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My Theology series: Cynthia Bourgeault, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, and Mpho Tutu van Furth

by
10 June 2022

John Saxbee reviews new volumes in the My Theology series

THE first two collections in this intriguing series of pocket-sized apologias by contemporary theologians (Books, 17/24 December 2021 and 25 February 2022) mainly featured contributors from the UK. But this latest tranche goes further afield on the way to a rich and colourful tapestry of global Christian theology.

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopalian priest whose faith was nurtured by both Christian Science and Quakerism. This is not just a biographical starter. It is a clue to her emergence as a theologian committed to the mutually enriching insights of cosmology and Christian mysticism.

Doctoral studies in medieval literature led her to an ever closer reading of the spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and a lifelong dedication to establishing contemplative prayer as a Christian alternative to Eastern practices.

Under the influence of such luminaries as Jacob Boehme, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Keating, and Thomas Merton, she promotes contemplation and centred prayer not as an emptying of the mind, but, rather, as “luminous seeing” in and through the wonders of the cosmos a source of Wisdom which is heartfelt “knowledge impregnated by love” (St John Chrysostom).

While her theology is fundamentally orthodox, with the Trinity, Christology, and the eucharist at its heart, it is the cosmological dimension that “makes my theology initially exotic”. She builds on her mentors’ “cosmogonic mysticism” to affirm that Christianity is still fully intelligible and coherent at that level.

Indeed the Trinity, as emblematic of Gurdjieff’s “Law of Three”, is key to her “Christian cosmovision that is vast enough to span the aeons and tender enough to hold Jesus Christ as its epicentre”.

This is a beguiling introduction to an increasingly popular but still little understood spiritual discipline.

In comparison, Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s Spirit Life is a very straightforward cri de coeur from a North American academic who emigrated from Korea to Canada as a young child. She recalls with barely disguised anger the racism and sexism that she experienced when encountering “white Christianity”. Colonisation not only had socio-political implications: it also imposed white male supremicist culture on to Christian theology and church membership.

Kim has made it her life’s work to challenge these cultural and theological norms by advocating hybridity. Different cultures have much to learn from each other, and when they interact, discrimination and prejudice can be turned into mutual respect and enrichment. For example, the Korean word for Spirit is chi. This is more akin to Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma than German Geist. Yet it is the latter that has dominated white Christianity, and prevented understanding of the Holy Spirit as neutralising the discriminatory tendencies that have so blighted her life and countless others.

Chi is the essence of life itself, always with us, within us and moving us — all of us, without discrimination. Embracing hybrid pneumatology will not only enable Asian Christians to feel fully included, but also inspire white Christianity to do difference differently. This is visceral theology, firing from the hip, hitting its target, and yet ultimately redemptive in its purpose and achievement.

If theology can be visceral, it can also be searing in its challenge to our corrupted humanity — nowhere more so than in post-apartheid South Africa, where Mpho Tutu van Furth, daughter of Desmond and Leah Tutu, has been directly involved in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its continuing impact on Church and society.

Her theme is reparation, and the extent to which it can heal a seemingly irreparable tear in the fabric of human co-existence. Her text is interspersed with poetic reflections on the stories told by the black and coloured victims of the apartheid regime, and the extent to which its perpetrators themselves became victims. Her message is that reparations can assuage feelings of individual guilt, but not necessarily repair that tear in relationships, both inter-personal and communal.

Her crucial insight is that those who came before the Commission asking for forgiveness had their request granted by victims, but misunderstood its meaning. “Forgive me” translates as “Ndijela uxolo” — “I ask for peace”, which is about the repair and restoration of relationship rather than personal absolution.

This is how she understands Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness, seeing reparations as making good the damage done, in a posture of love that is as spiritual as it is practical. Reparations are viewed here not as payment or punishment, but as help, hope, healing, and the recovery of our humanity. Seldom is theology as powerful and soul-searching as this.

This trio of little books share a common commitment to turning erstwhile boundaries into meeting points, and the recovery of what is so often lost in translation.


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

 

My Theology: The Corner of Fourth and Nondual
Cynthia Bourgeault
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-60-4)
Church House Bookshop £8.09

 

My Theology: Spirit Life
Grace Ji-Sun Kim
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-76-5)
Church House Bookshop £8.09

 

My Theology: Forgiveness and Reparation
Mpho Tutu van Furth
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-84-0)
Church House Bookshop £8.09

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