*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

The virtue of being lost in theology

29 June 2012

I KNOW Paris a bit, but not well enough to get around without a map. So, getting off the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord, I reluctantly give in to the indignity of marking myself out as a tourist, and struggle with one of those large flappy pieces of paper which I can never fold back into order.

I would prefer to be a romantic flâneur, finding new places by getting lost, and orientating myself by going round in circles. But time is tight, so I will go with prosaic efficiency. It seems to me that faith cannot work like a map - however many sermons seem to love this imagery. The lectionary reading last week from Job makes this clear. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" God responds to Job.

It is not much of an answer, though. Job's multiple troubles call out for understanding. He is lost. Yet those friends who seek to set his woes in a broader interpretative context are rightly dismissed as offering false orientation. And God is not going to do that, either - at least, not in any obvious way.

Wittgenstein famously insisted that "I do not know my way about" is the real form of a philosophical question. The same is true with theology. Putting it thus indicates something of the emotional pressure that exists to reach an answer quickly. At times, the pressure of not knowing one's way about can be almost unbearable. Thus we readily reach for answers. We want to know where we are. Knowing offers control over our situation.

But, again and again, the Christian theological tradition disrupts our desire for a quick exit from the vulnerability of being lost. Pelagius may have thought that the scriptures offered us a clear moral road-map to live by, but Augustine dismisses this as superficial - as a refusal to acknowledge our intrinsic vulnerability towards the divine and our dependence on grace.

Evading this uncomfortable vulnerability by seeking firm knowledge is understandable. But it often comes about because we are placing our own discomfort at the centre of things - or, to put it another way: placing God at the centre is often about feeling lost oneself.

Theological effort ought not to be directed simply to anxiety reduction - making oneself feel safe and in control. We are not. And there is often no theological short-cut out of this predicament. As Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin rightly insisted, the flâneur is not so worried about being lost. This is a philosophical attitude. Wandering about is one way of understanding. This is how new things come into view.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.

 

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

26 September 2022
What am I living for? God
Sam Wells and Lucy Winkett begin the St Martin-in-the-Fields autumn lecture series in partnership with Church Times.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)