by Aaron Edwards.
Something has happened to the thing we called theology. It no longer seems to matter. And not only do most people not care that it no longer seems to matter, but they don’t even know they were ever supposed to have cared in the first place. When doing my PhD in Aberdeen a few years ago, I was often asked what my subject was. When I replied, ‘theology’, more than ninety percent of the time the person thought I was studying something to do with rocks. After a while I got into a habit of pre-empting this response by pointing my finger from the ground towards the heavens: “Think up, not down…” I began to wonder about what the frequency of this kind of exchange demonstrated and that it probably owed less to the ignorance of the average person than to the innocuously irrelevant work of much contemporary academic theology.
Despite having been the primary reason for which most premodern universities were founded, today many theological departments across the academy find themselves hopelessly doggy-paddling to keep up with a ginormous mercantile liner that has long since sailed on without them. ‘Why on earth are you lot still here? What do you actually do…?’ is a common thought insinuated in awkward inter-departmental meetings in many institutions. Some within academic theology manage this identity crisis more effectively than others, justifying their existence by pointing to the ‘social impact’ of the Church (which they might otherwise prefer to ignore), or by merging with other departments to showcase their ‘interdisciplinary value’. But wherever short-term survival has been achieved it has usually not come without some form of essential compromise. We migrate to talking about society, or geo-politics, or religion, but only because these things are really about what humans do; and humans seem far more interesting than God.
The result of this great attempt to save academic face ends up not only making theology a fairly pointless add-on to other ethically-minded disciplines which could say roughly the same things anyway, but renders it evermore inaudible to the Church. And the proof of theology is in the hearing, just as the proof of hearing is in the doing (Jam. 1:19-27). For an accurate gauge, just ask the average pastor or minister how many new journal articles they’ve read in the last year (or perhaps the last decade…). One way or another, the Church grows deaf to the voices of strangers (John 10:4-5).
Having all but lost the ears of the Church, then, the former ‘queen of the sciences’ may even still be politely ushered to the exit doors of the academy. If this ever does happen, it will not be because the theologians were making too much of a disturbance to the show, but more because the seats are becoming ever-pricier and theologians can no longer afford to sit in them. Even those few who seem to bridge the church-academy divide unusually well rarely make any actually significant difference to the academic or societal world. Theologians who might be seen as luminaries at academic conferences are usually little-known beyond their own specialist fields, let alone other disciplines altogether. It is quite literally the case that the work of a geologist is far more likely to reach the front pages of a newspaper than the work of a theologian.
To put this in perspective, a century-and-a-half ago the University of Zürich attempted to appoint the famously heterodox theologian David Friedrich Strauss to a chair in theology, and the news caused a public riot in the streets. Just stop and ponder that for a moment. I am not suggesting that public riots on doctrinal issues would be a necessarily welcome reality, but the fact that such an event would seem so utterly absurd today is not because theology is doing something right. It might also be remembered that the first theologians of the Church literally did cause street riots based upon the content of their theology (Acts 19:23-41). These theologians did so few of the things their academic equivalents spend their time doing today; and yet somehow their theology seemed to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). It mattered. And in a very real sense, their theology ultimately led – through centuries of steadfast mission and witness – to the founding of scores of major universities around the world. These are the same universities which, centuries later, gasp that such an apparently matterless subject as theology still has a home within their de-hallowed walls.
Things are supposed to happen because of theology: nations changed, lives transformed, societies challenged, peoples enriched, wonderful things built, terrible things hauled down. And all of it done not in the name of human progress or achievement, but in thankful worship to the One who first gave theology its voice, and its place. Indeed if theology is the speech of God in the mouth of the Church, then it ought to matter – to everyone – that theology no longer seems to matter.