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The Strangeness of God: Essays in Contemporary Theology.

Elizabeth Templeton is a versatile thinker and writer. This is both good news and bad news for The Strangeness of God. I'll take care of the bad news first, because it's minor but not negligible. The book is a collection of essays by someone with a good theological training who intends to do "unacademic theology", something of which we need all we can get. Some of the essays have in mind an audience that will respond to the bite and spice of fresh, direct language (p. 126: "Being in Christ doesn't mean me not being me, nor you not you. But it does mean I can no longer be me without you"), while others are suffused with the verbal mist of a graduate seminar (p.45: "It may of course be that the identification of self-contradiction is less a neutrally axiomatic matter than a verdict related to a whole interpretative mapping of reality"). And within some of the essays sunlight and fog alternate. Writing in which the weather changes often, sometimes drastically, can be annoying.

But: the stretches of clear sky and sharp horizon in these essays are the good news that eclipses the bad. There are half a dozen sentences in the book that by themselves justify the price because of their insight, provocativeness and energy. Further, there are whole sections, and some whole essays (including one on sexual ethics), that make fruitful suggestions for both theological method and theological substance.

Templeton intends to honour the concreteness of experience as both starting point and criterion (though not the only criterion). Periodically she appeals to the existentialist philosophical tradition for support, and she persuades me, not a fan of that school, that they have much to offer. Especially attractive to me is her curiosity, her inquisitiveness, her enjoyment of the play of intellect. She recalls her initial incentive for studying theology: the insistent questions thrown at her by undergraduate philosophy. "'Doing theology' in a desperate bid to deal with these subversive questions made the issues a trifle more sophisticated, but not in principle less distressing" (p.21). And she doesn't rush to judgment: "It seems to me that all this sets an agenda rather than enables a conclusion" (p.58).

This last sentence comes from the best essay in the book, "On Undoing the Past" (ch. 5). In the course of her musings on this apparently nonsensical proposition, Templeton calls Irenaeus's doctrine of recapitulation into play, and links it with eschatology in a way I find illuminating, even exhilarating. If I were teaching a seminary course in theology, I would have the class read this chapter and then devote at least two weeks to discussing it - or rather, to discussing the students' own reflections stimulated by what Templeton says. "The analogy between resisting the fixity of the past and the absoluteness of our separability from one another is crucial" (p.58) - this sentence, while not a model of English prose style, is nonetheless brilliant, and links this chapter to Templeton's reflections (ch. 3) on the Trinity, in which she finds strong connections between her experience and the Orthodox doctrine as expounded by her former colleague at Edinburgh, John Zizioulas.

The other essay I find especially compelling is "In Defence of Disorder" (ch. 6). Templeton challenges us to query whether the ancient theological reliance on arguments from design is either plausible or even traditional - she suggests that some patristic writers saw cause and effect "as something evil, which has the world in its grip" (p.65) - and proposes giving "scope to a restlessness which, if consolidated, may be creative" (p.73).

"Theology which cannot face the basic chaos of existence, exposed in family life with young children, has no authority" (p.xiii). While Templeton has occasionally succumbed to the Sirens calling her back to the rarefied language world of the academy, she manages to write with much of the authority she says is required. Nowhere is Templeton's "social location" more forcefully apparent than in her poignant reflections on the damage we do when a child's "knowledge of God, which is detectable in the child's very existence", is overlaid with authoritative, traditional theological declarations about who God is and what God does and how God does it. The result may be, often is, that "the named God is undermined by doubts, and the unnamed God is not recognized" (p.33).

The Strangeness of God is uneven. Don't let that deter you from reading it, learning from it, being provoked by it. There are treasures in its pages. More important, it will encourage you to tap unopened resources of your own imagination. And perhaps you, as I, will put the book's final words (p.135) in a place where you will periodically see them as a reminder of theological maturity: "I have my doubts, God forgive me. And probably when I don't have them, God forgive me more."

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry is executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.
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Author:Henry, Patrick
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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