My all-time favourite piece of theological reflection comes not from a book, nor from a film, nor from a television programme, nor from any sermon or meditation I might have heard. Instead, it comes from a poster I first saw on the door of the room of a fellow theological student in the mid-1980s.
Many variants of the poster can now be found online, but none for me would have the impact of that first reading of the lines when walking down the college corridor one afternoon:
Jesus said unto them: Who do you say that I am?
And they replied: ‘You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationship.’
And Jesus said: ‘What?’
I have never stopped to consider the content of the answer that was given to Jesus’ question. The answer may be coherent, but it does seem to contain some unlikely combinations of terms. However, not having read any theology for some time, I have to say I don’t know whether it makes sense.
It is Jesus’ answer that always makes me smile. It is a contemporary equivalent of the short answers he would sometimes have given in the Gospel stories to those who confronted him with theological challenges. It is the sort of answer that could be disarming to someone who set out to impress with their words. How would you recover after Jesus said “what?” in response to your attempt at sounding learned and at being profound?
The poster probably expressed the feelings that many of us felt as we struggled to cope with academic theology. There was one writer whose work was so difficult to understand that I started counting how many words were in each sentence. I remember there were one hundred and fifty-six words in one sentence, more than a few of which I did not understand.
At school we were taught not to commence when we could begin and not to begin when we could start, it seemed a wise piece of advice. There seemed little point in clouding communication or causing confusion.
I remember once being told at a communications conference that The Sun newspaper had a working vocabulary of around nine hundred words which journalists were expected to use in imaginative and inventive ways.
Trying to write a paper on ontology and epistemology, I wondered how Jesus would have defined them.
And lo, Jesus did not simply say “What?” His whole answer was; “What part of your reply isn’t a pretentious word salad?”
Yea, so it is written.
Their answer would depend on whether they had understood what they had said in the first place.