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The Brink

Theology in the Dark

What is theology for? In her new book, Karen Kilby outlines the purpose, as well as the limits of theological reason.

The most recent issue of Political Theology (Volume 22, Issue 5) features a roundtable discussion of Karen Kilby’s book God, Evil, and the Limits of Theology. This introduction sets the background for the roundtable discussion. The issue also includes an interview with Mahmood Mamdani and a round robin book discussion on recent work about law, religion, and the paradoxes of sovereignty.

To read Karen Kilby is to be chastened. She suffers neither fools nor fads. On balance she is as unimpressed by the trends that characterize modern theology as by those that mark the opposition, ostensibly representing an anti- or postmodern theology. Her work is free of that anxiety so fatal to all intellectual work but especially to theological thought: namely, the need, borne of insecurity, to fit in, to join in the chorus, to add one more vote in favor of what is already apparently unanimous. This pressure is a feature of academic scholarship, not a bug, and theology is subject to it like every other discipline. The last 75 years in Anglophone theology have seen the rise of one micro movement after another vying for its 15 minutes of scholarly fame, before being laid to rest by its successor. Whole schools and generations of graduate students are formed in the crucible of the latest fashions (or, perhaps more often, what once was fashionable in another discipline or country). The thinkers one reads, the positions one accepts, the vocabulary one deploys are all, like successive courses in a meal, prepared and arranged and served in advance, and digested without a second thought.

In Karen Kilby, one finds a theologian willing, politely but firmly, to decline the meal. Not only is she interested in the other courses—both the next ones and the previous ones as well—she wants to explore the other rooms in the house. Perhaps even venture beyond the house itself. After all, who knows what one will find there?

It is therefore a pleasure to have some of Kilby’s best essays now collected in book form. God, Evil, and the Limits of Theology brings together 11 such essays, some previously published in journals or edited volumes, all written and delivered across the last two decades. Long-time readers of Kilby’s will be glad to see some classics included, not least the opening chapter, “Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity,” which, if my own reading is a guide, is surely one of the most-cited articles in academic theology since its publication in 2000.

The chapters were not, then, planned and written with a view to a book-length argument, but they are united nonetheless by topic and theme. Kilby is interested in the practice of theology: its character, its objects, its ends, its utility. She uses questions about theology’s nature to interrogate, at once, the limits of theological speech, the transgression of those limits by theological practitioners, and the implications for human behavior and experience in a world of sin, suffering, evil, and death. What is theology good for if it cannot speak to the latter—if it cannot resolve some of its riddles—if it cannot, as some want it to do, address and ameliorate its deprivations and depravities?

That is the question. How does Kilby answer?

Consider the following alternatives. The first envisions theology as operating in the light. By the light of the sun—the shining star of revelation—the eyes of faith can see the landscape. We may not comprehend the landscape in its totality, we may lack names or granular analysis or the sort of far-reaching vision to see past the horizon; but we can see nonetheless. The geography of the things of God is illuminated, and by none other than God. God enables and encourages our exploration of our whereabouts, and it is God who guides us by the hand. Theologians, on this view, are like explorers, scouts, and guides: held by God’s hand, led by the light, traversing the terrain, they in turn hold the hands of the faithful and lead them on to straight paths.

Now envision theology operating, not in the light, but in the dark. Stretched out before us in the darkness is a vast sea. God remains our leader and guide, but we cannot see a thing. Nor is divine aid a matter of enabling our sight, however dim. We remain unseeing. We are told of the landscape, we hear of the sea, but we cannot get our bearings, much less imagine all that stands before us. Suppose further that we are not on earth at all but on a wholly alien planet, so that what comes to mind for comparison is all that we have to work with, but we know it remains fundamentally inadequate. It is not that we doubt what we are told about our surroundings or that the words themselves are gibberish; it is that we have no secure point of reference, no anchor of orientation, no explanation or account by which to relax our mystified incomprehension. The voice of our instruction might tell us that the great sea stands before us, that it is bounded by vegetation on one side and a desert on another, that its substance, though not water, is nourishing and indeed healing to drink. If someone were to deny the fact of the sea or what stood at its edges or to claim that it was merely water or poisonous to drink, we would be in a position to resist or correct such a one. But if we were asked for a demonstration or for personal observations, if what our interlocutor required of us was the sort of knowledge that is possible only in daylight, by the sight of our own eyes alone, we would, if we were honest, have nothing to do except decline. We would report that we simply lacked the ability to acquire such knowledge. We would be reduced to silence.

The pictures are mine, not Kilby’s, and they are far from perfect. But they capture something of Kilby’s modus operandi. Theology is human talk about God. If we are clear about what we mean by “God”—not, note, if we are clear that we understand God—then we are immediately faced with a thousand obstacles to anything resembling “theology in the light.” We do not know what God is, for God is not an item or entity in the universe, or in some other universe, or in any catalogue of items or entities; nor is God the sum total of the whole: creatures are not constituent parts in or of God. God absolutely transcends each and every individual creature and creation itself. For God is the entirely sufficient and sole antecedent condition of creation, and remains the perduring ground of being for created being at every moment and for everything that is (whether angels, atoms, buzzards, beluga whales, galaxies, embryos, clouds, or kisses). God is not among the “whats” of creation, and so we lack any category by which to identify God. At any rate, so holds the historic Christian grammar of God-talk rooted in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

The implications for theology, Kilby argues, should be obvious. The shimmering veil of apophasis lies between us and the things of God. God lies beyond our sight, which means that God is beyond our conceptual grasp.

Is the resulting apophasis all-encompassing then? Can we say nothing? And what of revelation? Is not the apocalypse of Christ precisely the unveiling of the truths of God to faith? Does not the church possess, as a gift, saving knowledge of God?—indeed, of God the holy Trinity?

Kilby grants these objections. Yes, Christians confess the triunity of God as a revealed truth and they are right to do so. But recall our whispering pedagogue on the unlit alien planet above: to trust the truth of what one is taught by God is not at all, at least necessarily, to move one inch closer to understanding, to grasping or comprehending, that teaching. Divine instruction, even and especially about God, is not an explanation that makes sense of what once was mysterious. Rather, as she puts it, clarity and mystery in theology relate not in inverse but in direct proportion to each other (148). Like Aslan’s size in Narnia, which grows as the children age, the greater the knowledge of God the deeper the unknowing. Commenting on Rahner, she says that “the body of Christian doctrine is not a complex collection of information, of truths to believe (some of which, it just so happens, one cannot understand) but rather is something which all points to a single mystery, a mystery which will never cease to be a mystery, and a mystery to which we are all already and profoundly related” (152). Hence the apophatic character of St. Thomas’s understanding of analogical speech, according to which “we can know that certain words apply to God, and at the same time . . . we do not know what we mean when we say them of God” (150).

The great temptation of theologians, accordingly, is threefold: self-deception, idolatry, and pride. We fool ourselves into supposing we know more than we do, that we have cracked the code, that we have struck a match in the vast darkness of divinity. Invariably this leads to what Kilby calls “conceptual idolatry” (63), which in turn degenerates into “conceptual play” (52). We theologians want our work to matter, to be relevant, and so, for example, “theology over the last few decades has often been marked by a certain self-conscious robustness when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity,” with “much asserted in tones of insistence, confidence, and enthusiasm” (31). Instead of submitting to the “distinct intellectual asceticism” necessary in this doctrine more than in any other (36), theologians project onto God what is most lovely or desirable in human life and community—often in stirring, assured tones, and always contrary to the prevailing spirit of the age—and then turn around and announce that the import of the doctrine is precisely that the Trinity models for us just those virtues and goods we find all too rarely or in incomplete fashion here below. No wonder that the messenger of these glad tidings, the wayfarer in the land of the light, is tempted to “a kind of theological hubris, a theological one-up-man-ship” (43). This is “one of the dangers of Trinitarian theology, [namely] to give an implausible kind of advantage to the theologian,” as if “those who can understand really difficult, elusive, technical theology are able to get more of a foretaste of the beatific vision than those who are not” (29). On the contrary, if it is true that “the doctrine of the Trinity is simply beyond our grasp” (26), then the theologian is no closer to descrying the spiritual landscape—the eyelids of the mind not one millimeter more open to the visio Dei—than the ordinary faithful believer. For what faith apprehends (and we walk not by sight but by faith, as St. Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:7) is not the doctrine of the Three-in-One but the living God revealed in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

Here is the positive upshot of the foregoing negations. The baptized know God as Trinity not because they can define eternal processions or subsistent relations but rather because their lives have been incorporated into God’s own eternal and superabundant life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They have been united by the Spirit to the Son of the Father and thereby share—through the sacraments, through prayer, through Scripture, through service to the least of these—in the inexhaustible movement of self-donation and glorification that the Son offers to the Father in the Spirit. This knowing is less like a mathematical demonstration and more like knowing one’s spouse. Its personal character, its incomparable intimacy, intensifies rather than diminishes the “unknowness” of its object: “believing in the Trinity, we are not so much in possession of a more fully textured concept of God than a mere Enlightenment deist has, but in fact much less than any deist in possession of any sort of manageable concept of God at all” (42).

What then is theology good for? And what of evil and suffering?

As to the first question, theology is a severely delimited discipline. Though in one sense it is a universal science, inasmuch as it concerns God and all things in relation to God, in another sense it is, if it is proceeding as it should, a modest science. Kilby’s proposal of “a kind of program of Trinitarian theological modesty” applies to theology as such (33). Theologians ought to be marked by a conceptual and discursive reserve, a rhetoric of humility that constantly undercuts itself—not in terms of confidence (granting, say, the canons of modernity veto power over the church’s less fashionable beliefs) but in terms of the boundaries set for its own claims to insight and understanding. It amounts to a kind of unapologetic anti-apologetics: in a certain sense, about certain matters, Kilby is “suggesting that in fact Christians are, and ought to be, at a loss in making sense of their belief at all” (42). Can one offer an account that “makes sense” of why one loves one’s spouse? Or even of why, to give a biblical example, the Lord chose Israel out of all the nations? Neither the Law nor the prophets provide an answer, except that the Lord “saw” Abraham’s children in their squalor (Ezek 16:1-14) and “loves” them (Deut 7:6-8). Believers, too, see Jesus (Heb 2:9), and though he was a man of sorrows and lacking all beauty or majesty that we might desire him (Isa 53:2-3), believers, too, love him (1 Pet 1:8). Kilby suggests that such an answer is more than adequate.

As for evil and suffering, I leave that particular set of issues first to readers, who ought to read this important book and see for themselves what Kilby has to say, and second to the esteemed contributors to the forum on the book that Political Theology is so pleased to host. Sarah Coakley, Andrew Prevot, Katherine Sonderegger, Kathryn Tanner, Miroslav Volf, and Rowan Williams are no strangers to the issues with which Kilby grapples in God, Evil, and the Limits of Theology, and some of their names appear in its pages. I am honored to introduce the volume and to have invited these participants to engage it, and I know the conversation that results will, like the book, be of great benefit to many.

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