God Curious: Exploring eternal questions by Stephen Cherry

by
17 March 2017

John Saxbee enjoys an invitation to take up the talkative subject of theology

God Curious: Exploring eternal questions
Stephen Cherry
JKP £8.99
(978-1-78592-199-5)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

“GOD curious” is the evocative term that Stephen Cherry has coined to describe theologians in their “questioning, exploratory, open to uncertainty and mystery quest”.

Currently Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, Cherry has his academic roots in science and psychology. It was deeper questions about the purpose and meaning of life which drew him towards theology. Now he is seeking through this attractive book to inspire and energise others to join him in his quest.

He especially has in mind those who might consider reading theology at university. This targets a pretty precise niche audience and may limit the appeal of a book that could be read with profit by anyone not yet engaged with theological studies.

After an autobiographical chapter, he offers an account of how our hunter-gatherer ancestors began to engage in the kind of questioning which morphed into theological inquiry.

Next, he asks, “Why engage with theology?” — and convincingly argues that it is fascinating, fun, and important. He draws helpfully on his pastoral experience as a hospital chaplain, as well as his wrestling with thinkers from Augustine to the “New Atheists”, to justify this claim. He concludes that “to do justice to theology you have to have a bit of agnosticism about you.” This leads into a chapter on theology as the antidote to fundamentalism.

Occasionally he goes off-piste when it comes to his target audience. For example, they may not yet be ready for a chapter on the subtle relationship between theology and philosophy. Indeed, he ends each chapter with a plea to “read on”, as if he fears that readers might switch off at any moment. But, given the cogency of his case, and his easy style, such fears are surely unfounded.

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If Christianity can be caricatured as “the Word made wordy”, then Cherry explains why this might be so. After all, theology entails talking about God and conversing with others. But perhaps fewer words would be welcome; so he offers “A History of Christian Theology in Fewer than 20 Tweets”.

This chapter could very well stand alone as testimony to how nimble the Judaeo-Christian faith can be in adapting to new media. Beginning with the Pentateuch, he highlights pithy verses and quotations from the Bible, eminent theologians, and poets to trace how talking and thinking about eternal questions has developed over time. It is in the best tradition of bar-room “lists”, and, as Cherry believes theology should always be, it is fascinating and fun.

After an inviting excursus into art, music, and poetry as the handmaids of theology, he concludes with a movingly reflective account of being alongside his mother in her Alzheimer’s disease. Here the cerebral dimensions of theology give way to something much more visceral and mysterious. To make that journey with her, he is glad of the company of theologians through the centuries whose God curiosity has encouraged him as he, in his turn, urges others to join that company.

This passionate apologia for theological studies is welcome, timely, and a breath of fresh air.

 

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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