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Is it right to do theology in the midst of crisis? Reflecting on theological reflection

Dr Phoebe Hill

16 Apr, 2020

 

Head of Theology Phoebe Hill explores the dangers of "theologising" a crisis.

 

I don’t know about you, but I am experiencing a consistent underlying sense of dis-ease. I find myself oscillating between feeling numb and disconnected to the virus happening ‘out there’, beyond the realms of my small and isolated life, and feeling completely overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. I am struggling to find peace. Maybe it’s right not to feel peaceful when people in the world are dying, and older people and the terminally ill are being denied ventilators when there are shortages.

 

At this very moment, I, like many others, am suffering a kind of trauma. Or if not a trauma, then perhaps a low-level state of adrenalised fight or flight. One thing I know for certain is that I am not thinking particularly rationally. My thoughts – reacting as they are to this profoundly strange moment and the reality we are all living in – are not entirely trustworthy.

As a consequence, I feel that this is not the moment for me to try to interpret the signs of the times or to theologise about what it all means in the grand scheme of things. I suspect the same may be true for others. And yet I have seen others coming forward with their theological interpretations of the moment we are all trapped in, and it’s forced me to wonder: is it right to ‘do theology’ in times of crisis?

 

Theology is often profoundly shaped by moments of crisis, and moments of disruption. In times like these when the Church is forced to reorient, to respond, and to re-focus, it’s inevitable that theology will shift as a consequence too. It is unsurprising that many of the significant theological developments of the 20thCentury were forged in the fires of the First and Second World Wars.

"There seems to be a very great difference between theology birthed from a crisis context, and theology actually carried out while the theologian herself is in the midst of crisis."

 

However, there seems to be a very great difference between theology birthed from a crisis context, and theology actually carried out while the theologian herself is in the midst of crisis. Perhaps this is the difference between reflection in crisis and reflection on crisis, to rephrase Donald Schön’s categories (see Ward 2017: 101). Let’s not forget that theology is done by people, people who are currently suffering – to various degrees – trauma. This will hugely shape the outcome of their theologising.

The danger of this theologising in the midst of crisis is that we could end up with bad, unhelpful or insensitive theology. As meaning-making machines, we will always look for ways to explain or to justify what God might be doing. God’s role has been spun in all sorts of ways so far, from causing the virus, to bringing good out of the virus, to bringing about a revival in the aftermath of the virus. Many or all of these may be true. But such theological out-workings – particularly the ‘God is using the virus to…’ variety – ring of insensitivity at a time when people are dying.

 
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We are currently conducting a research project all about what it means to theologically reflect, and what theological reflection looks like in people’s day-to-day lives. Many of those who have written about theological reflection would argue that we are all theologians, and are theologically reflecting all of the time. This theological reflection may operate under the radar of our conscious lives and may be a habitual, almost intuitive process. This impulse to make sense of what we are doing and experiencing from a theological perspective is not wrong.

Perhaps the point is not that we should cease from theological reflection entirely – which may be an impossibility - but that we must be cautious and humble with our theological conclusions, particularly where they seek to speak for God. We need to acknowledge our frailty as theologians in the midst of crisis. We do not yet know what God is doing in the grand scheme of things. For now, though, we live with the hope that God is working, even if we don’t know what that working might be.

 

Tell us what YOU think about theological reflection…

This blog is largely inspired by the thinking we’ve been doing for our theological reflection in youth work research. We’d love you to be part of this project! We’ve recently released our survey for employed and voluntary youth workers, which you can find here. Fill it out, tell us your thoughts, and be in with the chance of winning a £100 voucher!

Moltmann, Jurgen. 1967. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology(London: SCM Press)

Ward, Pete. 2017. Introducing practical theology: mission, ministry, and the life of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic)

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