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Interview: Karen O’Donnell, co-ordinator of contemporary spirituality, Sarum College

24 May 2019

My digital self is still doing its thing, even when my phone and computer is switched off

Most days, I’m researching and writing, and preparing modules for the 2019-2020 Sarum academic year, lining up amazing guest speakers, new lectures, and activities. I’m also secretary for the Society for the Study of Theology [SST], and help organise an annual conference for theologians in the UK.

Of course, there’s administration and marking, but, each evening, I leave the college and Salisbury Cathedral is right in front of me. I never get tired of that sight at the end of my day.

“Contemporary Spirituality” conveys the immediate, integral nature of spirituality in the Christian life. While we draw on traditions of Christian spirituality from the Bible to people like Thomas Merton, we make these accessible to 21st-century people of all faiths and none. We’re not just interested in the history of spirituality but its presence today.

I’m editing a book with Katie Cross, who’s a practical theologian at Aberdeen University. It’s a feminist approach to trauma theology that does justice to both feminist method in theology and experience of trauma by women and men. It has chapters on reading the Bible from a feminist and trauma-informed perspective, theological method, purity culture, sexual violence, domestic violence, racism, death, and grief. It’s been a privilege to work with amazing theologians who care so passionately about making a difference to people’s lives.

The other book is about methods for doing theology in a digital age. What does it mean to talk about a Creator when humans can create whole worlds online? What does it mean to be human in an age of technological human enhancement? Can we have sacraments in digital spaces? And there are eschatological questions around the future Church and the future human, without straying into realms of histrionic, apocalyptic fantasy.

The dial-up internet clearly differentiated between being online and not. When am I offline today? I carry a powerful computer in my pocket and wear another on my wrist. Even on retreat, I still accessed my social-media profiles and watched a couple of videos on YouTube. “Offline” is a falsehood in the era of web 2.0. My digital self is still doing its thing, even when my phone and computer is switched off.

I’m a digital-optimist: I don’t need a digital detox, and don’t give up social media for Lent. Young people seem to have increased plasticity in their brains, which seems to enable them to multi-task much more successfully. We’ve only ever experienced God as God’s self-communication to us. God hasn’t changed; so I don’t expect our experience of God to be any different. The experience of God is individual. It’s never been one thing. God will, by God’s grace, continue to communicate Godself to us.

Feminist work, and feminist theology in particular, begin with women’s experience. Anyone who read my last book, Broken Bodies: The eucharist, Mary and the body in trauma theology, will know that I experienced repeated reproductive loss in my twenties. I remember finding only sentimental Christian books that didn’t address my body’s realities, or my grief. That theological absence shaped me profoundly. Michelle Gonzalez, speaking at an SST conference, said that she was only interested in doing theology from the place where it hurts — and her feminist theological anthropology inspired me.

I’ve also been inspired by theologians who broke ground on trauma: Serene Jones and Shelly Rambo in particular. I’ve been reading some of Emilie Townes’s work; it is powerful and significant and changes lives. I want my own work to do that. I was definitely shaped by Susannah Cornwall, Morwenna Ludlow, and Siobhán Garrigan and others at Exeter, where I did my Ph.D, who demonstrated how to be theologians with integrity and compassion. I aim to be like that.

I taught in schools for seven years, so I think specifically about pedagogy, theological education for ministry, and digital culture. Most rejection of digitally enhanced ministerial education, from using computers in the classroom to teaching through video conferences, refers to the incarnational nature of Christian learning. Is what’s happening in their physical classrooms incarnational? I’m not sure that’s true. Spiritual formation has always happened in lots of different places and in lots of interesting ways.

Learning should be open and informed by students’ experience, particularly in postgraduate work. Education isn’t about giving people answers, but equipping them with skills to explore their own curiosity. I’m practising saying “I don’t know” — I never want to give the impression that mastery of a subject means knowing everything.

In school, I was teaching students to pass examinations; but, even with one lesson a week, there were pockets of brilliant learning experiences. My sixth-formers were always curious to explore topics beyond the syllabus, and I know so many committed, experienced, and outstanding teachers. So I do have hope for British education, but I don’t think the unimaginative legacy of this government will have much positive to show for it.

Money is an important issue, especially at MA level. I paid for my MA by marking thousands of GCSE and A-level exam papers. In theology and religious studies, the biggest drop-off is at MA level. It’s gender-balanced at BA level, but women make up just 16 per cent of professors in the subject. It’s even worse for those who are differently abled, or from black and minority ethnic groups, or non-heteronormative; so, providing MA funding is a social justice issue.

I was raised by my mum, and I have a younger sister. My family are Roman Catholic and I went to RC schools. We lived in Matlock, and I didn’t appreciate how beautiful this area was until I left home.

Mum saved up for two years to send me on a school cruise to Crete, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Athens. This was where history and Christian stories really came alive to me, and I realised that there was still a huge amount I wanted to know about Christianity. I wouldn’t be the theologian I am today without my mum’s encouragement. We have lots of new nieces and nephews, so we often visit them at weekends, or immerse ourselves in London culture; but coming home to Salisbury is always a pleasure. I always have my Kindle with me when I’m out and about, and I love music; so I often have my headphones with me, too.

I’d say I became a Christian when I was about 14 and went to Spring Harvest. I went to a Charismatic church for about 14 years, till life became difficult in many ways — not that I didn’t believe that God existed, but, having had miscarriages and two ectopic pregnancies, I couldn’t understand who this God was who let me suffer like that. I couldn’t honestly express my pain in that church, and found more reassurance in the liturgy of the Catholic Church than damaging words of knowledge and prophecy.

I’m now happily Anglican in a very diverse, inclusive church. I’m less certain about everything and more comfortable with the mystery of God. My experience of God today is more likely to be still and silent and surprising.

I love the popping of a champagne cork. My nephew has a particularly infectious giggle. The opening bars of “Born to Run”. The bells in Salisbury at night, all slightly off in their timings and tuning, make me feel I’m home.

It takes a lot to make me angry, but lots of things make me cry: the news, a film, an argument (if I’m tired). Things that are unjust make me angry. People being oppressed, being ignored.

A lecture well-taught makes me happy. A job finished. Someone displaying courage in the face of adversity. Travelling to new places. Justice, fairness, peace. A text from a friend.

The day I realised that I couldn’t be a teacher for the rest of my life was a relief; but also terrifying — to give up my well-paid, secure job and follow my curiosity into theology.

I meet passionate, diverse, wise, committed people training for ministry who give me hope for the future. My colleagues in the academic and theological community give me hope that we won’t simply repeat the mistakes of the past.

I don’t pray very often. God knows the desires of my heart and those whom I love. That’s prayer enough for me at the moment.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been a huge fan for years and written about how we might interpret his work theologically. I’d love to chat with him about his life, his faith, his music — and maybe he’d let me sing a little duet with him, and I could die a happy woman.

Karen O’Donnell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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