Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wrestling with Angels

'Wrestling with Angels' is the title of a book by Rowan Williams,  subtitled 'Conversations in Modern Theology' (SCM 2007  ed Mike Higton). The picture is based on one I found on the Internet, which I painted and used for an essay I wrote on 'Faith Seeking Understanding' in Summer 2006.   But the painting for me has come to symbolise theological struggle. ......

The story is related in the Genesis narative:
Then Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. (Gen 32:24-30)

So much theology can be sterile abstraction. ‘unfruitful, abstract theology that gets lost in a labyrinth of academic trivialities’  Karl Barth paraphrasing AMOS  ‘ I hate, I despise your lectures and seminars, your sermons, addresses and Bible Studies…When you display your hermeneutic, dogmatic, ethical and pastoral bits of wisdom before one another and before me, I have no pleasure in them… Take away from me your …thick books and ,,, your dissertations…your theological magazines, monthlies and quarterlies.’ (Barth ‘Evangelical Theology’ 120 in  Migliore, Daniel L. Faith seeking Understanding : An introduction to Christian Theology  2nd edition Erdmanns 2004 p6) 
Anselm coined a phare, a slogan: ‘fides quarens intellectum’  ‘faith seeking understanding’,

‘I pray, O God, to know thee, to love thee, that I may rejoice in thee’  Anselm

Faith is itself an engagement with the Divine Other.  Faith is engaging with the living God  - entering the ‘mystery of God.’  Theology is not about solving issues and discovering truth. It is about discovering God. Gabriel Marcel suggests  ‘unlike a problem which can be solved, is a mystery which is ‘inexhaustible’  Migliore/ p3   (Eph 1:19)

Christian faith prompts enquiry, searches for deeper understanding, dares to raise questions’  (Miglore  p2)

‘Searching the Scriptures’  is a key part of the seeking after God (Jn 5:39).  Perhaps our greatest struggle is with the text of Scripture itself and understanding in what way it is the ‘word of God’. The two extremes of liberal rationalism, which seems to leave little room for divine inspiration and conservative evangelical ‘Biblicism’, (McGrath  p 177 explores the Old Princeton School and the origin of concept of absolute Biblical infallibility) which appears to leave no room for human fallibility. The struggle with understanding the relationship between divine inspiration and the human fallibility of Scripture is as complex as seeking to understand the divinity and humanity of the Son of God!

Christian faith asks questions, seeks understanding both because God is always greater than our ideas of God and because the public world that faith inhabits confronts it with challenges and contradictions that cannot be ignored’ (Migliore pg 4)

The idea that somehow ‘truth’ can be ‘possessed’ seems almost an anathema. Faith must be  always seeking, always searching, always desiring. The ultimate goal is God. (Ps 42:1)

So is theology rationally ‘thinking’ about faith?   Or is it more ‘faith’ doing ‘the thinking’? The dominant question in the New Testament  is still  ‘what must I do to be saved’, rather than ‘what must I know.’ It is not information about God but ‘the life-giving and salvation-bringing self-disclosure of God’ (McGrath 201) Revelation does not abolish the mystery of God, but is its starting point. Thinking is but one part of the outworking of this mystery. ‘faith sings, confesses, rejoices, suffers, prays, and acts’ (Migliore 7)  Faith is relational as well as rational. Experience is the starting point. The outworking, practical application, and relevance of the Gospel - the Good News of Jesus Christ - is in the transformation of human lives (including mine). 

The dominant image I am left with is of WRESTLING, particularly wrestling with words. Jacob wrestling with the ‘man’ becomes a metaphor of theological struggle – desperately seeking after God  - wrestling - and afterwards trying to understand the meaning of the encounter  ‘you have striven with God and men and have prevailed’

I particularly like the final picture because it is overlaid with words and part of our struggle is with words and ideas, trying to find language to describe the indescribable.  And the apparent theological impossibility of being succinct!

It is a struggle with others (‘God and man’) over meaning, but ultimately a struggle alone (Gen32v24).  It is a ‘laming-naming’ experience in that the ‘battle’ results in both ‘bruising or brokenness’ (Gen32v25), as well as the ‘blessing’ of a new identity (Gen32v28).  Any theological encounter should have a similarly profound effect on each of us. 


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