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The Collage of God

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Broadly speaking, Christian people fall into two types: resolvers and deepeners. Resolvers are keen to clarify and solidify doctrinal and ethical matters. They like systems of thought, information, prose, full-stops. They often speak of their conclusions being somehow "revealed," either through their reading of the Bible or the teaching authority of the Church they belong to.

Deepeners, on the other hand, distrust systems and jigsaws of the mind where everything fits together nicely. They prefer poetry to prose, intimation to information, and feel that full-stops need turning into commas because, with God, everything is as yet unfinished. Deepeners will talk of divine revelation but feel more comfortable with God-talk that takes human experience seriously and which is as unafraid to reason as it is unashamed to adore. For these, the mystery of God should be deepened by our God-thoughts, not resolved, and revelation cannot be monopolised by the interpretations of religion.

A healthy Church will undoubtedly need a good conversation between these two types always on the go. Individual Christians probably have a similar dialogue going on in themselves from time to time. At the end of the day, however, they can usually identify which of these two approaches they feel more drawn to.

My book, "The Collage of God," is written for deepeners. Ever since my experience working in a hospital chaplaincy as part of my ministerial training, I have had to admit to myself that neat and tidy theologies just don't add up for me. The only way I can make any sense of faith is to see it not as a system but as a collage. By which I mean it is a life-long collecting of fragments, epiphanies, hints and guesses, lit and shadowed -- all slowly pieced together into something that often feels painfully senseless close up but which, taking a step or two back, can appear with some surprise to have an integrity and beauty to it. Faith is therefore a beach-combing enterprise and the shores we walk along include the Scriptures, the Christian tradition, relationships, beauty, justice and imagination. The pieces of the collage are placed with truthfulness, prayer and, where possible, a playful delight in the gifts that are being placed into our hands. The pieces don't all fit neatly with each other but that's OK. One of the best collages of faith we have is the Bible, where many images and memories jostle together to stir up our response.

For the deepener, the relevance of faith is not as important as the resonance of faith. One of the most important parts of the collage of God for me is poetry. I wonder if God is in this world as poetry is in the poem. If so, perhaps poetry is the truest way to explore God's being and the diverse, multi-layered world of life of which God is the source? A quick look at the texts of the Bible and at Christian liturgies would suggest this is so. The problem is that having grown so accustomed to many of these texts we literalise them and make them into something the original poetry never intended. Instead of the poetic words splashing into the pond and sending out its ripples of meaning toward our shore, the literalising process makes them thud and sink into the pond with all resonance gone. As the American poet and literary critic Jay Parini has written: "Poetry matters because it takes into account the full range of moral considerations, moving against the easy black-and-white formulations that may sound effective in political rhetoric but which cannot, finally, satisfy our deepest needs for a language adequate to the emotional and intellectual range of our experience."

In other words, theology must always have more integrity and depth than a bumper sticker and the Church cannot be like a swimming pool where all the noise comes from the shallow end.

Resolvers will be distrustful of the deepeners' airy talk. The lack of dotted lines to sign on is frustrating to them. I understand. After all, there is something resolving about this article. Living with longing rather than arrival isn't easy and yet, for me, it is only the longing for God that keeps the pulse of faith strong. Once I feel I have somehow contained or summarized God, the pulse weakens. To begin a collage of faith secures the yearning, the search for God, and allows for rebelliousness as well as reverence. It permits us to admit the sense of dereliction as well as the devotion that make up a human life in relationship with God. As the collage changes, so do I. Each new piece enlarges both the collage and the maker of it. This is important because God's gift to us is our being. Our gift to God is our becoming.

The collage never ends.

Canon Mark Oakley is Treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral, London. His book 'The Collage of God' is published this month (August 2012) by Canterbury Press.