Smells, Bells, and Analytic Theology

Last night I attended one of those exquisitely Oxonian affairs. Amid the many beautiful minds, beautifully attired, I fell into conversation with a theologian. Having already been outed as an analytic, I was asked from which of the host’s social circles I hailed. Her church, I replied. ‘Analytic theology and Mary Mag’s – how do they fit together?’

Though particular in form the question was general in force. Why should anyone keen on explicitly articulating propositions also be drawn towards bodily and sacramental worship? Aren’t propositions more of an Aldate’s – that is, an evangelical – thing? Bill has stressed several times that Oriel theology is not confessional, and it’s worth continuing to do so. Yet it is also worth tackling last night’s question on here, because, as Brendan noted early on, many of our bloggers are indeed high Anglicans of some description.

A flatfooted response might be to affirm some more propositions: that sacramentality is a necessary condition of properly Christian worship; that as we are saved not only through Christ’s mind but also his body, so too are we saved through our bodies and not just our minds; that incense smells good, etc. But the issue is not one of outright consistency, more of temperament. It takes a certain kind of temperament to devote oneself to an activity so hyper-cognitive as analytic philosophy, and such a temperament should find a thoroughly cognitive style of faith to be congenial.

Indeed, when I sing, as I do rather often, Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour I omit the ‘we ask not how’ after ‘Thou art here’. Conversely, sometimes I am overcome with intellectual frustration at work, and cycle off to salve the mind’s sores kneeling in the darkness of St. Margaret’s Binsey. So I do feel tension – but that is because I am pulled in different directions.

How do I resolve this tension, at least at the theoretical level? I would appeal to the body of Christ. In the first instance, and as I hinted above, Christ is possessed of a whole human nature, body and soul. Christ assumed, and so sanctified, all the natural human faculties. That includes the reason, and (if we’re being fine-grained about it) the powers of judgement that furnish analytics with our precious intuitions. But it also includes the imagination that is nourished by the metaphorical language of liturgy, the musical faculty that delights in counterpoint, and the humble sense of smell so pleased by incense. So it’s quite all right for me to pace around the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter articulating my arguments ever more explicitly, but without some respite from my cogitation, without some exercise of the other powers of my nature, I will surely wither; certainly I will fall far short of the glory of incarnate God. So I am properly pulled away from exact analytic speculation to sacramental and bodily worship.

Yet it is also proper for me to go from such worship back to analytic speculation. As I have noted, the reason itself is a sanctified faculty. But more than this, every member of the Body of Christ has some function in the life of the whole. (Part of) my function is theory building. I have a particular aptitude for exact speculation. The Church needs exact speculators to make sense of its own teaching – no less, certainly, than it needs people who can be trusted to swing buckets of fire over their own heads (a spiritual gift of which I stand in considerable awe).

My tension, then, is no more than the tension of a fallen human being in a fallen community. In perfected human nature all our faculties are integrated and harmonised, and a perfected Christian community would reflect within itself such a harmony. But we are not now what we shall be when we see his perfected human nature with our own eyes. Until the eschaton, then, there’s always going to be something slightly odd about moving from sanctuary to seminar room. The oddness is a reminder, trivial as it may be, of the need and hope of redemption.

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