I met the suspected theologian, Katharine Moody at the Interface Theology conference last week. I know. That’s pretty clear evidence that the charges against her are going to stick. You can’t get much more theological than a conference held at the seat of the Irish Catholicism. She delivered the most head-scratchiest paper of the weekend. “On the Question of (Rightly?) Passing for A/Theologian”.

She also wrote the first reflection I have found on the conference, where she muses on the astounding opening address my Michael Paul Gallagher, which bore some resemblance to his great little book, The Disturbing Freshness of Christ.

Katharine sums up the talk:

In his paper, Professor Gallagher he suggested that the role of the theologian is a translator of God’s meaning to culture. He argued for the importance of imagination, the faculty of possibility that (as for Newman) makes God real, and quoted Paul Ricoeur on imagination: “we can experience redemption only through imagination.” He called for theologians to be instruments of the imagination, communicating in parables and poems that are “provocations to wonder,” provocations to transformation.

But she is not so sure of Michael Paul’s assumption (or rather the assumption we assume he has!) that there is one single universal message that us theologians are dealing with. For Katharine,

how are we ever to be truly astonished by it, if in some sense we already know the message, if the message is not going to change? We can only be truly astonished by that which we cannot be prepared for, that which we cannot look out for, that which we do not know to pay attention to.

And while on one level I utterly and completely agree I do dare to venture into territory I have no right to offer an opinion in (having the slightest grasp on Derrida and nothing at all to say of Caputo or Ricoeur). It is a mis-step to suggest that astonishment is tied to newness. While trying to avoid etymological games, we can still be taken surprise and struck dumb by the sudden flash of lightning (before we even hear the thunderclap). And that experience continues, regardless of how often we’ve been caught in Roman summer thunderstorms. We can be surprised by the familiar. In fact, the point of the Mary Oliver poem that Michael Paul quoted is surely that we can expect to be astonished by the mundane everyday things.

Pivoting slightly to consider the sense in which we interpret the poly-valent meanings of texts, I have always been enraptured by NT Wright’s Authority of Scripture paper. In Kevin Vanhoozer’s unpacking of this idea he gets around to dealing with the postmodern critique of meaning found in texts and I still remember the lazy week spent in Sligo two years ago when I slowly worked through this text.

The Biblical text was not new to me. The idea of doctrine was not new to me. Post-modern philosophy wasn’t even that new to me. But the effect of reading this bright orange book in between extensive mid-afternoon naps was to astonish me again. How appropriate, for a book that seeks to re-imagine doctrine as a drama with a plot that has gripped a community for millennia. For Vanhoozer, the Bible has a meaning that is discovered and continued by the church community who seeks not only to parse and comprehend the text but to enact it. The multi-stranded story of the Church is thus cast in a new light as the parallel interpretations of the different companies of actors we sometimes call denominations.

Your Correspondent, Wears the sky around his shoulder like a tailor made coat