Editorial by Jane Shaw and Linda Woodhead
from Modern Believing Vol 59:3 - July 2018
This issue of the journal brings together a series of short, personal reflections on how the authors get – or get to – God.
They come from several directions and disciplines – theology, sociology, art, historical theology, preaching, liturgy, prayer and poetry – but each is written from the particular, deliberately autobiographical, standpoint of the writer.
All theology is autobiographical because it is inescapably shaped and limited by authorial standpoint. When this is not acknowledged there is a danger that it will be presented or received as timeless truth rather than a human, contestable contribution to an ongoing conversation which continues down the centuries, and which remains genuinely open and unresolved. If you think you have all the answers there is no reason to do theology; all that is needed is repeated assertion of a fixed and closed body of doctrine.
That is one reason we asked the authors of these contributions to be personal about how they approach God. The other is that we know that people love talking about God – whether they are believers or not – and that there is great value in doing so. Our work, both academic and also – in Jane’s case – priestly, has confirmed this. To ask about the nature and existence of God is to raise important questions about the nature of the reality we all inhabit, its meaning and purpose. The answers we give go to the heart of how we relate to our world and one another, and what we single out as uniquely important.
Each of the articles that follow comes from the author’s experience and is an attempt to convey how she or he has come to God, wrestled with God, experienced God, thought about God, doubted God – in the course of an intellectual and spiritual exploration.
The articles stemmed from the 2017 Modern Church conference that we organized around the theme, ‘God: None, One, Three or Many?’ That theme emerged from a public conversation that we had at Stanford University, where Jane is Dean, the previous year. The conversation was about how we think about and experience God, and the feedback reminded us not only how much people enjoy being able to talk openly and honestly about this topic, but how rarely get sufficient encouragement to do so.
The Modern Church conference deliberately tackled the question of God from many perspectives, mainly Christian but also taking account of other religious views and the beliefs of those who say they have ‘no religion’. We had a rich spread of papers of different kinds, which are available on the Modern Church website. In this issue of Modern Believing we have pulled together the papers which took a more autobiographical approach to ‘getting God’, and we encouraged the authors to amplify the ‘confessional’ aspect of their reflections.
How do we get to God? What are the ‘vehicles’ or means of glimpsing, experiencing and understanding the nature of the divine? And how do these means and experiences shape how we think about God?
Traditionally, worship has been one of the most important vehicles, a ‘guided’ and collective way of getting God. Both David Stancliffe and Nicola Slee explore this theme in different ways, illustrating the interplay of freedom and constraint in liturgical spirituality. Jane Shaw moves into related but different territory by revealing how she encounters the divine through art, especially through beauty. She teases outs its relationship to justice and in doing so highlights central strands of the Anglican tradition she was raised in.
When we think of getting God through preaching, we usually speak of the hearer’s experience. Lorraine Cavanagh looks at the experience of preaching from the less likely perspective of the preacher herself, probing what she, the preacher, learns about God from encounter with the Word and the congregation in their moments of encounter, and collective openness to grace.
Some of the papers explore a wrestling, questioning relationship with God. Vincent Strudwick draws on the discussions he held in his village pub with other seekers that resulted in his recent book The Naked God to offer a vision of a very different church. Rachel Muers conveys her conviction that we get God in ‘spirit’ and in ‘truth’. This leads to a continual probing and openness to where the quest for truth may lead, and a conviction that theology cannot be separated from how we live and respond to the world around us. Linda Woodhead is unapologetic about being an academic who ‘gets God’ chiefly by reflecting, and she shows that such reflection is not just ‘all in the mind’ but may constitute experience of God. She reflects on the different images of God that she has worked through in the course of a lifetime of theological and sociological reflection, and explains how ‘unknowing’ the God she was brought up with eventually helped her ‘get God’ in a different way.