Editorial by Steven Shakespeare
from Modern Believing Vol 57:1 - January 2016

Life is unpredictable—therefore, theology must be too.

I don’t mean just that life is mere chance, a random collection of unrelated events. There surely are natural and social regularities, structures of force and power, which can be named and understood, at least to some extent. I simply mean that no system is ever closed in on itself. There is always something unsaid or uncounted, without which the system would not exist.

If this entails a need to be humble against all temptations to claim absolute knowledge, it also calls us to experiment and break new ground; to allow new thoughts, new practices and new dimensions of life to emerge. Life is unpredictable, not like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box (‘you never know what flavour you will get!’), but in this raw sense that ‘things can always be different; therefore liberation is possible, and we do not have to accept the world as it is.’

Modern Believing stands for a theology which combines humility and openness with risk-taking for liberation. As I take over as editor from this issue, I am conscious of the rich history of theological liberalism which informs the journal. I am also convinced that such history would be betrayed if we merely repeated it in new circumstances. The singular circumstances we are in today must be faced, and new theologies forged.

Novelty for its own sake is merely a reflection of contemporary capitalism. Newness for liberation is something different. It is built from disciplines of attention, solidarity and resistance which are at once intellectual, spiritual and political. My hope is for this journal to play a small part in the testing of theologies which will speak to that call for liberation: incarnational theologies of hope.

This issue offers a wealth of articles which exemplify the virtues of the liberal theological tradition, but also take it forward. One of the watchwords is ‘dialogue,’ with two of our contributions arising out of the 2015 Modern Church conference on religious diversity. Elizabeth Harris has written a profound and moving account of her personal journey with Buddhism, one which has enriched her Christian faith and led her to reject the narrowness of closed ‘isms’. Perry Schmidt-Leukel offers one of the clearest and most succinct arguments for religious pluralism I have yet come across, one which deserves a wide readership.

The dialogue extends beyond those two articles. Leslie Francis builds on his huge expertise, to bring psychology and theology into conversation around the theme of individual differences. Richard Truss provides us with a model of critical insight as he discusses the significance of the radical theologian Paul Tillich for our understanding of art. Ian Wallis provokes us to reconsider the experiential and existential factors which led to the writing of the Gospel of Mark, and affirms the salvation it proclaims as a ‘this-worldly phenomenon’, in which resurrection ‘is not an event in the past, but an open invitation and call to service’.

Dialogue – critical, liberating, worldly – will be hallmark of future issues, which will often concentrate on a particular theme. In April, we turn to neuroscientific insights into the brain, insights which pose questions about our most intimate human identity. Later in 2016 and next year, we will be turning the spotlight on why much contemporary philosophy is still obsessed with theology; on the new ways of thinking about God and church which come from the writings and practices of ‘emerging churches’, especially those connected with Pete Rollins; on the vibrancy of liberation theology in the UK. Much of the time, I will be working with guest editors (Anthony Freeman takes on this role next time, for instance), trying to put into practice the need for a diversity of voices and experiences in the way we do theology.

I am profoundly grateful for the work of my predecessors, who have put this publication on a firmer footing and ensured the rigour of its articles and reviews. Jonathan Clatworthy, who hands the role on to me, deserves all our thanks for his commitment and vision. As I write this, there are reports that the Archbishop of Canterbury is moving to make the Anglican Communion a much looser organisation. This is surely the final nail in the coffin for the idea of an Anglican covenant, in which the theological police would keep member churches in line. I will always remember the way in which Jonathan played a hugely significant role on behalf of Modern Church in the campaign against the covenant, setting out in calm, clear and compelling terms the theological case to reject it. There is a little less theological bullying in the world today thanks to Jonathan and others who stood up to be counted in that debate.

I am also extremely fortunate to be working with the Assistant Editor, Anthony Freeman, and the Reviews Editor, Michael Brierley. They do a huge amount of work behind the scenes in liaising with authors, getting the articles and reviews ready, and advising on the direction of the journal. Without them, there would simply be no Modern Believing.

I want to end by returning to the theme of unpredictability. In this issue, Martyn Percy contributes a superb extended review of a recent book on Mrs Thatcher. He charts the ways in which she was part of shifting political discourse to the right, towards an acceptance of the inevitability of market logic in every aspect of life, combined with a conservative social agenda. It seems that, even today, Thatcher sets the agenda for our political life.

However, things change. In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. He scraped on to the ballot paper, and was written off by many (including myself!) as a token left wing candidate. In the end, he won by a landslide, mobilising a huge movement of those who were alienated and disenfranchised by the dominant political discourse of austerity and ‘free’ markets. Whether he can take this further and make an impact on the wider electorate remains to be seen. He certainly faces an uphill battle against the media, forces in his own party and an entrenched ideology that we have almost accepted as common sense. Nevertheless, a crack has opened up; something different is possible, because a movement is being born which has run up against the limits of the system as preached and enforced by our elites. There is a chance to undermine the contemporary demand for scapegoats: the culture of blaming the poor, blaming immigrants and refugees, blaming Muslims, instead of blaming the inhumane system which calls for such sacrifices.

Unpredictability is also hope. But hope remains unworldly unless grounded in experience and in the confidence to make new things happen. My hope for this journal is that it may be a crucible for the kind of theological thinking which gives body to hope.