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Theology in Scotland Journal

Theology in Scotland logo (normal)Theology in Scotland is sponsored by the School of Divinity, University of St Andrews (St Mary's College) and appears twice yearly, in spring and autumn. It was first published in 1994 at the request of a large group of ministers of the Church of Scotland.

With a mix of academic and practical articles and stimulating reviews, it is an ideal tool to help keep up-to-date with current theological thinking.

Current issue

Theology in Scotland 24 no. 1 (Spring 2017)

This issue of the journal comprises papers on theology and poetry. Christopher Southgate's paper was given at the 2017 Scottish Church Theology Society conference; the other papers are selected entries from the Fraser Prize essay competition for 2016.

Nature’s million-fuelèd bonfire: Thoughts on honest poetic contemplation

Christopher Southgate (Associate Professor in Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter)

Christian poetry has often concentrated on the beauty of the natural world, ignoring the competition and struggle which are factors integral to evolution. Struggle in nature, however, may lead to God’s ends for his creatures and it is this that Christopher Southgate seeks to explore by examining the work of poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Louis MacNeice and R. S. Thomas. He suggests that this kind of honest contemplation allows us to view the struggles in the natural world in counterpoint with the sense of God’s depth of engagement with all suffering; as such it represents a search for divine glory. To seek to glimpse this glory requires us to view nature through three complementary lenses: what the world discloses of its creator (gloria mundi); the gift – made possible by the character of the creation – of the Incarnate Christ and his self-surrender (gloria crucis); and the song of the new creation, in which creaturely flourishing will be attained without creaturely struggle (gloria in excelsis).

Where have all the poets gone?

Bruce R. Pass (Anglican minister in the Diocese of Sydney; doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh)

Against the background of a diminished presence of poetry in the life of the Church, this essay sets out to trace the theological contours of poetic expression. The territory covered takes in the poetic texts found throughout Scripture (where we see poetry sanctified for the purpose of divine revelation) to the use of poetry in worship (where we see how it has sanctified the Church to doxological purpose). An absence of poetic texts in Church life risks two possible outcomes. First, it provides fertile ground for an arid rationalism as a result of uncoupling of the imagination and affections from the knowledge of God. Second, it can contribute to a sidelining of aesthetics in Church life and a resultant dichotomizing of the sacred and secular. The essay concludes by considering how churches might respond to the absence of poets. This takes in new approaches to the use of the Psalter in worship and the composition of poetry that reflects the impulses of contemporary Christian life. (This paper was selected as the winning entry in the 2016 Fraser Essay Prize competition.)

Emily Dickinson: A poet at the limits

Jaime Wright (doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh)

Emily Dickinson’s poetry has long been of interest to theologians due to her fascination with faith, doubt, death, and immortality. In this essay, Jaime Wright draws attention to the recent shift in Dickinsonian scholarship towards an examination of the scientific elements of her poetry and the interface between science and theology in her work. In noting this, however, Wright argues that ‘the pertinent intersection is epistemology’. The relation of science and theology is then explored utilising one of Dickinson’s favoured metaphors: that of circumference. By use of this metaphor, Dickinson expresses an understanding of the limits of scientific and theological knowledge. Wright then explores further the paradigm of epistemic limits or circumference in Dickinson’s poetry by means of its varying spatial points: that which is within a circumference (life, humanity, nature), at a circumference (death, dying), and beyond a circumference (God, immortality, eternity). The essay concludes with an affirmation of the continuing persistence of Dickinson’s faith in her life and in her work.

What is the significance of poetry for theology today?

Joan Jones (retired librarian and amateur theologian)

Joan Jones begins this essay by exploring what is meant by the terms ‘theology’ and ‘poetry’. ‘Theology’ is defined as the disciplined attempts of human beings to understand God. That is, the effort to understand how the world is affected by God’s presence and activity, what kind of God he is, and what his purpose is. Jones then turns to how a knowledge of God might be expressed. Might this be poetically? This could be of help in theology’s disciplined search for perfect expression. The fact is, however, that theology and poetry have always worked together, be it in Scripture, liturgy or psalms and hymns. In turn, poetry often expresses theological truths. Is poetry, then, more significant than theology in the early twenty-first century? Jones answers this question by observing that, currently, personal self-definition is much more likely to take place through subjective means than through social objectivity, as was once the case. Jones concludes by pointing to the great outpouring of new liturgy evidenced in praise songs and poetry, which demonstrate both the potential of faith’s reality and relevance and its significance for twenty-first-century theology.

In other words: Towards a poetic theology of the spoken Word of God

Jacob Rollison (doctoral student at the University of Aberdeen)

In this paper Jacob Rollison considers poetry in its various relations. Poetry raises questions regarding the relation of the world to a ‘beyond’, and the relation of representation to presence. The question poetry poses to theology is: if Jesus Christ is the Word, is this to be understood prosaically or poetically? as representation or presence? To probe this question Rollison draws on the work of the French theologian, sociologist and poet Jacques Ellul. For Ellul, poetry manifests the inseparability of form and content in communication, resisting Kierkegaard’s ironic stance by viewing the word as inseparable from the life of the one who speaks it. This points, in turn, to an inseparability of form and content in theology and the presence of God in his revelation. In contrast to the post-structuralist view, the world is not a text. For Ellul, the central medium is God’s speech, temporal and non-spatial in its essence. His poetics of speech is in turn based on the poetics of the Word of God. The form, then, of the Apocalypse in Revelation ‘allows the comprehension of its content’: theology is a poetic listening and responding to the Word, architecture in movement. The concerns of theology as poetry are not simply with poetic ideas but with the richer world of poetic existence.

Books reviewed:

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