Theology as a reflective experience of grace


Rev Dr Sean Gilbert

About the Author

Rev Dr Sean Gilbert is Director of Pastoral Theology & Ministry Practice at Uniting College (Synod of South Australia). He has been a faculty member for 11 years. Before that he was in congregational ministry for over twenty years serving as a Minister of the Word. Sean highly values the poetic nature and purpose of theology, in that it helps stir our imaginative capacities into being.


“Attention animated by desire is the whole foundation of religious practices. That is why no system of morality can take their place.”1

The above dictum of Simone Weil is well known yet difficult to employ. For what she invites is a conscious habitation of worlds that are governed by pre-conceptual experience.2 That is, a deep noticing of what affects and potentially awakens the human heart to more fruitful ways of life and love. Like Weil, the celebrated poet Mary Oliver is well acquainted with the transformational practice of attention and derivative desire:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.3

Admittedly, implementation of this spiritual (and theological) principle within the Uniting Church in Australia may seem fanciful or even misplaced in a landscape dominated by structural, financial, and compliance-related concerns. However, when considering our theological culture and its educational bases, a deliberate movement towards the theology of a reflective experience of grace is urgently needed, particularly as a counter to the ready acceptance of theology as mere doctrinal objectifications of God (and God’s will).

By way of significant contrast, theology as traditionally understood and communally enacted, is doxological in tone and searching in its trajectory.4 Consequently, I would trust that such renewed emphases would take us beyond competitive perspectives on theology into more fertile fields of the given unity embodied and enjoyed in Christ. This, I believe, should be our point of theological departure and co-journeying across all Synods, not an aspired-for, ‘sweat of the brow’, destination. Fancy a Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) theological culture marked by the joy of belonging to one another in the endless latitude of Christ and not marred by a certain possessiveness of a tightly ordered Christ!

There is a theological principle of simplification on offer here; a stripping back to what is truly needful for the ecumenical movement of Spirit the UCA first imagined itself to be. And central to the process is a renewed, curious attentiveness to where God is already at work and at play in the world, the surprising revelation of which might further enflame our desire to be a Christic people of way, truth, and life. Or, in the words of the Jesuit father of modern spiritual direction, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, “The divine activity permeates the whole universe, it pervades every creature, wherever they are it is there; it goes before them, and it follows them; all they have to do is to let the waves bear them on.”5

The thrust of this brief response to Act2 Workstream 4: Theological Culture and Education is representative of my pedagogical approach as a minister and teacher within the Uniting Church. That being a conscious return to God as the Subject of our enquiries and not as its industrial object;6 a culture formed by sacred encounter and searching reflection upon that encounter, partial or fleeting as it may be. Going forward, I believe that such a contemplative disposition is, and will be, transformational in terms of educational culture and our shared call to the contextual practices of the Christian gospel.


  1. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, “The Love of Religious Practices,” 129. ↩︎
  2. Denis Edwards, Human Experience of God (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983), 9-13. ↩︎
  3. Mary Oliver, ‘Praying,’ in Thirst (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006), 37. ↩︎
  4. Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981), 2-22. ↩︎
  5. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2008), 7. ↩︎
  6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Deus ex Machina metaphor comes readily to mind here. ↩︎