20 July 2013

Current research interests

I started writing this blog entry about a week ago. When I started, the idea was to say something about my current theological research interests and writing projects. The point of the exercise was to make me focus. Otherwise, I am liable to flit like a butterfly from one interesting subject to another without stopping to do anything worthwhile.

Here’s the list I started with:

  • Franciscan spirituality
  • Environmental theology
  • Relational understandings of the Trinity
  • Duns Scotus
  • Physical science and theology
  • Violence and religion
Faced with that list, I had to admit to myself that I no longer have the energy and I certainly don’t have the time to pursue more than half a dozen parallel lines of research. I need to concentrate my energies on just one. And that one has to be Franciscan spirituality, partly because the Franciscan movement has been an important part of my life for over twenty years and partly because a project on Franciscan spirituality (and the associated theology) should also embrace significant aspects of most of my other interests.

A lot has been written on Francis and the Franciscans in recent years (and the new Pope’s adoption of the name Francis I means there is likely to be no let up in such publications), so why waste time going over such well-trodden territory? What (I hope) will make my contribution distinctive are the following:
  • a focus on the relevance of Franciscan spirituality for Christian life in a postmodern culture;
  • and a recognition that the Franciscan movement is much bigger than Francis (or even Francis and Clare); so I shall be paying more attention to some of the later shapers of Franciscan thought, prayer and action.

And just how will I work my other interests into a project on Franciscan spirituality?
  • Environmental theology: I began my theological research here, and it was my interest in this that first led to me exploring the Franciscan movement. In fact, it is almost a cliché to associate Francis and Franciscans with environmental concern. I need to revise my early research and publications, which were strongly informed by a stewardship/earthkeeping ethic, in light of the deep sense of relatedness to the rest of creation that one finds in Francis (and to a lesser extent the early Franciscans).
  • Relational view of the Trinity (sometimes misleadingly called the social view of the Trinity): Thanks to Colin Gunton, this approach to the Trinity underpinned my original research on environmental theology. Since Colin’s death it seems to have become rather unfashionable in British theology, which I think is a pity. As for connecting it with Franciscan spirituality, Franciscan approaches to spirituality have usually been strongly Trinitarian, and somehow a relational approach seems more appropriate in this context. (There is also the fact that Colin thought that the theology of Duns Scotus had important things to say regarding both the Trinity and creation.)
  • Duns Scotus: Since I want to broaden my approach to Franciscan spirituality beyond the usual tight focus on Francis and Clare, the most significant theologian of the Franciscan movement seems a natural person to get to know better.
  • Science and theology: Another perennial interest of mine. And how does it relate to Franciscan spirituality? I think it is very significant that it was the Franciscans who were largely responsible for the explosion of interest in natural philosophy in the thirteenth century. More specifically, it has sometimes been suggested that Duns Scotus’s approach to metaphysics played an important role in laying the foundations for the development of modern Western science.
  • Violence and religion: Another of my long-standing concerns has been the perversion of religion into abusive and violent forms. This is the very antithesis of the Franciscan ethos: Franciscans are called to be peacemakers. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture that seems to be wedded to the myth of redemptive violence? And how do we make peace across ethnic and religious divides when the powers that be in our own societies are bent on responding with violence (e.g. the ‘war on terror’)?

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