When you have grown up with a particular framework for understanding the world and theology, it is not a simple task to listen through different ears to a different vocabulary. But, this is, in fact, what Jesus asked his friends and enemies to do – just read the gospels and this is the story: who dared to listen and look at God, the world and us through a different lens, and who could only try to shut out the heresy?
The Bradford Diocesan Clergy Conference began today at Swanwick in Derbyshire. I guess it's one of those things – like preaching – where you just have to be there to 'get it'. We began with an utterly human session with David Runcorn on 'keeping faith in a time of change'. Then we had a first session with Diarmuid O'Murchu on the developing cosmological context of human spirituality. It is in this context that we explored the implications of human belonging to the interconnected web of relationship with people, creation and the cosmos.
What struck me while listening to this was the clash of vocabulary for articulating theologically why the world is the way it is and how we are to understand it and God. If we are locked into a closed system in which theology encourages orientation towards 'other world' salvation, the talk of an open system of engagement with the created order 'now' seems odd. Or just wrong. If we have grown used to thinking in terms of particular doctrines, then all this cosmological stuff just sounds like New Age nonsense.
But the reason for having this on our programme is simply to challenge (or encourage?) us as clergy to think outside our conventional linguistic and theologically conceptual frameworks about the usual stuff: human meaning, life on the planet, spirituality that is engaged with reality and not just an escape from it, the moral claims of responsible living as beings in community in an interdependent cosmos.
It is far better to listen to stuff that challenges our preconceptions than simply to hear what confirms our assumed frameworks and makes us feel comfortable. After all, part of the role of clergy is to stir other people up into hearing the Gospel differently, listening through different ears, looking though different eyes, and catching glimpses of God's glory that would remain hidden if we only ever look through familiar lenses.
We are at the beginning. There is more to come. But, someone has to do the hard work of trying to find a vocabulary for relating the varying disciplines of science, social observation, anthropology, philosophy and theology to each other in a way that encourages intelligibility. We have to work at this; it is not easy. But, it is interesting to consider how much is to do with difference in 'content' (understanding of God and the world) as opposed to difference in 'language' for trying to express what is essentially always incomplete and mysterious.
As I discovered while working for the British Government thirty years ago (as a linguist at GCHQ), theology has to address and cope with the massive complexity of the real world – and that needs to be expanded to include the totality of the real cosmos.