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Theology in a Suffering World: Glory and longing, by Christopher Southgate

21 December 2018

David Brown considers a study of the concept, not only ‘in excelsis’

THIS is a well-researched and original book from someone who is currently a professor of theology at Exeter University. It begins well with a forceful and sustained critique of how the biblical concept of glory has been treated in modern theology, where it tends to be interpreted as an alternative to classical concepts of beauty: the latter’s emphasis on form and proportion radically revised in the light of the Cross, which is declared to have its own distinctive beauty.

Christopher Southgate rightly objects that to speak of the cross in this way would seem an obvious distortion of the natural sense of a word such as “beautiful.” More importantly, it ignores the sort of uses to which the relevant Hebrew and Greek terms for “glory” were in fact put, to speak of the strange, awesome character of a God who bowls us over in wonder.

Southgate began his adult life as a research biochemist, and this was reflected in his last substantial monograph on The Groaning of Creation, in which he had argued against any attempt to use the Fall as an explanation for suffering in the world. Now, in this volume, that theme is continued, as he suggests that, although we may not always know the reason, natural evil or disaster do play a part in the divine purpose, and so may legitimately evoke our wonder and praise, particularly when set against divine identification with a suffering world in the “the glory of the cross” and what he labels “glory in excelsis”, the ultimate glory of the eschaton.

Southgate is a published poet, and so it is perhaps not altogether surprising that he uses poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and R. S. Thomas to reinforce his case. He also wants us, however, to find the divine glory even in the presence of moral evil. The actions of Jesus might suggest as much, but here the argument is pursued through the writings of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who was eventually to die in Auschwitz, but whose responses to her captors in the transit camp of Westerbork have survived. She spoke of finding the divine image even in her persecutors, as also in the glories of nature which still shone through the fencing of the camp.

Southgate justifies his preoccupation with the more negative side of glory (negative, that is, from the human perspective) by suggesting that contemporary Christians are too obsessed with positive aspects, in always seeking and celebrating beauty in worship and creation. Admittedly, it is not difficult for any of us to think of church services that we have attended where this was true.

Yet Southgate does appear to pay a price for focusing so resolutely on the more difficult and challenging features of divine glory. After all, is it not only because of sometimes experiencing the great good of which human beings are capable that we can then thank God for its hidden potential in concentration-camp guards? or, again, only by experiencing the awesome power of water or wind from a safe distance that we can also worship God through their presence in the more destructive context of a tsunami?

Even so, one of the many undoubted merits of this book is the challenge that it offers us not to shrink from thinking about and thus experiencing divine glory in the same sort of ambiguity as affected the life of Christ.

The Revd Dr David Brown is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews.


Theology in a Suffering World: Glory and longing
Christopher Southgate
CUP £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

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