Thomas Oord, the well-known articulator of open and relational theology, is a hiker and photographer. His photography, available on his Facebook page, is an invitation to open our eyes to the splendor of the physical world around us and then, as we are inclined, to reflect upon what we see -- or, better, to let what we see prompt our reflections. In the moment of viewing, when we let what we see prompt reflections, the reflections can be what Frederic Brussat calls “short theologies.” Short theologies are simple thoughts that help us get our religious and spiritual bearings in life. In such acts, we are immersing ourselves in deus ex photographia.
The phrase deus ex photographia is adapted from an organization called deus ex musica, which takes sacred music (old and new, melodic and abrasive) as a springboard for diverse reflections. Its founder, Delvyn Case III, notes that when people allow music to function as sacred texts, their interpretations will inevitably and happily vary. They realize that the Spirit is more than words.
And so it is, I believe, with deus ex photographia. There is no right theology that emerges from a photograph. Only a thought, a hope or aspiration, a vignette, only a short theology. To adapt a phrase of Whitehead's, when it comes to short theologies, "the merest hint as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly."
Some might think that short theologies are secondary in importance to big and systematic theologies, but I am doubtful. I suspect that a primary purpose of big theologies is to evoke short theologies that help us live our lives. Short theologies are the building blocks of big theologies. Just as molecules are made of atoms, systematic theologies are made of short theologies. And short theologies are prompted, among other places, by the natural world.
The open and relational movement pioneered by Thomas Oord, the work of which can be found in the Center for Open and Relational Theology, can be a platform for many short theologies in the open and relational spirit. Thomas Oord’s own reflections on four of his own photographs, below, provide a great example. Let there be many and more.
- Jay McDaniel, September 2020
Four Short Theologies from Thomas Oord
“How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” says Jesus, “but you were not willing” (Mt 23:37)! We find these words in Matthew and Mark. The psalmist also refers to God as a bird who covers us under her wings. I happened upon this doe and fawn on a summer hike. Afterbirth hung from her wet coat, and Mother licked her dry in the bright sunshine. The little thing wasn’t ready for fast movement, so I unobtrusively made a couple hundred photos. I wish God’s care were so easily discerned in my own life. I infer divine care when creatures – mostly human, but sometimes nonhuman – care for me. I believe the care creatures give is inspired by the Loving Doe who wants the well-being of all.
I am willing to receive it.
I plan extended solo trips in the wilderness. The time removed from civilization helps in many ways, including providing time for photographic art.
When alone in nature, my life slows down. My thoughts linger longer on what matters most. I watch water flow, clouds float, and creatures move. The elements of the natural world enchant.
The lakes in the photo above hosted me for five days this summer. The highlight from the trip may have been the hour I lay on my back near snowdrifts. Cloud shadows crept slowly across the mountain crest – what we in Idaho call “the Sawtooths” – and I was mesmerized. This truth renewed it’s acquaintance with my conscious thought: I and the world are in process.
Making high-quality photos of insects without using a macro lens takes patience, skill, and a little luck. The reward is an uncommon glimpse at the secret lives of earth’s little ones.
God is in the details. And in the big picture. But I’m often more astounded by divine beauty in the buzzing details. Little ones pursue purposes too; at least that’s my view of life. God gives aims to all creatures great and small. If God cares for sparrows, surely God cares for butterflies too! In conversation with one of my doctoral students, I said we must affirm two truths simultaneously: God cares about the tiniest of creatures and the billions of galaxies. No creature is too small for God, no multiverse too big.
I had a plan.
I wanted to make unique Bison photos in Yellowstone. As I scouted the herds and considered my artistic options, I saw a big bull roll about in a dusty, pool-size divot. So I decided to make a “rolling Bison” photo series. I found this fellow close enough to position myself for what I hoped would be a dandy display of powder and glory. And then I waited. And waited. And waited. “Go time!” I thought, as the Bison finally flipped. “Aww…,” he seemed to be saying, as his huge body squirmed and hooves flailed. Deep satisfaction filled his eyes.
Can animals delight in life? This lounger obviously can!