Midweek Musing: Exploring Glory

Earlier this month, I attended a conference called 'Exploring the Glory of God.' This sort of topic is generally favoured by theologians, the scholars who think and write and talk about the character of God, the nature of humanity, creation, etc. They're usually conversations that focus in too tight on the details for someone like me who prefers big pictures, ideas, mystery. So it was a little surprising to me, in anticipation and in the moment - and still is afterwards - that I signed up for such a conference, and as a presenter, what's more.

Actually, it was the idea for a presentation that got me interested in going to this conference. OK, that, and the fact that it was to be held in Durham, England, where my dear friend Ross lives, so it would be a good chance to go and spend time with him, too.

I had preached a sermon not long before the call for papers was sent around, in which I had reflected on the Great Command (Love God, love neighbour - Deuteronomy 6, Mark 12) in light of Paul's exhortations to love and honour each other in his letter to Rome. When the Deuteronomy and Mark portions came up on the lectionary for a week of pulpit supply while I was immersed in preparations for performing Romans, it was inevitable that I would read them through a Pauline lens. What the exercise did was to help me to reconnect with the idea and language of glory, which feels to me more often than not hollow and without meaning. As there was an arts stream for the conference, I submitted my proposal for a paper that explored glory through performance, and it was accepted. So I went.

I decided that the conference at large would be an opportunity to connect with colleagues beyond my narrower usual world of Biblical studies. It would also provide me with a chance to learn more about glory, as I engaged with theology - systematic, historical, practical and biblical - more intentionally than I ordinarily would. (Andrew Dutney, I hope this makes you happy - I remember my principal's lament many years ago now, at my dislike for theology, and his encouragement that 'systematic theology is your friend.')

So, who did I meet, and what did I learn, in Durham this July?

David Ford introduced me to John's gospel as a potential performance piece. I know others perform John, and I have performed small portions of John's letters, but after conversation with him, and David's keynote talk, I am inspired to one day embark on my own performance interpretation of John's gospel. As a poet and storyteller, I anticipate a rich experience. David also pointed me to two books I look forward to reading: Jarner's commentary John and the Poets, and Davis's poetic commentary of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (this one first, as I perform part of the Song for our epic telling for the Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers next month).

Catherine Fox was the other presenter in my session, and she talked of her innovative blogged novels - which are blogged in weekly instalments over a year, then edited into books. As she discussed her current project, Realms of Glory, I appreciated her way of viewing glory as something to be written of slant-ways, which as an artist, makes more sense to me than the seemingly 'rational' attempts to describe such elusive divine quality in logical prose.

Christopher Southgate's warmth and enthusiasm for the people he encounters is my lingering impression of this poet and theologian. He seemed genuinely interested in my recently released spoken word album, as a few of us discussed the fate of poets who go unknown and unappreciated in their lifetime. One of the other PhD students, from Durham, is studying a theologian and poet for whom that was true. So while I feel the release of my recent album may have fallen a little flat, after our late evening conversation I have great hopes for it being a classic in, oh, a hundred years!
Christopher's paper was an insightful meditation on glory in poetry and mystic writing; the latter explored through the work of a Jewish prisoner of World War II, and very moving indeed.

Paula Gooder's keynote was engaging and wide-ranging across the topic of glory and worship in the Bible. When she explored the idea of participation in glory in Paul's writing, what I heard resonated with the intuitive, embodied performance interpretation of Romans I've been working on this past year. Her challenge to our worship is worth all churches heeding - does our worship allow us and others to acknowledge the deep nature of God? Do we inhabit, participate in the glory into which God invites us, allowing ourselves to be transformed?

Durham Cathedral silhouette
A favourite moment was Awet Andemicael's singing. I love that the arts were so much a part of the conference (there was also an exhibition of visual art and poetry throughout). I enjoyed having a drink at The Shakespeare, joining morning prayers at Durham Cathedral, and many and varied conversations with people from far and wide.

Am I any clearer on what 'glory' is? Perhaps. I still feel a little ambivalent about the use of phrases like 'to the glory of God, 'give glory to God' or 'glorify God' - mostly because I am not convinced that those who speak these phrases know what they mean by them. Perhaps I am a little clearer on what they are reaching for, having spent these days immersed in explorations of glory. It's still just an inkling, along the lines of my intuition from inhabiting Romans.

Glory is that divine, holy quality of God that belongs only to God. But God invites us to participate in that glory - to shine with God's light, I suppose, though after the conference, I am challenged to think of glory in more than just that one favourite metaphor of shining light. So that when we 'give God glory' or 'glorify God', I suppose what we might mean is that we offer our love and honour to God as God, holy, divine, and worthy of praise. I think.


Annette said…
Thanks for sharing your insights Sarah. Sounds like a rich experience.
sarah said…
Thanks Annette. Probably richer than I've yet realised - as is often the case with conferences. The insights connect with other experiences and ideas for weeks and months to follow.
Glenys said…
So good to get a peep into what you discovered.And that's probably all we ever get when looking a the glory of God. PS I started theology study thinking I'd enjoy the sociology stuff but also began with Faith and Revelation with Denis Edwards and discovered the wonder of systematic theology. Now you and others are helping me to widen my range using more of my creativity (which I thought I didn't have.)
sarah said…
Thanks Glenys x - glad you are continuing to explore and develop your creativity :-)
Sandra Webb said…
Hi Sarah I have only just discovered this post. Very helpful and insightful, thank you for sharing. This reminded me of the passage in 2 Corinthians chapter 3. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. and then chapter 4 builds on it. These are foundational scriptures for me though I am still exploring their full meaning. Thank you for the prompting to look again at these scriptures.
Twice in chapter 4 Paul says do not lose heart, of course that doesn't mean that the journey will be easy quite the opposite in fact but I hope that you will see the purpose of God in all that happens as the Spirit continues to transform you into the image of the Lord.

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