I looked out on the sunset

by Andrew Pratt.

I looked out on the sunset. The sky, deep red, but fading, could not be captured by a camera’s lens, held for eternity. I mused. Different wavelengths of light refracted by the atmosphere, received by a retina, passing through a tangle of neurones, conducted by chemical and physiological interactions, perceived by something we might label consciousness. And is this all? Later I played with water colours, fluid, wet on wet, running into one another out of control, unpredictable. This was nearer to what I believed I saw. But this did not explain or make sense of it. And a realisation rose rather than forced itself on me of something ‘other’. Call that conversion if you will. It was a glimpse of the ‘other’, I will go on calling it that for want of anything better, that changed the direction of my life. Marcus Borg spoke of the light that glances into our lives rendering significance which, he felt, was something of the shared experience of the mystics. And it began an exploration that could never be complete, a pilgrimage that could never achieve its destination. I was seeking understanding of experience, trying to make sense of all that life opened up to me of joy and elation, of pain and sorrow, of love and anger, of all that is. This would encompass all of existence, birth and death and all that lay between, but also beyond, before and after. This was immanence and yet transcendence. If anything this was love.

The problem, the danger of such exploration, is that we categorise and constrain. We seek to fit into boxes an understanding greater than our human capacity can grasp. We organise it, then call it faith. And when it breaks the bounds we have set for it we say that we have lost it. Really all that has happened is that we have discovered the truth that you cannot hold or constrain that which is boundless. Neither do we have language to express the inexpressible. Yet that is what theology is often reduced to.

My early theological training was dominated by systems in which concepts and doctrines were organised. Any challenge to that organisation was viewed as dangerous, even heresy. But you can only organise things you understand and understanding suggests power, control and knowledge. By definition a total understanding and knowledge of God is a contradiction in terms. In the book Thirteen Moons, the author, a native American, ponders:

Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.[1]

I have pondered on this. So often this is what our systems of theology have done. Poetic imagination fired the prophets to enable change, to allow the understanding of God to develop, evolve. Poetry has more freedom than prose. Hymns have so often reversed that process, pinned down our theology, closed it to speculation or changing context. Sydney Carter saw folk music as owned by the singers, generation to generation – a sort of sung liberation theology, always changing.

But I return to art. A few years ago the, then, youngest member of our family was taken to Tate Modern. She reported back on the experience, ‘It was weird!’ So called modern art isn’t always easy ‘to get’. And that’s it, I think. Theology is trying ‘to get’ what is beyond our human capacity to understand, or express. Mark Rothko painted massive, single colour panels. To many they mean nothing. Others report a profound sense of the other when they view them. If ‘the other’ is such as I have suggested, perhaps these are honest admissions and, as such offer that glimpse that mystics seek, and a representation beyond words or understanding of that which we seek.

This is not to deny the validity of theology, but to recognise that theologians need to draw on the  widest possible range of disciplines. These should include, but not be limited to, scriptures, languages, art, science, poetry, philosophy, music. Even then we need the honesty to admit that any theology that we elaborate can never, ever be more than a very crude approximation of the subject we are seeking to address. The quest must be open ended, never closed down, never dogmatic.

[1] Frazier, C., Thirteen Moons, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, p 21

8 thoughts on “I looked out on the sunset”

  1. Thank you Andrew, I believe you have offered us an open door to the eternity and infinity that is God, to know that we need not know anything, and our understanding may be fleeting, yet we are held by an immensity of a love we cannot explain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lots of resonance here. Love the analogy with the rattleskin….I’ve often thought of it as being Victorian butterfly collectors where we pin things to a board and lose the fluidity and grace that makes us pursue them in the first place. And having made a similar journey with modern art, I remember being surprised how moved I was to sit in the Rothko room (having previously thought that any child could produce similar paintings). Thank you


  3. Thank you Andrew, the time I reflect deeply is when I am looking at the beautiful sunset.
    The variety of colours which which I see make think of God’s artistic ways which even the best artist can never produce. I am always thinking if God can do such beautiful thing like a sunset he can also do beautiful thing with my messed up life if only I can let them.
    Last week one day there was a beautiful sunset that I took photographs of it but what I have in my mobile is nothing near what I saw. I could not help but worship God.


  4. I understand the attraction of glimpses of the “other” that, as Sally says, opens the door to the eternity and infinity that is God. I could even call this love, and I do try to paint these glimpses. I could even call this love. But if we are trying to understand the theological significance of these glimpses then surely we have to turn to ethics. For me theology is ethics and beautiful sunsets are of no consequence if we have no love for each other – no ethical concern for the homeless, the cold, the hungry person living in pain or suffering. In what sense does it help a homeless, hungry person living in pain or suffering if they saw a beautiful sunset? Is a blind person excluded from the love of God?
    I am deeply uneasy about theology that reveres contemplation, the glimpses of eternity, the personal experience. Too often this becomes a matter of individualistic self-concern that attempts to categories people through these experiences. Religion then becomes a competition with individuals saying, or thinking, “my experience of the numinous is better than your experience of the numinous” and, even worse, identifying the sunset or pretty flower as God. However wonderful such experiences are do they really bring us nearer to God?
    The usual response I get to these ideas is that theology should be both contemplative and ethical, but I am not convinced of that. Yes, I can gaze in wonder at a sunset, but God is Love and therefore in the relationship with others, and given that I affirm that all that matters in life is ethics – to love and to be loved.


    1. Robert Bridge Thank you Robert. Two swift, brief responses. Ethics is another field that ought to inform our theology and ought to be a significant component in our theology.
      Secondly, and I suppose, in somewhat defensive mode. When I was writing for this item my word limit was 750 words and what I wrote was personal. The consequence of the personal experience was that within months, for ethical reasons, I decided not to proceed from a MSc onto a PhD. I then for similar reasons had to reconsider what to do next. I opted to train as a science teacher on the grounds that I had the training and this would prevent me from ‘throwing away’ all my previous studies. It would also broaden my interest and understanding more widely. As you say, I think, ethics can, perhaps ought to be, a guiding and motivating force for our lives but the spur for me was the ‘revelation’ that there was more to life than my scientific worldview has so far encompassed. Thank you again.


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