Last week I had the privilege of launching Val Webb’s new book, Like catching water in a net: Human attempts to describe the divine (New York: Continuum, 2007)
Here is some of what I said, telling you what it’s about and some of its strengths.
It’s a strange title: Like catching water in a net: It makes you wonder what is this about?
That’s what the book is about: the wondering about something we can never quite explain.
The sub-title tells you: that it is about human attempts to describe the divine.
That tells you the thesis of the book: as Val puts it herself, p 16: ‘The most important thing to take from this book is that anything we say about God is a metaphor, a construction of language.’
Now actually the book has much more to say to us than that, but it shows us a few things about the approach.
This book, like Val herself, is infused with delight—a lightness of
touch, which allows her to enjoy and celebrate the insights of many
others, a whole world of religious traditions, images, experiences:
from here and here, and there and there.
So this book gathers together the rich results of Val’s own study and
learning from students, from experience, across the continents and
across the traditions.
I would describe this book as a post-modern apologetics: a work of faith explaining itself, to others and to itself.
The book engages with the almost universal phenomenon of faith in something, something for which we too easily use the word GOD.
What is this ‘something else’ which we cannot ignore, yet can never grasp?
Val draws on many sources, trying not to privilege some, or presume the right way to ask or answer the questions.
One of the many strengths of the book is that it does not avoid the
most basic questions: Is there God? There is a powerful chapter, ‘to
be … or not to be’ … which acknowledges that all our images of that
something else might simply not refer, that is, they might be
comforting ideas about something that maybe does not exist.
I loved the chapter about what we call the problem of evil/suffering:
this is posed in terms of the ‘power’ of the one. Here Val draws upon
the insights of what is called Process theology, along with biblical
and other religious thinking, to pose a different approach, one more
credible and more helpful, for modern, scientific people. The idea of
a God who somehow controls everything that happens, even the wretched
and seemingly random suffering of so many innocent ones, is absurd. We
need a better way, and this is offered here, including a better
understanding of divine power.
Sifting through the traditional ideas of theology, Val finds a new
central emphasis: amongst all the religious traditions, the
formlessness of the divine is best understood in terms of Spirit, with
its imagery of breath. Here there is so much in the Jewish and
Christian scriptures to support her thesis, though we have not always
seen it that way.
Systematic Theologians in the Christian stream have, in the last
decades, explored this theme, towards finding a new centre, not so
strongly controlled by ideas of incarnation. But that brings us to two of the most contentious areas with which the
book must deal: ideas which traditional approaches to theology have
defined as central: the place of the Bible, and of Jesus.
There is a very helpful discussion of Biblical texts, ideas of how they
developed, and what we might mean by ‘authority’. This chapter alone
will be worth the price, for many readers searching for a fresh
approach to the faith of our forbears.
The chapter on the place of Jesus: who we can reasonably say he was, or
is, sets our author squarely amongst those who call themselves the
progressive Christians of our time. ‘A new Christianity is evolving,
she says, uncovering the human Jesus so long buried under centuries of
dogma that celebrated only the supernatural virgin births, miracles,
and a bodily resurrection as evidence of the Divine with us.’p206
The book then finishes with the question, ‘What is truth?’ — Pilate’s
question to Jesus, left unanswered, then and now. Val finds that she
believes more in the journey and the questions, than any specific set
of images or answers to this question (p226). The question remains: but
not in a way that disallows faith. Rather, she affirms, (p208), ‘We can
be totally committed to our ‘truths’ about GOD while still recognizing
that any human grasp on truth is relative.’
I hope that I have already shown you some of the rich values of the book:
First of all they are the qualities of the person: inviting, probing,
expansive, informing, respectful of diversity, experience, the journey
of life: in relationship. The book itself is dedicated to her life
companion, Maurice, and her family. But more than that, it grows from,
and reaches out for, student relationships, that living and growing
together, which just is Val Webb.
Secondly, the book is infused, throughout, with a great question: what
can we say about this ‘something other’, this presence, this breath of
life, this … GOD. And importantly, this question is presented and
experienced not as a demand: take it or leave it: or see this, believe
this: — rather, this is an invitation to conversation. The divine
invitation is here expressed, in an invitation to human conversation,
even though it is like catching water in a net.
Some of us may wish to say that there is more to the other side of the
conversation than this book suggests. Some of us may want more, or
something different, about each of these topics: the Bible, Jesus, the
power of God. But there is room for that, for us all: room for more
human attempts to describe the divine.
For me the big, theological question remains: is there room for divine attempts to disclose the divine? I would like to think so. For me, this is not only a human conversation, attempting to name the divine. There is also a conversation with the divine, and indeed, the question of which Val speaks is, in my understanding, sometimes posed by the divine.