized as “good.” Perhaps such a definition might help to affirm what kind of theology actually belongs to our tradition. Because it was the stuff of their life. What worked for them — what fed them — should have at least a family resemblance to what feeds us. To see the model for “good theology” in something of the past (again, not to constrict the present, but to inform it) is to honor reality: we do not invent the Church. Rather, we are baptized into — even, “thrown into” — something we did not create, but instead creates us.

But Pollan is no theologian. His definition, if it is to work within theology as a strategy of ressourcement, must bear some amendment. With all due respect to the late great grandmothers out there (perhaps more than some were faithful Anglicans who would teach us a thing or two), we have to stretch what we mean by “great grandmother” to make sense within a context of historical theology. We have to look further back in our past.

One of our “great grandmothers” is the Caroline Age: roughly, 1594 – 1729. That is, the Caroline Age, broadly defined, is from Hooker’s On The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. During this period, the Book of Common Prayer came to be, and came to be used and defended. Somehow, perhaps despite the intentions of its compilers, it “fit” within the English theological diet. While plenty was new, enough of the Prayer Book was still recognizable to 17th century English men and women as “good food.” And it is good food still today because we still use the Prayer Book.

But our ancestry is deeper still. Another “great (great) grandmother” is the Fourteenth Century: with the glorious theologies of Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and, Richard Rolle and The Cloud of Unknowing. During this period, the English mix of doctrinal, pastoral, ascetical and homely came to be, and came to find an authentic and legitimate character all its own. That this era was good food is also shown by the fact that its writers are still studied today.

While there may be other “great grandmothers,” such as the Methodist movement and the Tractarian movement, the 14th and 17th century “great grandmothers” take pride of place as our most profound great grandmothers, because represent the first and second flowerings of the English School of Catholic spirituality. Its rootstock is in Anselm, the School of St Victor, Aquinas, and the Cistercian fathers. The English School’s deepest roots are in Benedict and Augustine, the Celtic Church and the New Testament Church. To these we look as one would look to great grandmother.

What would it mean to ask whether our theology is recognizable by these great grandparents? Would Hilton, Julian, and Kempe detect a family resemblance between their theologies and our own today? Would the Carolines? (Would, for that matter, Anselm and Benedict?)

These questions lead us to this: to ensure that our food would be recognizable to them as their food means that we have to study the English School. Else, how can we know whether our food is recognizable to theirs? Many Anglicans already do study one of these theologians. Some devotionally read more than a couple. Therefore the proposal here is nothing outlandish. But do Anglicans consult both great grandmothers? If we do not, let us begin now, else how can we know whether our food today is legitimately “good food”? Let us consult our most profound great grandmothers and find out.

 


Want to discuss this post? Join us on our Facebook page.