Did you ever have a first love that you couldn’t leave behind? Whatever new friends you made, you just wanted that connection so much, even though it was hard to figure out what it was all about, exactly? Theo and I are like that.
We formally got together in January of 2000. I’d travelled 1200 kilometres from Christchurch to St John’s Theological College and the University of Auckland. It was pretty much love at first lecture, a liberating experience for someone who’d grown up within a strait-laced bible believing Baptist congregation. I hadn’t stayed in that environment but our earliest experiences become embedded so it’s hard to deconstruct them on your own.
Studying theology in an academic setting was like being in a nuclear blast. That entire literalistic burden was torn apart by intense light, colour and sound. Awareness dawned with the terrifying realisation that I couldn’t unknow new understandings. Some call it losing faith by degrees. I call it liberation.
In a few days, I’m going back. This time it’s half the distance and instead of three years, I’ll be at St John’s for a week’s intensive on a post-graduate chaplaincy programme with the University of Otago. Nevertheless, my friend, a retired Anglican priest of 40 or so years is concerned about the manipulation of theology by the church. He wonders if I’m returning like a wounded victim to the place of pain.
He’s right to be concerned but it wasn’t theology that hurt. Theo has always inspired, energised and delighted me, drawing me on into the passionate dance of ideas like any intense love has the capacity to do. However, when a religion or church decides that there are particular ways to understand Theo and shuts down alternative ways of being in relationship, hurt can happen. The unthinking application of dogma and doctrine can be like domestic violence when people are locked into a repetitive cycle of pain.
After 14 years as an Anglican priest in chaplaincy, struggling theologically with the church hierarchy had taken its toll. I’d decided to leave Theo and pick up study in the therapeutic world. University place offered, some funding secured and yet I felt strangely empty, as though I was in some casual relationship that would go nowhere.
At the same time, I’d been reviewing a book about the Trinity for a Catholic magazine. I only had 400 words, so to make every last one of them count I had to immerse myself in the text. Dangerous. There was Theo, leaning back, smoking in defiance of any and all health warnings and smiling, just smiling. ‘You still love me, don’t ya?’
Because I spend my working life with sick, vulnerable people who are often facing the grim realities of existence, I’m always conscious of the importance of giving value to that which brings life. By that, I mean paying attention to wise choices about what will help make meaning in my life and consequently give me the ability to contribute richly to the lives of others. Being hooked up with Theo does that for me, so I’m going back, not to repeat the past but so that we can be creative about the future.
I’ve chosen this image because of the sheer delight it encompasses, similar to the joy I felt when first reading Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. May this new theological journey of mine be as enriching as the first.
A note made in January 2018. Sadly, this was not the enriching journey that I thought it would be. But it taught me something about going back and reviewing the terrain. A first love or even second is not always as one remembers it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile the first time around. It was, indeed it was the thing that enlivened me and opened me up to more. But I’m different now and I realise my friend was right!