Editorial by Steven Shakespeare
from Modern Believing Vol 59:1 - January 2018
I am delighted that this issue hosts a robust theological debate. Given the nature of scholarly publishing, such debates are often strung out in time and across a variety of, often inaccessible, outlets. So it is especially pleasing to have at least a significant snapshot of such an exchange contained in one place.
The stimulus is provided by Adrian Thatcher, whose interventions in the field of gender, sexuality and theology have been so important in recent years. He argues that much that passes for an understanding of Christ in liberal theology is inadequate. For Thatcher, liberal Christology tends to separate the language about Jesus’ humanity from that about his divinity, treating the latter as a set of value-judgements made by us rather than as constrained by an objective and supernatural reality. The result, he claims, is that liberal theology has been too quick to give up claims to truth and to abandon a relativistic pluralism. Most strikingly, he also claims that the liberal approach deprives the church of significant resources in the struggle to address and overcome gender injustice.
Why is this? Thatcher argues that a return to the orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology – properly understood – is the answer. This tradition not only engages with the terrain of metaphysics and truth too easily abandoned by liberal theology, it also dispels notions that the maleness of Jesus should underpin gender hierarchies. The Word becomes human, not simply male; maleness is simply the particular gender associated with some instances of human nature; it is not definitive of human nature as such.
Allied to this, Thatcher encourages us to take seriously the traditional affirmation that God is beyond sex and gender: ‘It therefore follows that to think of God as exclusively masculine is to raise masculine language about God to the level of idolatry.’ It also follows that the divinity of Christ should not be defined in terms of Jesus’ physical maleness; and that the Church as the body of Christ should be ‘polymorphic’, a transfigured body which is not defined by, or subordinate to any gender expression.
Thatcher thus makes a provocative case: that some of the key liberal goals in the church and wider society are best achieved through a rediscovered orthodox Christology (and Trinitarianism).
Responding to Thatcher are Keith Ward and Lisa Isherwood. The influence of each of these voices on contemporary theology is considerable and enduring. Ward has for many years explored the Christian faith with a sharply perceptive philosophical eye, but with an approach that is seriously engaged with the insights of other religious traditions. His is a liberal approach which is prepared to be revisionist about accepted understandings of orthodoxy, but always in a rigorously argued way which takes metaphysical issues seriously.
Isherwood is a pioneering figure of feminist theology, whose work has deepened our understanding of how imperatives of liberation and embodied flourishing are central to evaluating theological positions. She has not only been a key voice in exploring questions of gender, she has also been at the forefront of questioning gender binaries, and calling for a queerer, more fluid Christian community.
Ward and Isherwood are therefore ideal respondents. Without anticipating too much of what they say, I want briefly to pick out some points from each contribution.
Ward is critical of Thatcher’s claim that Jesus, although fully human, was not technically a human person. For Ward, this is the Achilles’ heel of many traditional approaches: that they fail to do justice to the humanity of Jesus, turning him into some kind of oddity or alien. One allied problem with this is that it ‘fails to accept the existence of real creativity, complexity, and responsiveness in the divine nature.’ The result is an unreal Jesus, revealing to us a static and unrelated God. For Ward, a more promising approach is that the divine Word is united to a fully human person, and that this can be extended beyond Jesus to those of many different contexts and identities (including, of course, genders and sexual orientations).
For her part, Isherwood questions what she sees as the fundamentally static and hierarchical nature of orthodox understandings of God. The incarnation is reified by such theologies, limited to Jesus and divorced from the materiality and temporality of human existence. Drawing on Carter Heyward, but also looking back into Christian tradition to the writings of female mystics like Margery Kempe, Isherwood sets out the case for understanding Christology in terms of a process of becoming divine, one that is open to all. Rather than being passive recipients of a supernaturally engineered salvation, she argues, this sees us as empowered to realise our own divinity. Many feminist theologians have long argued that models of divine power over the world reflect and reinforce structures of patriarchal domination within the world; and that transcendence should therefore be looked for in embodied, liberating, evolving relationships in this world, rather than sought in a world above.
Thatcher replies in turn to Ward and Isherwood, which gives you the chance to make an informed critical evaluation of whether you think their critiques hit the mark. I hope that your appetite is whetted so that you follow the debate through in detail for yourself. I hope also that this dialogue will show how crucially relevant seemingly abstract issues of theological definition prove to be: much is at stake here about the nature of Christ, God and Christian truth; but also about the nature of our humanity, power, embodiment, gender and sexuality.
This is confirmed by the article which rounds off this issue. Robert Slocum, whose in-depth analysis of neglected theologian Studdert-Kennedy appeared in the journal last year, returns with an account of William Stringfellow. A key figure supporting the Vietnam war protests of the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, Stringfellow articulated Christian faith in terms of an opposition and alternative to the idolatry of death he saw at work in his country’s support for war.