Slow Theology - Scott Bader-Saye
In recent years we have witnessed the rise of a variety of "slow" movements. "Slow food," which seeks to replace or at least slow down fast food, began as the personal revolution of the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini in 1986 when McDonalds opened a restaurant in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. "Slow money," a movement inspired by Woody Tasch's 2009 manifesto, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered, seeks to challenge the get-rich-quick approach to finances that stokes our desire for speculation over investment. "Slow communication," which Wendell Berry has recently espoused, responds to our instant messaging culture with an attempt to retrieve leisurely interactions—some of which even include pen and paper (see also the related "slow web" movement).
These calls for deceleration come generally from small groups moving slowly in the wilderness. But together they constitute if not a shout at least a raised voice seeking to retrieve a mode of being that takes time and assumes we have been given all the time we need. Let me lay out a few common features of these calls for unhurried living:
• First, a more contemplative posture toward one's activity. Whether this is preparing food or communicating with friends, slowing down allows for closer attention to the materiality before us.
• Second, a commitment to craft and excellence. As Matthew Crawford pointed out so well in his Shop Class as Soulcraft, our utilitarian push for fast, efficient work has left us bereft of quality products which diminishes both the producer and the consumer.
• Third, an opening for relational goods. As we slow down we become able to attend to the human give and take that nurtures affection and promotes human goods that supplement the good of the thing produced. In a world of economic haste we assume too easily that we are meant to remain strangers to those with whom we exchange and in this way we miss out on the natural community that arises from reciprocity grounded in affection.
• Fourth, an attention to internal goods. The relentless focus on haste tempts us to elevate external goods (profit, reputation, audience, influence) to the detriment of internal goods (virtues, skills, and relationships that emerge from the practices of production, exchange, and communication).
• Fifth, the development of patience. As we capitulate to impatience, we normalize the five minute meal, the one-click friend, and the nanosecond return on investment. Patience becomes unnecessary and even undesirable because we begin to lose our awareness of what it is we are missing.
So we for whom theology is our craft might ask, do we also need a movement for "slow theology"? In one way it seems unnecessary if we look at how long it takes, for instance, to get an article or a book published. The long wait for editorial review, page proofs, and final galleys hardly bespeaks a discipline addicted to haste. Our fifteen week semesters and multi-year degrees do not suggest this is a field to be mastered quickly. And yet, I think we have something to learn from (and contribute to) these campaigns of slowness.
• Slow theology would be a theology that provides theological and ontological (especially anthropological) grounding for the true intuitions that seem to be at work in these slow movements. In other words, we need to give a theological account of why certain goods emerge with patience that are lost to us in haste.
• Slow theology would take its own work as a contemplative craft, which means we would resist providing quick answers. For instance, in the wake of Sandy Hook we might be more reticent to pronounce "the answer"—whether that answer is a demonic perversion of providence à la Pat Robertson or a political program that will get guns off the streets. Reflecting on the aftermath of 9/11, Rowan Williams wisely noted that what was needed was "breathing space" within which we might "grieve without the consolation of drama, martyrdom, resentment, and projection” (Writing in the Dust, p.72). Such breathing and grieving takes time, as does the formulation of any truly life-giving response. Slow, contemplative engagement with world events prioritizes the good response over the gut response.
• Slow theology would attend to the relational goods that can and should emerge from the production of theological wisdom. This means that we would engage our dialogue partners not primarily as sparring partners to be defeated by sharp argument but as those with whom we can grow in relation precisely through the gracious give and take of challenge and response. Theology can be a lonely and competitive enterprise, but it need not be.
• Slow theology would resist certain modes of rapid communication—not in themselves but as means of theological conversation. The quick and ephemeral postings of Facebook and Twitter tend to work well for certain things: keeping in touch with friends and family, sharing interesting links, and connecting over the witty comment or the humorous meme. They are less helpful as fora for political conversation or theological discernment. These kinds of discussions require something more like what Romand Coles has called the "art of tabling"—sharing physical space and time by which engage graciously both the ideas and the person of the other. At the very least, they require sustained and sometimes lengthy dialogue over time without the pressure to produce the quick and witty response before the moment is lost.
Maybe there is a future for slow theology. If so, we will need to create spaces, both in person and online, where this kind of reciprocal exchange of ideas and passions can prove generative for the discipline, for the church, and for the wider set of slow movements that aim at claiming back the time we need for human good to emerge.
Perhaps next we could consider a campaign for "slow salvation."