Edited by Jennifer Strawbridge, Jarred Mercer, and Peter Groves SCM Press. Pp. 192. £12.99
Theology is at once a making sense and a making strange. On the one hand, it seeks to elucidate the content of the Christian faith — to clarify terms, to make doctrinal connections, to draw moral implications — for the sake of rightly orienting ourselves to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, theology is a disruptive and often disorienting enterprise, challenging some of our most basic presuppositions and firmly held beliefs and often making our speech about God more, rather than less, difficult.
This business of making strange is especially urgent in contexts already saturated with the stories and symbols of Christianity. Here the gospel is all too easily domesticated, taken for granted, and often employed in the service of other ideological agendas. In such contexts, theology performs an iconoclastic ministry, dismantling the familiar gods of popular imagining in adoration and obedience to the far stranger God of the Christian gospel.
Love Makes No Sense is in many ways a panegyric to the oddity of Christian faith and practice. As the title suggests, it provides an introduction to Christian theology through an exploration of the theme of love. “The love of God is ludicrous,” writes Peter Groves in the book’s opening chapter. It is “irrational, unconditional, offensive even” (p. 5). It is this love (which God is) that constitutes “the real absurdity of Christianity” (p. 11).
Written by a group of priests associated with the recently launched St. Mary Magdalen School of Theology in Oxford, Love Makes No Sense explores this absurdity through traditional loci theologici: God, the Creation, the Incarnation, and so forth (the lack of a standalone chapter on eschatology is a surprising and unfortunate omission). The doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, names “the dynamic relationship and outpouring of love” at the foundation of the Christian life (p. 21). The person of Jesus Christ is the love of God translated into human life: “Jesus Christ is perfect divine love present in our world. He is love personified” (p. 55). The whole purpose of reading Scripture is “to grow in our understanding of God and God’s love” (p. 122). In chapter after chapter, the authors arrive afresh at Julian of Norwich’s sublime discovery: Love is our Lord’s meaning. And love, we are continually reminded, makes no sense.
Despite the book’s title (and perhaps some rhetorical overreliance upon Christianity’s “absurdity”), the authors do not forgo the necessary work of making sense along the way to making strange. With clarity and intellectual rigor, they illumine a vast terrain of theological material, offering fresh insight into a number of classical Christian teachings.
In his treatment of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, Jarred Mercer thoughtfully and constructively explores the implications of Christ’s exalted state. According to Mercer, the Ascension is not only the grounds for our future hope. It is the exaltation of “every aspect of human life” into God’s loving embrace and the cascading of Christ’s resurrected life (“that life of love, forgiveness, restoration and wholeness”) into Christ’s body, the Church (pp. 95-96).
Jonathan Jong’s treatment of the doctrine of Creation likewise offers a compelling articulation of the sheer gratuity of God’s creative work. Whereas creatures exist in “complex relationships of interdependence,” creation is utterly dependent upon God (p. 35). God, on the other hand, is in no way dependent upon his creatures; he gains nothing from his creation that he does not always–already possess in himself. God calls creation into existence, therefore, not from a place of lack, but out of the overflow of boundless love. “The chief end of creation, then, is indeed to glorify and enjoy God, but this is true because God glories in our enjoyment of this love that creates and sustains and saves us” (p. 33).
In a few places, a deference for mystery prevents the authors from risking explanations that might assist the reader’s understanding of a given theological topic. In her chapter on the sacraments, for instance, Melanie Marshall largely passes over questions about the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, insisting, “We are called to enter into mysteries and to allow them to examine and make sense of us, not the other way round” (p. 112).
Peter Groves’s chapter on “Redemption and the Cross” likewise refrains from considering biblical and traditional models and metaphors for understanding the Atonement (though brief attention is given to the Son as sacrifice), employing instead a largely aesthetic treatment of the cross as the manifestation of self-giving love and sacrifice.
Despite such omissions, Love Makes No Sense succeeds admirably as “An Invitation to Christian Theology,” providing an approachable, lively, and edifying point of entry into the faith and practices of Christianity and orienting the reader continually to the disorienting love of God.
The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is Tutor in Residence and Tutor of Theology at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff, Wales)