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My Theology: John Swinton, Joan Chittister, Scot McKnight, Siku

30 September 2022

Theology today and tomorrow is in capable hands, says John Saxbee

More covers in the gallery

More covers in the gallery

THEOLOGY doesn’t come from nowhere. . . there is inevitably an element of autobiography within all theologies.”

Thus John Swinton, a contributor to the fourth quartet in DLT’s My Theology series, effectively summarises the fundamental principle informing the project as a whole.

After leaving school with little academic achievement to show for it, he found his vocation working with people with intellectual disabilities, notably schizophrenia, depression, and dementia. He now heads the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, which he founded, and the fruits of which he harvested in his award-winning Dementia: Living in the memories of God.

His key insights relate to the difference between knowing things about God and knowing God. They both matter — systematic theology is an important guide in our faith journey — but “the intellect is necessary but not sufficient for the theological task of knowing God.”

Practical theology is the focus of his work, and, because it is Christ-centred theology it necessarily majors on the marginalised, and especially on those whose disabilities exclude them from verbal, cognitive, and intellectual formulations of faith.

Such “disability theology” entails advocacy on behalf of others, but it also enriches our own knowledge of God, who is never marginal to those whom society marginalises. For example, memory loss in dementia reminds us that “it is not our memory that counts, but God’s. God never forgets us.”

Joan Chittister OSB is an influential American Roman Catholic theologian, who is as zealous as Swinton when it comes to challenging the Church to right wrongs and so experience renewal in the 21st century. Her twin targets are human domination of the global environment, and male domination of women.

The former provokes her fervent reprise of Lynn White’s 1967 attack on the Judaeo-Christian ethic as justifying humanity’s exploitation and, hence, despoilation of the environment. Her assertion is that, “Yes, God created the world . . . but God did not complete it. That the Creator left to us to do” — and we are making a miserable mess of it. Her theology of co-creation is to make religion aware of its moral responsibility for damage to the globe, and the need for a radical reform of current teaching and practice, as “reliance on the doctrine of human superiority has run its course.”

And so has the suppression of women in Church and society. This is not only a moral issue requiring radical reform of theological assumptions: it is also essential that the contribution of women to saving the planet as co-creators with God is acknowledged, activated, and celebrated.

Chittister’s manifesto is all the more exhilarating, given that it is a fearless re-envisaging of the Roman Catholic catechism, challenging with equal fervour and urgency the unsustainable anthropocentric and gender-based hierarchies that also beset many other faith communities.

The use and abuse of power is also the theme of Scot McKnight’s contribution, especially its manifestation in violent conflict. Raised against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and challenged by subsequent violent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he concludes that “international saviours save little and sin lots.” This is but one of numerous bons mots that pepper this record of a journey towards his conviction that “warring and the Christian faith are incompatible.”

Inspired by the writings of Ronald Sider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but especially by the life and death of Jesus, and a radical reading of the Sermon on the Mount, McKnight proposes and promotes a “peace ethic” of commitment to loving all, including one’s enemies.

But this apparently absolutist stance is tempered by what he perceives to be Bonnhoeffer’s qualified and contextualised pacifism. Although not mentioned, the possibility of a just war remains an open question. Nevertheless, he “cannot imagine Jesus himself killing [anyone] in a battle”, and so what he calls “Christoformity” cannot but pose a Christian challenge to violence in all its forms.

A chapter unpicking divinely sanctioned violence in the Old Testament is very measured, but a similar exposition of this theme in the Revelation of St John is laboured, and clearly has American fundamentalism in its sights. McKnight is Professor of New Testament at the Northern Baptist Seminary, in the United States.

Finally, we come to what the publishers describe as “a one-of-a-kind contribution to the My Theology series”. With African heritage, but raised in London, Siku was gripped at an early age by science fiction on TV and in films, comics, and graphic novels. So, he asks, “What happens to geeks who begin to take their faith seriously? They geek out on the Bible, of course.”

“Unboxing” himself from Evangelicanism, he set up Go Studio, “constructing expansive linguistic tools that will assist the believer into a deeper experience in God, and ministries that need to be more effective in a tech-messaging savvy environment”.

This is “graphic theology”, and Siku tells his story, and the biblical story, using a pulsating mix of text, comic-book-style design, and his own brilliant illustrations. Referencing Hitchcock movies, Doctor Who, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, he presents archetypal parallels to biblical salvation history in a format perhaps foreign to many of us, but very familiar to Millennials and Generation X.

Part of his purpose is to ensure that “the intellectual elite don’t get to corner the market on truth.” But, more importantly, when it comes to whether Batman is Jesus, he declares: “No . . . it’s much more real than that.”

Graphic theology has a distinctly post-modern feel, which may or may not prove durable; but, for now, it throws down a challenge to established theological discourse which it would be unwise to ignore.

This series of titles taps into contemporary concerns with such passion and commitment that we cannot but be reassured that theology today and tomorrow is in capable but not necessarily “safe” hands.


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

 

My Theology: Walking with Jesus in Strange Places
John Swinton
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-62-8)
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

 

My Theology: An Evolving God, an Evolving Purpose, an Evolving World
Joan Chittister
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-70-3)
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

 

My Theology: The Audacity of Peace
Scot McKnight
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-64-2)
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

 

My Theology: Batman is Jesus
Siku
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-72-7)
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

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