We asked Jarred Mercer, co-author, along with Jenn Strawbridge and Peter Groves, of Love Makes No Sense: An Invitation to Christian Theology, to tell us more about the book
Tell us about the aims of the book
The main aim of the book is primarily to do what it says on the tin: invite people into Christian theology. We want the Church at large, and not just scholars and professionals, to be engaged in the conversation. And this begins with initiation—with the gift of a foundation. We hope this book can be a springboard for the Christian imagination and a bedrock for people to build upon with a lifetime of doing theology.
I think at this point it is important to say something about what we mean by doing theology. The invitation is not for people to become scholastics weighing the finer points of doctrine and starting theological debate clubs, but an invitation to cultivate a life of the mind that is also the life of the heart; to think toward God in such a way as to move in God’s direction. The aim is not to answer theological questions or help someone ace a seminary exam, but to draw people into the depths of God’s love through an exploration of what that love might look like—of how that love has been received and cultivated in the Christian faith.
And so it is an introduction, we hope, not primarily of concepts or ideas, but introduction by way of invitation: introducing people into thinking theologically, thinking faithfully. For some this is an invitation into something new and wonderful, for others who are more seasoned in the faith, something warm and familiar, in either case we want to offer a way deeper into the conversation, deeper into this transformative ‘thinking toward God’.
What motivated you and your fellow authors to write it?
We all find ourselves in one way or another between the two worlds of academia and the Church, and in these two worlds you can generally find certain things as appropriate points of discourse and others sworn off as only seen fit for the ‘other world’.
This disconnect of ‘academic theology’ (the impractical university stuff) and ‘practical theology’ (the useful Church stuff), while historically having a fairly traceable story, theologically is tiresome, inexplicable, and quite frankly often forced or pressured by those involved in the separate worlds.
We simply think it is time to stop putting the pressure on—to step out of the pretence of the academic and ecclesial theological cold war and bring rigorous, up-to-date, faithful scholarship to bear on the real lives of people (including our own, of course).
This is not something grand and new. In fact, it is extremely traditional and old-fashioned. Theologians down through the centuries have found themselves not only at critical points of intellectual precision, but crucial moments of proclamation: God is love, and God is here—right here, right now, wherever the here and now might be.
This is in no way to deride theological thinking in universities (which, again, most of us are directly part of and we all find extremely important, and in fact, people are often surprised to find that many in academia want their thinking to be done in service to the Church and the struggle is often not academia pushing the Church out but the other way around), it is rather to say that theology is a lived, practised reality—something performed.
And it is performed in the lives of people; in the life of the Church for the benefit of all. Theology is something alive, a lived phenomenon in the community of faith, which theologians then seek to flesh out. Christians pray, worship, care for those in need, liberate the oppressed, share the good news of Jesus, celebrate the sacraments, and theology begins there, from the phenomenon of a lived community and then works to offer a framework of what it all means.
And we begin, primarily of course, with the presence of God among us in Christ: How are we to make sense of the reality of Emmanuel—God is with us—in our world? So the book begins from this practised, lived, reality of Christian faith and attempts to encourage it forward.
This is really a start to an answer to the questions of why the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology was formed in the first place, and we wanted to write this book in particular to lay a foundation. There is absolutely no claim to ingenuity or genius, but to, we hope, faithful theology as proclamation—presenting the faith of the Church as received down through the centuries and today in a way that is elevated by content and the depth and weight of thinking toward God, but not elevated so as to be inaccessible to non-specialists.
This doesn’t mean it will be a particularly easy read for those exploring the Christian faith, or who are Christians who have not studied theology themselves before. It should be challenging, but a challenge to our lives and minds toward transformation. It is marked as an ‘invitation’ to theology, because it is not meant to provide answers or ‘solve’ the great questions about God, ourselves, and the world around us, but to invite people into the great conversation. We hope the reader will indeed feel warmly welcomed.
Can you explain the book’s unusual title for us?
The title Love Makes No Sense: An Invitation to Christian Theology tries to make two points about theology. One of which I’ve talked about above—the reader is invited to join in on the task of thinking and moving toward God. The other is the sheer senselessness of God’s love.
Christians do not have a preconceived notion of who God is, really. There is no sense of ‘God-ness’ which can be defined in the abstract. Instead, we have a God who shows up; a God who comes among us in a person and shows us what God is like. Christians then look to Jesus to see who God is—what divine love, power, grace, and mercy really look like. But the vision of God we get when looking to Christ is extraordinary—shocking, even.
God’s power does not look like ours. God’s love does not have boundaries like ours. God’s glory does not show itself in prestige and extravagance but in brokenness and the depths of human weakness and suffering. In Christ we see that the whole world as we know it, the very logic of the universe as we perceive it, is entirely subverted, and to be honest makes absolutely no sense. Beauty is not shown in poverty and brokenness, power is not demonstrated through weakness, life does not come from death—this is simply not the way the world works! But with God in Christ, well, it does.
Christian theology reshapes our vision of the world, our faith gives us an entirely new framework for how the world works. God’s love, displayed most fully in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is shown to be entirely upside down and senseless according to everything we think we know about the world (it is foolishness according to 1 Corinthians 1.18). God’s love is absurd, quite literally. It breaks open the borders of our logic, and this is the love into which we are invited.
And theology only can begin to ‘make sense’ when we realise that God’s love is not something we can make sense of; it is not something to be comprehended or figured out, but something to be welcomed into. It is the place where we find ourselves and our world made whole.
You mentioned the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology – can you tell us more about that?
The St Mary Magdalen School of Theology has a few main avenues to carry out its mission ‘to provide people . . . with the theological resources for an active Christian life’. One is the publication of books, and we have a few more in the pipeline now. One being a follow-up on this book.
Whereas Love Makes No Sense seeks to provide an introduction to the core doctrines of Christianity (Trinity, Scripture, Incarnation, and so on), the follow-up will be more of an introduction/invitation to core practices of Christianity (prayer, worship, mission, and the like). And we have a few others in the queue as well (and individuals involved in the School are of course also writing books of their own—details of which are on the website).
Another main avenue is the website (https://www.theschooloftheology.org/), which regularly has new content, primarily brief articles on aspects of theology, book reviews and recommendations for further study, and some teaching aids and materials for individuals and discussion groups (such as our ‘Christianity the Basics’ course). We hope that the books and web material can be useful both for individuals and for catechetical purposes in churches.
And the third main avenue is providing study days and conferences, such as the day conference this past June on the subject of catechesis (teaching the faith) run jointly with the American organisation ‘Living Church’. So for now we will continue to build up these areas of our work: writing through book publications and the website and offering study days and conferences. For the latter, people are welcome to contact us if they would like to host something.
Dr Jarred Mercer is Associate Chaplain and Career Development Researcher at Merton College, Oxford