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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.


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