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Theology and the Coastline

Theology and the Coastline
Andrew Cunning

Andrew Cunning

Andrew Cunning | Contributor at Christianity Now
Andrew Cunning is a final year PhD researcher at Queens University Belfast in Theology and American Literature. He teaches, writes, and talks theology on a regular basis and can be found walking the north coast of Ireland listening to Joni Mitchell songs.
Andrew Cunning

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The coastline is where stuff happens, where land stares out at that which perpetually threatens to swallow it whole, where it can see that which always outmatches it. Water and earth meet and the boundary between them is blurry and constantly shifting. Sand and sea form mud, the kind of mud that will claim a car for hours, the kind of mud that swallows footprints as if you never existed. Sometimes the coast is a site of battle, a vicious fight between a monstrous, rumbling sea and a stoic, stalwartly earth. At other times there is the murmur of an old conversation, continued today and ready to spill into tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow. The moon is a co-conspirator at the edge of things, drawing and pulling, pushing and nudging. I have always wondered if madness was caused by the full moon, ever since my aunt told me most murders happen under its glow. I still don’t understand how the moon controls the tides and I think that’s fine.

I have an almost magical affinity for the coast. Wallace Stevens said that sometimes the truth depends upon a walk around a lake, and he’s almost right. The truth is dependent, for me, on a walk along the cliffs, the beaches and piers that sit at the frontier between land and water. I have often wondered if my love for the coast is because it stands as a huge, living, ever-shifting metaphor. I think that’s part of it. The ocean is, for me, a symbol of the infinite, a blue expanse limited only by the edges of my imagination. Things I never knew I knew emerge from somewhere within me as I stare at the sea. And it’s like coming home. The rupture at the center of things is a little more bearable in the company of the ocean, and the stars make a mockery of petty stresses.

I never want to create something more than when I am walking along the coast. Time is different there too, it slows and widens and without all the buzzes and beeps of my phone I am forced to expect nothing. I often wonder just how many good thoughts I have suppressed simply because I have refused the quality of silence the ocean produces. We kill several hundred future selves each day, usually by making minor decisions: which coffee shop to visit, what toothpaste to buy, what book to read. We will never know the person we would have been had we been more attentive to the silence at the heart of things.  

Nothing worth anything comes from cacophony, and all truly great things emerge out of silence and into stillness.

Religious language sits at a coastline. Good theology acknowledges this. Language about God must be aware that the reality to which it reaches out always threatens to submerge it completely. The utter ineffability of theology’s subject is not served by doctrine, by prescriptive creed, by definition. It is served most faithfully in story, in poetry and in inarticulacy. Ezekiel knew the value of a bizarre, counterintuitive image. He constructed metaphors that existed right at the contours of sense, and this is where the truth lives. I find murmurs of God in the saxophone phrases of John Coltrane, in the childlike voice of Rickie Lee Jones, in the angry, passionate theology of James Cone, and in the subtle, gentle prose of Marilynne Robinson. Grace flows through these individuals, a grace that makes the cloud of utter unknowing bearable. Indeed if the Joni Mitchells and Emily Dickinsons of this world are the price we pay for uncertainty, I’d say it is worth the money twice over. The greatest theologians find in the chaos of not-knowing the raw materials to construct an art that maps the darkness.

We need poetry that is adequate to experience. That is true. But why? Poetry too, reminds us of our precarious situation between land and sea, speech and senselessness, life and death. We are in, as Camus would say, an ‘absurd’ world in which we are all well aware we’re headed toward death, a reality that could strike the next time we cross a road or walk in a lightning storm. Marie Howe once said that poetry holds what cannot be said, and of course she is right. The poet wins assent through recognition, not by argument. And the poem knows all about death and unmeaning, it can tolerate it. Poetry is our best assault on the darkness. Emily Dickinson pierced Being itself with rhyming couplets and put a name on the ineffable in poems scarcely different from lullabies.

So what does a theology that is aware of what eludes it look like? This is a question impossible to answer because it can be answered endlessly. The reality exceeding us represents itself differently in each attempt to express it. The best representations are those that place no limits on what can be said. This is why poetry is our best theological resource. Only there is language self-conscious enough about its own failure of adequacy, and, oddly enough, this self consciousness and this failure are exactly what bring about poetry’s success. Expressions of the divine will fail, always, independent on whether we recognise it or not. It is no wonder we recoil when we hear someone speak in very certain terms about who or what God is, what he (it’s always he, isn’t it?) wants. There is no room for ambiguity in this language yet surely the very nature of the enterprise of theology demands we knit ambiguity into everything we say about God.

The criticism may well be raised that ambiguity is a useless theological resource. How can ambiguity and uncertainty lead to Christlike action or a deep faith in God? Yet the reverse can hardly seen to be desirable. How many anti-Christ things are done under the banner of evangelical certainty? Certainty will always produce behaviour, there’s no doubt. But most often certainty leads to a deafness to otherness, a total and damaging lack of moral nuance, and an incredible reduction of the divine to a list of doctrinal positions.

To return to the coast. Here, again, the framework for a capacious theology equipped with a creative unknowing may be perceived. The ocean is at its most interesting at the coast, where it meets its opposite. We need to reinstate experience as the primary theological source. Just as we experience the ocean from the terra firma of land, we only sense the reality which eclipses our own from the standpoint of our limited experience. It is no good to cast theology as an exercise in excavating reason, tradition, and scripture if we don’t recognise that these three sources are all only available to us in terms of our own experience. Tradition and scripture mean very different things to very different people, by virtue of their own subjective, unique encounter with them. We cannot appeal to the objective reality operating behind our own subjectivity for, even if there was one, how can we ever gain access to it beyond our own limits? We cannot think outside of thought, or speak outside of language, or see beyond sight. Instead we must be content to not know, to allow the tides of experience to ebb and flow, to allow for the unknowable, and to act from our partial experience of grace. We must be patient and allow fragments to wash up on the beach. And in the meantime, watching, waiting, and humbly accepting that the infinite is never entirely comfortable in the finite, we’ll do just fine.