Theology of Culture and the “Breaking of Descriptions”

In appreciation of recent posts by Michael Ward, Robert MacSwain and Ann Loades, all highlighting the work of Austin Farrer (1904-1968), my aim is to offer a few brief comments concerning the importance of Farrer for current discussions in theology and culture, more specifically the role of the imagination for understanding the Christian doctrine of revelation.

One way to underscore Farrer’s contribution is to contrast his imaginative approach with a notable theologian of culture, Paul Tillich (1886-1965).  Although a potentially odd pair to bring forward, Tillich and Farrer have been matched together in other contexts, as well.  For instance, James McClendon’s work in the early 1960s placed Tillich and Farrer among the all-star roster of modern thinkers, as did Julian Hartt and William Wilson in their essay “Farrer’s Theodicy.”[1]  In a more recent work, Brian Hebblethwaite makes a brief comparison of Tillich and Farrer concerning the concept of providence.[2]

Both Tillich and Farrer used similar metaphors, not without varying implications, to describe the way in which humanity receives and describes revelation.  Tillich’s language for revelation was dominated by the “breakthrough,”[3] but whereas Tillich emphasized the “shaking” and “transformation” of “conditioned forms,” as well as holding to a peculiar disdain for the supernatural in order to preserve the natural,[4] Farrer did not shy away from talk of the supernatural, as pointed out by Ward, which, in my mind, makes Farrer’s approach towards revelation more appealing within the theology-culture conversation.  Where Tillich tended to collapse the supernatural into the natural, one of Farrer’s strengths included his unwillingness to dichotomize in the modern debates regarding natural and supernatural or faith and reason.[5]  He saw the tension due to overlap and witnessed the one working through the other.

Farrer emphasized, as Douglas Hedley has observed, “double agency – certain acts which are at once authentically human and yet the channels of divine influence.”[6]  Farrer saw the vocation of the metaphysician as continuing in the modifying of analogies or what he called the “breaking of descriptions.”[7]  Farrer explains that “by continually breaking and bettering and breaking his descriptions the metaphysician refines his understanding of that which he tries to describe.”[8]  (One of the reasons why MacSwain is correct in drawing attention to the work of David Brown is precisely this point – Brown goes beyond asking what the metaphysician does and shows through the Christian tradition where the images break, modify and enliven, as well as showing why these shifts were and are either flawed or fruitful).

In their own unique ways, both Tillich and Farrer are examples of offering “a hermeneutic; or interpretation, which takes up both the forms of aesthetics and the content of knowledge, and holds them in tension, not discarding either too quickly,”[9] but where Tillich has been a dominant voice in the modern discussions of theology and culture, contemporary voices may find a rich and strongly appealing resource in Farrer.

Timothy Allen and his family reside in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is writing his PhD dissertation under the supervision of Professor David Brown.  Currently, Tim’s research focuses on the dialogue between theology and popular culture – more precisely, on the role of the imagination in theological constructions of the doctrine of heaven.

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[1]  James William McClendon, Pacemakers of Christian Thought (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1962). Also see Hartt and Wilson’s essay in David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson, eds., Captured by the Crucified:  The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer (New York: T&T Clark, 2004).
[2]  Brian Hebblewaithe, The Philosophical Theology of Austin Farrer, Studies in Philosophical Theology (Leuven:  Peeters, 2007), 43.
[3]  Paul Tillich, On the Boundary:  An Autobiographical Sketch (London: Collins, 1967), 28.
[4]  A. James Reimer, Paul Tillich: Theologian of Nature, Culture, and Politics (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2004), 182.
[5]  Hein & Henderson, eds., Captured by the Crucified:  The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer, 100-101.
[6]  Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination (London: T&T Clark, 2008). 7.
[7]  Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision, Bampton Lectures (Glasgow: Robert MacLehose & Company Limited The University Press, Glasgow, 1948). 68.
[8]  Ibid.
[9]  Robert Detweiler & David Jasper, eds., Religion and Literature:  A Reader (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), xiv.

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