A New Encounter

an excerpt

Martin Thornton

Authorized Reissue



Modern theology is an ancient concept, since every age has to make its own reappraisal and practical application of the faith once delivered to the saints. Sometimes this development takes the form of a gentle unfolding of tradition; sometimes, as is the case today, it is a radical upheaval. The present generation of Christians must learn to live with chaos, more positively they must grasp and live their faith in a spirit of adventure and experiment. The honest conservative who decries current trends may be fulfilling a useful purpose; nostalgia for a more comfortable past is a defiance of providence.

Much attention is being given to theological restatement, to new pastoral method, fresh means of communication, and experiment with liturgical and devotional patterns. yet we are only beginning to appreciate that this is leading to a new literary form. This new style of theological writing appears to have three main qualities derived not from fashion but from the heart of contemporary theology itself. The first is a sane empiricism, even a subjectivism, by which the writer is permitted, or claims, considerable freedom in drawing upon his personal faith and experience. A few decades ago a theological writer could only propound an original idea — if he was bold enough to admit to one — by propping it up with as many references as he could dig out of Christian history. His idea was only acceptable if he could prove that Saint Augustine, or Saint Bonaventure, or William Temple, or preferably all three, had once said something very like it. The criterion of value was "objective" scholarship and its aim was the exposition of "objective" truth. We now see that theology can only arise from the experience of personal faith within the community of faith and that if the old-time scholar pushes his objectivity far enough he becomes a religious philosopher not a theologian. [1] The contemporary theological target changes from propositional truth to that which explains, interpret and guides faith-experience. All this derives from prevailing "existentialism," and whether we claim or disclaim this ambiguous label its influence cannot be discounted. Writing of the father of this movement, Roger L. Shinn says: "In true existentialist manner he derides the practice of separating the writing from the writer." [2] "Objectivity" was no goal for Kierkegaard.

As so often happens this new movement, with its new style of writing, turns out to have close associations with something very old indeed. We have learned that the Bible itself is no objective record of events and sayings, no set of revealed propositions, no manual of morals and no biography of Jesus. It is an intensely personal interpretation of the experience of the biblical writers from within the community of faith. Saint Augustine's Confessions, the poems of Saint Francis, Saint John of the Cross, and John Donne, the Revelations of Julian of Norwich — not to mention Margery Kempe — are all deeply personal works in existential idiom. The hard core of ascetic theology comes down to us in the classic forms of community regulae, personal instruction, letters of direction and spiritual autobiography. It is deeply personal.

Secondly, and an incentive to this new style of writing, is the expansion of lay participation in all aspects of Church life, including the theological. The lay-theologian is nothing new but a new public has arisen which demands serious practical theology in a readable and relevant form. This demand is not for simple, or "popular," or non-technical writing — though it can well dispense with the esoteric jargons of academic vogue — but rather for practical theology of the broad sweep for education Christians instead of the detailed minutiae of specialised scholarship. The need is for faith speaking to faith, with its personal element; for theology growing out of reflective experience leading to a reinterpretation of experience.

A third quality of the new writing is its emancipation from convention, from respectability. Alan Watts' important and much-quoted Beyond Theology [3] is a good example of this style, but I doubt if it would have been accepted by a reputable publisher thirty years ago. The Art of Godmanship would never have been permitted as a subtitle for a serious work of theology, yet recently no less than the Lady Margaret Professor at Oxford called a book God Talk. [4] Even after making the indisputable point that this is a fair translation of the word "theology," I can imagine a staid sub-editor wishing to replace it by the subtitle An Enquiry into the Principles of Religious Language. This new approach is neither gimmick nor fashionable sloppiness, for behind it lies a vital principle. The theology author is no longer a cipher expounding objective truth but a person trying to guide others in the interpretation of a shared faith; his aim is not to instruct but to stimulate and inspire. This involves a personal and pastoral relationship between writer and reader, which is better served not by the style of the pedagogue but of the conversationalist or letter-writer. The style has certain precedents: I Corinthians hardly qualifies for a PhD. The time may come when the latest study in eschatology — heavenmanship — starts after the manner of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table: "I was just going to say, when I was interrupted . . ."

Apart from its content and subject matter, this book is something of an experiment. I shall do my best to avoid two pitfalls which confront any writer: the slavish attempt to copy the style of another writer, and the self-conscious effort to create a "style" of one's own. It would be foolish indeed to ape Watts, let alone Oliver Wendell Holmes, but although this is to be a speculative commentary on the work of another I shall try to remain true to the three principles just considered. I can think of nothing quite so depressing as my spiritual autobiography, and I do not intend to write it, but I shall not be frightened of personal experience. I am writing from faith to faith, from my own faith to that of others, and although I should be the last to put too much value on religious feeling I doubt if any faith could survive for long without some of it. I shall try to write directly to the faithful, to my blood brothers and sisters in Christ, and not to some objective idol floating about in the academic air. I shall try to avoid the sillier sort of jargon that can be such fun in the senior common room and meaningless anywhere else. On the other hand, I shall not assume the twentieth-century laity to be in the theological kindergarten: those who are do not read books.

I shall relax. If the book takes on a conversational sort of style then I shall deem it a successful outcome. If I fail in these background objectives it might still be worthwhile to have stated the ideal, and to have insisted that it is an ideal for others to aim at not a defect to be avoided.

Having said all that I make no apology for introducing this present book with critical references to some of my former work: it is the simplest way to do it. I spent practically the whole of my last book [5] trying to explain what the ambiguous phrase "pastoral-theology" really means, and it has only just occurred to me that this new style of theological writing is the obvious and necessary vehicle for its expression. Conversely, more and more theology is moving from the academic towards the pastoral form, and it might be worthwhile to summarise my main conclusions as to what this means.

First, pastoral-theology is an approach rather than a subject. It is closely allied to prayer and religious experience and attempts to bring out the practical implications of any branch of divine learning. A study in patristics can be pastoral-theology and a book on preaching can be thoroughly academic.

Secondly, pastoral-theology is the complement, ally and interpreter of "academic" theology. Within the totality of the Church's mission the two are inter-related not in opposition, and even the most esoteric scholarship may be a fruitful seed-bed for pastoral-theology.

Thirdly, pastoral-theology is a discipline in its own right, with a method that differs from that of academic theology but which is just a reputable. Pastoral-theology is neither third-rate scholarship, nor the practical know-how that usually comes under the heading of pastoralia. This gives rise to a fourth point which was not very clearly brought out in the earlier book: it is that the modern Christian, deepening his faith by reading, or the pastoral guiding him, must make his own theological adaptation according to circumstances. Pastoral-theology is that which makes such adaptation as easy as possible, but it cannot be written like a modern cook-book: take exactly these ingredients, in exactly these quantities, mix and bake for thirty-three minutes in an oven at 385 degrees and success is assured. Any experienced cook knows the fallacy of this approach. In the long run the vagary of the old fashioned recipe is more satisfactory: take apples (or pears), sugar (or honey), in "sufficient quantity," add spices, herbs and flavourings "to taste," bake in a moderate oven until nicely brown. That makes proper allowance for circumstances, experience and personal adaptation, and is analogous to good pastoral-theology.

Back in 1959 I published a book called Christian Proficiency [6] which has turned out to be quite a good example of this type of pastoral-theology. The advent of the new style in theological writing has at least clarified my own mind as to what I have trying to do for the past twenty years. That book was based firmly and blatantly on Dr E. L. Mascall's Christ, the Christian and the Church, [7] a work which, although studded with pastoral insights, was not easily adaptable to the Christian life of prayer. This is no criticism of Mascall but rather an example of the proper correlation between scholarship and pastoral-theology.

But of recent years the comparative success of Christian Proficiency — it refuses to go completely and decently out-of-print — has become an embarrassment: if not out-of-print it is disastrously out-of-date. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge during the last twelve years, and under the spiritual-theological bridge it has become something of a torrent. I hope the present book will replace Christian Proficiency, for I am convinced that the only solid basis for the modern spirituality for which we so frantically search is solid and responsible modern theology. The present pastoral-theological experiment is based not on Christ, the Christian and the Church, but equally firmly and blatantly on John Macquarrie's Principles of Christian Theology. [8] The former appeared in 1946, the latter in 1966, and to see the differences between these two works is roughly to understand my own change of approach. In Christian Proficiency, my initial query was: "this is the living tradition of Christian prayer, what is its doctrinal basis and how should we continue in it?" Dr Macquarrie suggests a different question: "I live in this world and I believe in the Creed, what do I do next?" Those who are familiar with the works of these two scholars will see the point. But it is of crucial importance to understand that they differ only in their philosophical framework and approach, while remaining in concord about the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. The difference in approach, moreover, is inspired and demanded by a total situation which has changed radically in the last twenty years. It is pertinent that Principles of Christian Theology was the subject of a most laudatory review-article by Dr Mascall. [9]

A further word of explanation is required as to my use of Dr Macquarrie's work. Principles of Christian Theology is a large book, a Summa twice the length of Christ, the Christian and the Church, and it is divided into three parts. The first part expounds the new philosophical background against which we are to review Christian doctrine, and which should lead to new insights into prayer, and even to new methods if such are desired. Obviously this background must be understood before we can get anywhere, and its exposition and simplification present me with a difficult task. Dr Macquarrie is one of the new-style writers as well as being a contemporary theologian, so the simplest and best solution to the problem would be to refer the reader to the most relevant portions of his book. [10] I hope that many will adopt this course, but to leave the matter there would be to evade the duty of true pastoral-theology. Dr Macquarrie is both readable and exciting, but he is also a scholar in the best sense of the word, concerned with substantiating his these by scholarly methods. Pastoral-theology is concerned only with the relevant conclusions, of which it must try to make practical use. This may mean resorting to analogies, metaphors and descriptive symbols which, while not being erroneous, might not stand up to pedantic criticism. These possible dangers must be pointed out in context, but if such pastoral explication is forbidden then a good deal of tradition spirituality — the nuptial analogy for example — must be ruled out of court: and there would be few legitimate sermons next Sunday.

The second part of Principles of Christian Theology is a contemporary interpretation of basic doctrine upon which a new spirituality is built. This section is our main concern. Part three, subtitled Applied Theology, will be used sparingly, which may sound curious. It could be suggested that either I am neglecting the most fruitful field for my purpose or that this section renders any further application superfluous, or even impertinent. To the first point I would reply that this third section bristles with practical insights to which I have nothing to add, and that other portions of it could well form the basis of another book. Were I to attempt a second study of Dr Macquarrie's work on this section — and the idea is inviting — it would replace not Christian Proficiency but my even earlier Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation. [11] This presents another reversal of values between the nineteen fifties and the nineteen seventies. The earlier book dealt with the pastoral-theology behind parochial organization, with the shape of the parish as microcosm of the body of Christ. Christian Proficiency was something of a sequel dealing with the life and prayer of individuals within that organism. If there are two pastoral-theological books in Macquarrie's Principles of Christian Theology its approach demands that we start the other way round: only after having studied individual human existence is it possible to discuss the community of faith in which it is expressed.

As to the second point — that of impertinence — Dr Macquarrie himself draws a clear distinction between applied and practical theology [12] and he constantly declines to explore these fields in detail. For example: "Here again we touch on the border of a special discipline without seeking to invade it — the discipline of ascetical theology." [13] Coupled with an earlier remark that "applied theology will provide the theological principles form which these specialised studies will move into their particular fields," [14] I hope that this book will be regarded as the acceptance of an invitation rather than as an impertinent trespass. Under this policy part three of Principles of Christian Theology contains an invaluable but comparatively short chapter on prayer and worship, [15] and this again might reasonably but construed as an invitation to elaborate.

But this is breaking the rules of pastoral-theological writing that I have set myself. It is being unnecessarily respectable because instead of regarding me as impertinent Dr Macquarrie has freely offered me his approval, help and encouragement. I have received help from others, being particularly grateful to the trustees of the John Bohlen Lectureship who honoured me with this appointment in 1970 and gave me a semester at the Philadelphia Divinity School. Professor John E. Skinner kindly read the draft manuscript, offering suggestions, encouragement and criticism, while conversations with other members of the faculty, and discussions with my classes, added further insights.

Having said all of that it might be asked why I have resorted to such an old-fashioned and academic expedient as footnotes. In the first rough draft I tried to do without them and every page seemed to consist of the name of the scholar I am trying to interpret in pastoral-theological terms, together with the title of the book, all within a veritable forest of brackets. Since this is admittedly a speculation on the work of another, and since I hope at least one or two will take it seriously enough to refer to the original, old-fashioned footnotes of reference seem the most workable method. Perhaps it will underline the point that I am not interested in modernity for fashion's sake.

1. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1966, rev. ed. 1977), pp. 1–4.
2. Roger L. Shinn, The Existentialist Posture, from Restless Adventure: Essays on Contemporary Expressions of Existentialism (Scribner's Sons, 1968), p. 49.
3. Hodder and Stoughton, 1964.
4. John Macquarrie (SCM Press, 1967)
5. The Function of Theology, (Hodder and Stoughton, 1968).
6. SPCK, 1959.
7. Longmans, Green, 1946.
8. SCM Press, 1977.
9. Church Quarterly Review, July, 1967.
10. Chapters III, V, see also Dr Macquarrie's concise Martin Heidegger (Lutterworth Press, 1968).
11. SPCK, 1956, reissued as The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of Remnant (Cowley Publications, 1989).
12. Principles of Christian Theology, I.6.v-vii.
13. Principles of Christian Theology, XX.86.i
14. Principles of Christian Theology, I.6.v.
15. Principles of Christian Theology, XX.

Go to Chapter 14: SILENCE.

© Akenside Press and Matthew C. Dallman, 2016. Reissued with permission of Monica Thornton. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, Akenside Press.