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Unknowing God: Toward a post-abusive theology by Nicholas Peter Harvey and Linda Woodhead

02 September 2022

John Saxbee considers a theological agenda for a changed Church

THIS book is about “unlearning bad images of God”. Over a number of years, two academic theologians from very different ecclesiastical backgrounds meet at conferences and discover that they are on parallel journeys out of embedded institutional Christianity towards a radical reappraisal of Christian believing, belonging, and behaving. They embark on an extended exchange of views, and have now curated a selection of them as pointers towards a reconfigured theological landscape.

This fretwork of 26 succinct reflections will enthuse and encourage those many people similarly ill at ease with much that passes for Christianity today — and will alarm others for whom the whiff of apostasy will be deeply troubling.

Both authors were trained in theology and engaged in delivering theological education during journeys into and then out of immersion in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions — Nicholas Peter Harvey as a Benedictine monk turned tutor at Queen’s College, Birmingham, and freelance writer, and Linda Woodhead as ethics tutor at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, then Head of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London, specialising in sociology of religion.

God, Church, prayer (including the Lord’s Prayer), sacraments, morality, Jesus, death, and resurrection — all are adjudged to be in need of rescuing from the negative impact of oppressively abusive orthodoxies, hierarchies, and imposed principles governing personal and interpersonal behaviour. The impact on human lives is perceptively and sensitively exposed.

Harvey describes “the liberation of emerging from a permanently overcast theological landscape into hope-filled daylight” (he has a gift for vivid and memorable images). Woodhead concludes that “there is no pure and innocent core to any religion, and no teaching of theology that issues infallibly in just and loving acts.” They both conclude that “in letting go of God as an all-knowing, all-controlling being — and the privileges of being a deputy of omniscience — we have found something more compelling.”

As the subtitle might suggest, the clerical sexual-abuse scandal is never far from their thoughts. But, as with other issues spotlighted in support of the case for unknowing received understandings of God “as we try to make sense of things”, some balance is sought for in their assessment of how “safeguarding” strategies have a negative impact on both accuser and accused.

While we are left in no doubt as to the authors’ liberal instincts in relation to current controversies around, for example, human sexuality, these are mentioned only tangentially. This is consistent with the overall dynamic of the argument, which is more intent on providing some prolegomena towards a radically reformed theological prospectus than a socio-political manifesto. But the practical applicability of this approach is an enticing topic in relation to which we may look forward to more from this stable.

Meanwhile, a sin-centred, abusive, manipulative, and morally and theologically compromised Church finds nought for its comfort in this positively liberal, life-affirming series of reflections on what faith can contribute to human flourishing if freed from the conscious and unconscious constraints of institutional religion.

Some of the punches hit home and must be taken on the chin; others might be countered. But something more than a promise to do better is needed if the Church to which these authors and their readers surely owe a great deal is to live to fight another day.

To live a life uninhibited by unquestioned loyalty and submission to non-negotiable conclusions, whether theological or otherwise, is to live into a work in progress, with all still to play for, and pray for.

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


Unknowing God: Toward a post-abusive theology
Nicholas Peter Harvey and Linda Woodhead
Cascade Books £17
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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