Interview: Beth Dodd, theologian

21 June 2019

‘To imitate the innocence of Christ is to choose to live harmlessly in the midst of a complex and dangerous world’

I work at Sarum College, in Salisbury, where I teach for the Centre for Formation in Ministry and the Centre for Theology, Imagination and Culture. I’m also currently a research associate for the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture.

I’d felt a sense of vocation to serve the Church since my mid-teens. So, after reading history at Oxford, I did my Master’s in Theology at Edinburgh, and then a doctorate at Cambridge.
 

It was there that I started to consider the shape of my vocation, and, for me, it was to be teaching. Developing my public-speaking skills was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I love teaching a class now, but had to overcome a few obstacles to get there.
 

There’s a certain advantage in being a lay person in ministerial education. I can give students “a view from the pew”, and remind them of who they’re called to serve — and also give them a safe place to explore their doubts and questions freely.
 

We do a lot of our teaching online; so I spend a fair amount of time in front of a computer. We deliver “blended learning” on our ordinands’ and LLMs’ training programmes, to give them flexibility around work and family commitments. We have online learning materials, and then come together through video-conferencing on Adobe Connect for lectures, group work, and tutorials. This means we can make the most of our face-to-face and residential time — which is very precious — for pastoral, practical, and reflective work. I always enjoy the buzz when we have a group of students in college for a residential. And I really value the academic community at Sarum College: we share lunch together and support each other. We don’t just talk theology.

The link between the poetic and the practical is something I am very interested in. Words shape the way that we imagine the world to be, and that, in turn, shapes the way that we act in the world. What is said, and what is left unsaid, can make all the difference. So, poetry in its broadest sense works its way into every aspect of life, from prayers to birthday cards to casual conversations.
 

Perhaps we need a poetic imagination to teach us to love well. The poetic, in this sense, goes beyond words. The word “poetry” comes from poesis, to make; so I’m thinking of that creative impulse which we all have. Because it’s God-given, it’s also a way of connecting to God.

People might think of theology as a dry or abstract academic subject rather than the practical outworking of Christian faith; but, in reflecting on poetry and the arts, we can see the two worlds intersect. The poetry of the scriptures, of liturgy, of preaching, shows us that we need to do theology through the arts, not just in dialogue with them.
 

We have a lot of poetry lovers, especially for the short courses. A lot of people have found God in poetry.

Interestingly, a lot of ministerial or leadership students come saying they don’t like poetry. Usually, it’s because they’ve had a bad experience at school. It’s amazing how little time it takes to convince them of the power of words — the importance of paying attention to words, and how we meet God through them. I’ve had a few converts in my time, which is quite gratifying.

I find it very helpful to be doing some kind of creative writing. Often, my creative energies come out in my academic work; but I also write prayers, reflections, and poems. Poetry generally comes out in occasional pieces written for people I love, or reflections on big life events. I find the concise language of a poem makes it easier to say things I might be too embarrassed or scared to say in prose.

My research was in the metaphysical poets of the 1600s, people like George Herbert, John Donne, and Thomas Traherne; but I’ve always loved William Blake. His is the kind of poetry that can turn your world upside down and force you to see things in a way you’d never have imagined.

I’m currently interested in theology and lyric poetry. A simple definition of lyric would be a short musical poem, often written in the first person. Originally, it meant Greek poetry written with the accompaniment of the lyre, and it’s the musicality of its language that particularly interests me.

It can be a form of public poetryepideictic — poetry of praise or blame, such as in hymns and odes. In the scriptures, lyric poetry often interrupts the Hebrew narratives to give insight into the feelings of characters and the meaning of events. And the Psalms can be read as a summary of the whole of the scriptures in lyric form.

We also find lyric poetry in the intimate address of the Song of Songs. We might think of this kind of poetry as quite private, but I think it says a lot about discipleship and the life of the Church that we can address God in this way in public and in community.

My own church background is Charismatic, and Traherne was the first Anglican spiritual writer I encountered who exudes that same kind of passion and enthusiasm for God that I was familiar with. But what I was really captivated by was his vision of innocence.

When most people think of innocence, they think of childhood, or of Adam and Eve before the Fall; but Thomas Traherne is part of a long tradition that speaks of a “Christian” or “second” innocence that we can grow into, and not out of, which is part of what it means to follow Christ.

The literal meaning of innocence is not ignorance or naïvety but harmlessness. To imitate the innocence of Christ is to choose to return good for evil, to live harmlessly in the midst of a complex and dangerous world. This is a brave but a risky choice, because it makes us vulnerable to being hurt, but perhaps that’s the way to see the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

It takes courage to have the joy and freedom of innocence in old age, knowing all that there is to know about the world. Traherne had come through an age of civil war and unrest into quite an anxious time, after the Restoration, in a society keen to shore up its securities. And that freedom of joy, unself-conscious, unembarrassed, has always been quite difficult in British culture.

But to know the world and choose the good anyway — that’s what priests were called to in the ordination service, to “innocency of life”, which isn’t just about avoiding peccadilloes or keeping themselves pure. There’s a much more positive and robust meaning in that phrase.
 

For Traherne, the “real world” is the Kingdom of God, and he was one of those people brave enough to see the world through his vision of the Kingdom, seeing it through God’s eyes, how it was created to be. The Traherne scholar Denise Inge, who supported me through my research, mirrored those virtues of joyful exuberance and innocence in her life.

I remember dancing in the aisles at church as a very young child, and bursting into tears at the beauty of the songs we sang. I think there’s a sense of passion for God within me that comes from those times, which has sometimes been well-buried but has never gone away completely. I feel happiest when I’m standing on top of a mountain.

The wind in the trees is my favourite sound. People listening to loud music in the quiet coach of the train make me angry.
 

My husband’s a historian, with a much more optimistic view of the arc of history than I sometimes have. He reminds me that we are, slowly, moving towards better things.
 

I pray for my family most of all, but my prayers generally come back to some version of “Your will be done.”

I’d like to be locked in a church with St Teresa of Ávila. I’d love to talk to her about her visions.
 

Dr Beth Dodd was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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