Val Webb

Val Webb.

Stepping Out with the Sacred: Human Attempts to Engage the Divine.

London: Continuum. 2010. H/back, 286 pages (incl. Notes and Index). $34.95.

Val Webb is steadily establishing herself as the leading progressive theological thinker in Australia. Which is indeed welcomed by this reviewer!

Stepping Out… reads like a sequel to her 2007 Best Books winner, Like Catching Water in a Net. Where the latter was an attempt to describe the Something More, the Divine, this new publication focuses on attempts to engage the Divine – across the religions of the world.

In 19 chapters, Webb stitches together personal stories, ideas and beliefs from people “as they are taught within their religions” (Pg:x) and leaves it to the readers to make their own judgments. Those religions touched on include: Zen Buddhist, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity, Sufism and Judaism.

But this is not a comparative religion book.  Nor does it single out “the religiously strange or obtuse” ( Pg:x). Her thesis instead is to take religions seriously and honestly. For “faith is not about believing something but about living, about doing something…” (Pg:260).

Among the chapter headings are such themes as: Locating the divine; Sacred places; Community, clergy and caretakers; Sensing the sacred; Rituals; What is your experience; and Engaging the sacred together.

Webb’s writing is always engaging. Easy to read and inviting of us, as readers, to continue on our personal journeys as we seek to describe or engage the divine with metaphor, imagination and honesty. Her writing style is also indirect. We only ‘overhear’ Webb’s own personal theology indirectly. Where it is hinted at is in the fragments of poems written by her over the years, rather than in theological debate. This will not satisfy those who want to solidify theology into creed and belief systems. But “anything we say is only a snapshot of a passing moment” (Pg:263).  This is where she is at this moment.

I am reminded of an observation she made in Like Catching… as I reckon it applies to Stepping Out… as well. Quoting process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, she says theology “is like a garment we have produced, not a universal truth”. The garment will fit some, not others. So… should our garments be thrown out because they don’t fit everyone? No… “then we would freeze in the winters of our loneliness! Better we should simply adjust the fit and see to helping others as they, too, weave their mantles”.

I look forward to more from this author. And hope those who cling nervously to a status quo theology in our theological colleges, will welcome Webb’s genuine explorations into their ‘sacred places’ with intellectual integrity.