The whole of Christian doctrine, 140 characters at a time

On gendered pronouns

A couple of people have tweeted about my use of pronouns in the Twystematics. This is an explanation, not a justification.

English lacks a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun. This is not news.

In writing, I take the view – accepted by almost everyone today – that the older practice of using male pronouns as generic is no longer acceptable; I will resort to a singular ‘they’ sometimes (now allowed by the OED…); more often I will switch between male and female pronouns with some deliberate attempt at balance.

In referring to God, in historical writing I tend to re-cast sentences so as to avoid any need for pronouns referring to God (my Baptist Theology contains none, for instance); in doing theology proper, where God is the subject of almost every sentence, I find this impossible. I have here adopted the old practice of capitalised male pronouns; I do not think that this is a good answer to how to refer adequately to God in contemporary English; I do think it might be the least bad answer.

(‘Godself’ and similar are OK, if ugly, until one tries to write extensively on the Trinity; ‘Fatherself; Sonself; Spiritself’? No.)

Others will think other answers are better. Probably in ten years’ time I will – and anyway contemporary idiom will have shifted slightly again. For now, this is my best attempt to negotiate the problems.

Form and mood

Before I went public on this idea, I had the first hundred or so tweets written in draft. I wanted to be sure I could do it before telling people I would…

I wrote the first fifty-odd draft tweets in a splurge, and then went back to them a couple of weeks later. I made minor adjustments to content, inevitably, but the thing that struck me the most was the mood of the posts. Reducing everything to one sentence had made the account of theology sound terse, austere even; there was no sense of joy or worship, which (for me) are realities that are inseparable from worthwhile theology.

Some adjustments and additions have at least lessened this problem, but it did make me think that the form I am adopting will inevitably affect the mood of the theology I propose. I don’t think this is a serious weakness: it will be true for every attempt to propose a theology, and by being very explicit about form I am at least bringing the issue to the foreground, where it has to be remembered.

On theological styles

Having played with this idea, and begun the writing, I find myself feeling that, of all the summaries of Christian doctrine I know, I am coming closest in style to the Ramist-influenced Reformed scholastic theologies of the early seventeenth-century – perhaps particularly Ames’s Medulla. Ames (and with him Wollebius and others) adopted a terse, single sentence style, of course, and so this is probably an inevitable result of using Twitter. I also respect these theologians greatly, however.

A more discursive style – that of a Calvin or Barth – allows the use of rhetorical force, the ability to communicate mood or emotion as well as proposition. Barth and Calvin were alike masters at this, and not a little of the power of their theology comes from the rhetoric. In each case, however, there is an astonishingly clear logical presentation underlying the rhetorical appeal.

I’ve not made it a secret that I am concerned that contemporary theology is often rather too close to ‘mood music’ – conveying feeling without doing the hard logical work underneath. Adopting a form the forces me to say what I think without room for rhetorical flourish is, therefore, a discipline calculated to help me avoid (what I see to be) the most serious current pitfall in theology.