Greinasafn fyrir merki: water in theology

Wet theology – watering theology

Did you already have a sip of water from the tap? Did you have the chance to go to the swimming pool or enjoy a bath at the Blue Lagoon? Iceland is not only frozen water ‐ ice ‐ but a home of water in all forms. Enjoy it and think about it.

Water is all around us and in us. Without it we could not live at all. And, of course, water has a function in the life of the Church. Baptizing is my favorite pastoral task and speaks to me of blessing and quality of life. In baptism crystal clear water is poured into a bowl. Water trickles down from the head of the infant and beams of light are often reflected in the drops flying. Clean water in the brightness of the moment signals cleanliness and holiness.

In the baptismal ritual in Iceland Luther’s prayer has been recited for centuries – and still is ‐, relating the primal waters with water of the moment, granting of God ́s presence, the Spirit. I quote this Luther‐prayer in all baptisms in Iceland:

„Send your Spirit over this water of baptism, just as, in the beginning, you created the light and life with your Word, and your Spirit was moving over the face of the waters.“

We drink water, use it for bathing, enjoy the aesthetic experiences by the lake, brooks and rivers. Some of us also enjoy the power of the oceanic waves and feel deep connectedness with water. We may have some baptismal theology on our own and may be aware of the water‐part in the Eucharist also. But what about a theology of water?

One might say that the Hebrew/Christian Bible is earthbound and wet. But systematic theology has been rather dry for centuries! Water does not seem to be a major theological theme in classical theology countrary to the attention to water in Scripture. Is it perhaps about time that water became a real theological theme outside books on liturgy and manuals for the ministry?

I would like to talk about water in theology and wet theology. I wondered about how to construct this introduction to the conference on politics in theology and theology in politics. Instead of a technical lecture I opted for a brief personal account of how and why water has attracted my theological attention. Most of those present here this evening have had to deal with methodology in our field, and have had to constantly think and decide on the style of theology, purpose, theory and praxis. Many of us have struggled with shifting contexts and horizons. The veterans in the field will also know the thrill of discoveries and also the strain of changing one’s mind on cherished themes.

First of all a little on decades of theological probing and after that a few words on the project of theology of water.

Twentieth century changes

The theological development this past century has been to many of us a rich one with much innovation and experimentation. A host of ideas have been born, some recycled and others developed. Some of them have died because they did not have power and were not naturally related. New windows have been opened not only in the academia but also for enriching the life of the Church.

Looking backwards to twentieth century theology it does not show a lot of rain, humidity or water. Like some of you I read in my seminary days the theological Big‐B–group of theologians, Brunner, Barth, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer plus some others who were not lucky enough to have a name beginning with B, e.g. Tillich. There is quite a lot to say about these theologians but one might with some simplification maintain that they circled around and worked on a cluster of interdependent issues of faith and history, revelation and reason ‐ and methodological and epistemological issues of how to know God.

The BigB‐s ‐ and others of the same camp ‐ I found fascinating and revolutionary. They were to my religious molding like a cold and refreshing shower. Their conceptions and constructions ‐ I thought ‐ were almost authoritative norms for preaching and theology of the Church of the day. Other luminosities for us up here in Iceland, Regin Prenter, Gustav Wingren, Jürgen Moltman, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Hans Küng did not weaken my belief and devotion to the general tenets of this type of theology and its choice of themes and constructions. It had an aura of intellectual credibility, looked safe and sound and paid heed to academic criteriology.

Of course these theologians were big shots, solo players, writing their magnum opus ́ aiming at convincing others of the relevance of their encompassing systems. They strived to faithfully become the voice of truth. To a twenty‐year‐ old committed and God‐intoxicated student this looked quite impressive, luring and envigorating.


After the Big‐B‐era came liberation theology. The contextual approach to theology had its impact in Iceland already in the early seventies. Our seminary‐teachers read the emerging books, commented on them in class and kept the students informed if not aroused. Personally, I felt that an emphasis on praxis was a healthy addition to intellectual emphasis on how to know God. When I started my doctoral studies in the United States in the early (nineteen‐)eighties I discovered that liberation theology was not only waves but rather a tsunami that crossed the shores with enourmous impact.

The conceptual unity of theology suddenly felt uncertain. The emerging theological literature from South America ‐ at that time ‐ was thought‐provoking and persuasive. Voices from the underside puzzled and awakened. For those willing to see a powerful software was being disclosed which had been ruling the theological temples of European and North‐American Christianty and Universities.

The software was a mechanism for hierarchical sorting and ranking into dualistic pairs of superior and inferior: mind‐body, culture‐ nature, human‐non‐human, male‐female, heterosexual‐homosexual, white‐coloured people etc. Liberation theology engendered or spelled a change in the minds of many participants in the theological discourse. It did flush away simplistic security of absolute intellectual constructions. Context was no longer a general field for charitable work but rather an authentic and meaningful source and home of vigourous faith and active theology. The task of the times was not only to know God but to change the world.

To me ‐ as a theologian ‐ an important deepening of the contextualizing theology came with revisionist theology in the United States in the eighties and onwards, also dealing with language of faith and ecological issues. Domination and oppression victimized not only human beings but also nature. I was struck by feminist theological analysis of how women and nature were deeply and massively identified in Christianity and hence how theology, society and culture were conditioned.

The World Council of Churches in these years increasingly put ecclesiastical and theological fingers on social justice and injustice which also encompassed concern for nature. Theologians and church‐people joined hands in attempting to develop and practice theology in some holistic manner. “Integrity of Creation” it was coined. Many stuggling with the theological literature of the time started to realize that life of the oppressed and life of nature was intertwined and shared a common fate. Cherished conceptions needed to be revisited.

My own theology was informed by the theological authors like Peter C. Hodgson, Sallie McFague, David Tracy, Edward Farley and the like plus philosophical and theological hermeneutics. Lectures, seminars, papers and books presented or introduced in the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion in the 1980 ́s testify that a change was in the making. In a presidential adress at the AAR‐ metting of 1983 Gordon Kaufman called for a paradigm shift. He called for a theological deconstruction and reconstruction of basic symbols of Christian and Jewish tadition, e.g. God, Tora and Christ – for the sake of being for life or the side of life rather than against it. The task was a double one – to deconstruct and reconstruct or to use Paul Ricoeur’s related phrase: Hermeneutics of suspicion and hermeneutics of retrieval.

The first phase of liberation theology may perhaps be characterized as praxis for changing the world, for the benefit of those oppressed, the underside. The second phase may be seen or characterized as a deeping of the context of theology. It was a move from the anthropocentric approach to a cosmocentric one. Theology was not only a hermeneutics of heaven aiming at human intellect but hermeneutics of the interelatedness of all. Nature also became a context for theology and nature even became a source for theology. This is where water springs forth as a potential source, as a fountain for theology.


Some years ago I was assigned the task to guide a sheik and minister from the state of Oman in Thingvellir national park. He was a quick-witted and also a quick‐minded guy. He had preserved in himself the ability to be moved and impressed. He gazed at the beauty of the valley, quickly understood and deciphered the geological formation, the impact of the movements of the tectonic plates on both sides of the Atlantic ridge clearly visible in Iceland and obvious in this holy site of the Icelanders. The sheikh was shaken by the enormity of the movements and their impact. He was quick to point out that all of this was most impressive but added that most beautiful and remarkable was the water. He said to me: „I have never seen such beauty of water. We have oil in my country“ he said, „… but you have water. Oil is important but water is the basis for all life. I wish I could bring some of this water to my country, but please take care of all this water, do not spoil it.”

Because of the intensity ‐ the discussion with the Oman‐sheik became one of the moments of disclosure to me. The question of the theological impact of water has been hovering ever since. What is water? Not in the chemical sense, not in the context of pollution or any technical and manipulative sense. Of course water is the basic stuff to life.

Water has places, functions, interpretations and contexts in most religions of the world. Water has a symbolic function in Christianity. While unpoluted water becomes a scarcity in the world it is surprising how little attention water has enjoyed in recent theology. That discovery came to me as a real surprise. I had thought water must have been eagerly thought about, written about, given its use in daily life, in the religious rites and its vital function in the life of the globe – the blue globe. But no, that was not the case and the theological dryness should engender theological thirst!

Can water envigorate theology and the life of the Church and also religion in general? Do we need to water theology? Do we need to give water a prominent role in our theological endeavours ‐ not because it is a more and more precious commodity in a polluted world, but because it is valuable in itself and has a significance that transcends the chemical and practical. Water is a basic necessity for life and does that mean it is necessary for lively theology?

Mark Twain once remarked that whisky is to be drunk but water to fight for. Access to water is that which defines quality of life. Polluting water is becoming the biggest hazard of the globe.i One thousand million people do not have acess to clean water which is a tremendous and tricky issue however perceived. People kill for water. Water‐issues are becoming the mega‐political issue. How does this speak to us and how should we react as theologians?

Bible and water

A few words on water in Scripture. Water and water‐derivatives are mentioned over seven hundred times in the Bible. In the biblical world water was a sign of good life, sign of the spirit of God, the context through which miracles could happen, like crossing of Israel through the Red Sea. But water also has life‐threatening dimension in the biblical world. That which is necessary to life is also potentially lethal. The world view of the Bible has water in it. God divided the waters and put a dome, the sky, over the earth, so the good life is always enjoying water.

In the New Testament water has a similar significance as in the Old. Jesus was baptized in water, he dealt with water throughout his career, walked on it, used water to wash the feet of the disciples and thus taught the meaning of service. Jesus had an encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well. They met there because both of them were there for water. Jesus asked for water and he offered the water of life. On the cross a thirsty Jesus Crist asked for water. And it was water that poured from the side of the dead Jesus Christ.

In meditations and treatises in the history of theology the meaning and nature of water was discussed almost entirely with reference to the biblical texts. Jesus’ baptism remains the central story echoed in the Christian literature and Christian preaching throughout two Millenia. In orthodox Christianity and analogously in other Christian traditions Jesus ́s baptism was not a rite of repentance but rather water was being sanctified through the Jordan‐baptism. That particular tradition has the trinitarian logic of creation, redemption and sanctification.

The biblical texts and later Christian texts on water remain an interesting source for theology of water. The symbolic richness of these traditions, their stories and their insights are valuable material for retrieval. But more needs to be done. Water is not only a material with symbolic potential but we need to take it seriously as a primary theological theme. The centrality of water in the life of our globe pushes us to revise our theology on many fields. It pushes the limits, asks for methods, how we do theology. We should open up the baptismal theology to include water as the basic theological stuff. What do we do with water as part of God ́s body? Paul Tillich had no problem already in the 1920s to give water a central function in baptism. And Sallie McFague has written persuasively, I think, of nature as God’s body. Water in a metaphorical sense would then be the blood of God. So blood of God can not only be received and perceived in the Eucharist but in all moments of life. Sacramental theology could be enriched with such an approach?

Wet theology

My contention is that theology needs water for flourishing. We should water theology. Splashing of water can open up new veins and vistas for theological creativity. Theology acts contextually when water pours into theological probing and questioning. Marcelo Barros in his book „God’s Spirit Comes in the Water“ summarizes:

„All religions and spiritual traditions believe that water is the sacrament of the divine presence. We are called to live together with water ‐ not only as a practical and useful tool but as a sign of love, which is to be endured, to be respected and even to be revered … Here it is about a personal, internal conversion, by virtue of which we defend the divine presence in the beauty of water and protect the water sources and the nature close to the rivers. But that inner conversion possibly remains ineffective if it is not immediately accompanied by the effort to start a social and socio‐structural conversion.“

I agree. If water is to be thematized in theology the framework needs to be settled, the criteriology determined, the how discerned and the impact realized.ii

First the issue of interrelatedness. The fate of human beings seems to be linked to ecological health. If the health of nature ‐ context of groups and nations is not maintained ‐ people are unable to grow, harvest the food they need or fish. This also would open up definitions of human beings. We are not skywalkers on a journey from above, passing through the valley of time and finishing a pilgrimage when returning to the sky. We are not only tourists of God in an alien context. Being human means to be part of nature and enjoying a wondrous life of God in that very habitat and within that horizon.

Given that water is a circulatory system of the globe‐ shores may be perceived as touching other shores with currents. Everything may be seen as interrelated. Theologies that emerge from such a horizon have the opportunity to interpret divine transcendence in more breathtaking and more intimate ways than before (Cobb, MdFague et al.)

Second: The theological nexus needs to be cosmocentric rather than anthropocentric. This does not imply – for instance – that the creation and ecotheology should come as a substitution for the traditional concern with redemption; rather theology of redemption should include all dimensions of creation, not just human beings.

Theology, I think, should not retreat from or reject theocentrism. It rather means that the divine concern includes not only human beings but rather all of creation. The sacral may be seen in a wider context than the twentieth century westerners were used to. Did God move away from home? This is not only a Grundtvigean cry or an existentialist trauma but a widespread grumbling often detectable and uttered in my pastoral counselling chamber. Many people experience a dislocation of the sacred or to play with language ‐ a wide‐location of God.

This also touches upon plurality of views and theologies. While everything is interrelated and interdependent everything enjoys uniqueness and is different from everything else. This accounts for a deep respect for all voices. This accounts for theological collegiality.

Making a quilt has been used as a methaphor on the task of doing theology and respecting the many contributors. Analogously multitude of brooks form rivers, lakes and become af part of the waterworld of nature. We should value and welcome the many in our service to God and be content with the task. It is not a competitive one but a cosmic‐bodily one.

Third, I think that we need a radical reconstruction of theological concepts. Redemtion e.g. should include nature but not only human beings. Nature is as much a neighbor as well as the human ones. And I think taking water into account also means that theology of the Holy Spirit needs a revisiting or recycling. Green theology, in general, speaks – to me ‐ of renewed awareness and thematization of God ́s Spirit. This indeed is welcomed by those living close to forces of nature. The majority of Icelanders for example have no difficulty of accepting a divine presence out in nature. Going on a hike proves to many of them to be a religious experience and chance to communicate with the Spirit of God.

Fourth, theology needs to readily open up to other branches of academia and take heed of the knowledge and wisdom gathered, and join hands with others for the benfit of nature and groups of people speaking from the underside. Christian theologians need to reevaluate cherished positions. No simple justification of dominion can be accepted anymore. Politics need a global view not only the local one. Politics as well as churches need theology of responsible and non‐escapist servanthood.

So water is flushed into our conference already at the outset. Where there is water there is God. Last Sunday was the day of Jesus’ babtism, the day of chaning water into wine. Water speaks of epiphany. Water is gift, not a possession. Water is a sacrament, not a commodity. When you say cheers in the reception after this session – look into your glass and see stuff for theology. This is not only twenty first century but also the twenty thirst century.

My lecture at the Nordic conference for systematic theologians – Systematiker konferens – in Iceland, October 2013.

The photo is from a family trip the Westman-Islands, Icelan. I took the picture from the ferry close to the Heimaey-harbour. 

i Alan Weisman: The world without us, 112 ff.
ii Paul Ricoeur: Sense and reference The what, the info on water, but the reference is the deeper approach to meaning of water, connectedness, the value of water, the heavenly dimension, needed for us to empower us in conservation, and also appreciating Gods impact from the beginning, sanctification of the entire creation, not only some humans.