The art of creating conversations
I have been given the opportunity to reflect on, and pay tribute to the influence that Coenie has had on a number of younger colleagues. As indicated on the program I have chosen to call my brief reflection: "the art of creating conversations". The rationale behind the title is the lasting impression the conversations that Coenie initiatedmade ona number of us.
From the 90's, after Coenie relocated to BUVTON, it seemed that he used any excuse he could think of for forming discussion groups in which theological conversations could flourish. The biggest of these was responsible for a book of daily Scripture readings that was linked to an Afrikaans lexicon based on the RCL. I have reason to believe that it was the only book of its kind in the world. It was produced in joint collaborationby almost 50 writers who met once a year at Miernes in Kleinmond to discuss the relevant textsof the RCL in order to produce daily readings of an astounding 75 words each! It was a modern Septuagint. Taken at face value it was however a monumental waste of time if you are an introvert with an overestimation of your ability to write theology (who needs to have conversations about a daily reading the length of an obituary?) or if you take into consideration the number of people who actually used it in comparison to a flood of daily readings produced by more well-known individual writers. However on a much deeper level it wasa priceless invitation to a two day conversation on Scripture, Church and God - that I might add was free of charge. It was in these discussion groups that most of us were for the first time exposed to the art of theological conversation with Coenie as patron and mentor.
In preparation for this brief tribute I have spoken to a few veterans of the Miernes conversations in order to glean what we learnt in those joyful meetings of theology, Snoek and red wine.
On reflection we learnt:
● Firstly, that theological conversations are not the sharing of a mutual ignorance. It is a discipline that requires reading and reflection. Above all: A lot of reading. Whereas the I generationhas been inspired by Harry Potter to read we had Coenie as inspiration. It seemed as if Coenie had read and rememberedeverything. We undertook to out-read him even if it killed us! I know a number of colleagues who had to hide their true book expenses from their spouses in order to safeguard their marriages. The wise amongst us married Bibliophiles or fellow ministers. I personally used money my fiancé had saved for my wedding ring for a Greek Grammar! As a theology student and fellow follower of Coenie she could however only applaud my wise use of our meagre funds. I am grateful to report that I have still have both my wife and our Greek grammar two decades on.
● Secondly, theological conversations are about all aspects of theology, and not only about the subject of your dissertation. Surprisingly few people are interested in endless conversations about Noordmans or the use of aphemi in Matthew. Coenie was however interested in anything for he believed it all mattered for the health of the church. Numerous times we would hear Coenie muse "I would like to write a book on…'' And he would. I can remember sitting in the student congregation watching the students with their arms around each other swaying as a row in unison from side-to-side during a worship service and seeing Coenie, as a large introvert, standing motionless in the middle. He did not sway left or right. The two halves of his row did not sway in unison, but rather moved left and right by his sides. It looked like a big bird clapping its wings. This lead a friend of mine – who will remain nameless - to say that the nearest Coenie would come to physical koinonia would be if he wrote a book about it. And he did. And it was good.
● Thirdly, conversations are always inclusive. Long before Brian McLaren coined the term a generous orthodoxy Coenie practiced it. He read and knew scholars that were not always on our prescribed reading list. Most of us grew up in rather insular Afrikaner faith communities in which we had basically been having a discussion with ourselves – and I might add the conversation had been going quite well – but with little regard for our broader context. Coenie introduced us into an ecumenical world and the complexities of the South African context.
● Fourthly, theological conversations must lead to practical application of real solutions and strategies for the contemporary church. The church can and must be transformed in a responsible way. Theology was not only an intellectual exercise for a small intellectual elite. It was about practical solutions to real problems. Coenie constantly modelled how a theologian should apply theology and in this he was mimicked by a number of us in ways he never imagined. You could hear and spot a Coenie disciple from a distance. Not only did they practice the Coenie stutter for the strategic use thereof in sermons, but also had the habit of making the sign of the bull in sign language when they explained something as Coenie had the habit of holding a piece of chalk between his two middle fingers and thumb and pointing with the outer two. Numerous congregations were instructed with the sign of the bull in sermons!
● Fifthly, the conversation is on-going. Coenie never believed that the last word had been said about anything. Therefore he would qualify every statement with a "Dit lyk vir my of " ''op 'n manier''. Nothing was set in stone. It took me ten years to stop saying "op 'n manier'' after every sentence.
● Finally, theology is important. Even more than golf it is more important than life or death. It is more important than life or death because it about the glory of God and the salvation of all of creation. It must therefore be practised with commitment and care.
In conclusion why were our conversations with Coenie so meaningful – and not those by other theologians? Basically because he was the only one who invited us! And that is his legacy.