What happened to theology?

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.

7 thoughts on “What happened to theology?”

  1. Thanks, Aaron. The challenge, of course, for those of us who want to call ourselves theologians in any sense is that we have to write or speak things that people may actually be interested in reading or hearing. That doesn’t mean pandering to what is wanted; but it does mean being as ‘wise as serpents’ and being switched on to what is capable of being heard. We also have to know our own tradition so well that we know how to make use of it in whatever contexts we’re in. I’ve found it interesting over the years that many people who pick up my interest in popular culture think that I am doing it so that I know how to ‘apply’ the ‘Christian message’ to a situation. I quickly try and suggest it’s a bit more complicated than that. I also make people aware that trying to be a contemporary theologian who might be able to be heard outside, as well as inside, the church therefore means knowing both culture and Christianity really, really well. If David Friedrich Strauss were causing a storm now, he’d be an expert in Jesus films, TV drama and contemporary novels as well as Hegelian philosophy.

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  2. I believe that Theology does matter. However we need to demystify it. I read of different types of theology which to an outsider of the discipline sounds like academic arrogance. For me coming to ministry later in life, study of the subject frightened me. When I actually encountered contextual and practical theology it fell in to place . This experience was common, many who entered study with me. I had an idea that Theology waS for academics remote from real life. To my utter surprise it was Something I already did without giving it a name.

    Theology needs a champion in general education to raise its profile and help people to see how much practical theology they practice day to day in their context.

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  3. I was going to reflect on Clive Marsh’s professorial inaugural lecture, which I had the privilege of hearing and which considered the importance of giving place to God within the modern university. But he’s beaten me to the comments, so I’ll graciously let him speak for himself!! 🙂 But it is my observation that the church shows increasingly little concern for the academy – our involvement in academic theology and in chaplaincy is decreasing. Here in Sheffield, the once significant Biblical Studies department has now been reduced (at Undergraduate level, at least) to a few students on a Theology, Religion and the Bible course, mainly religious studies and a bit about the use of the Bible in literature, art and popular culture, and mainly taught by non-religious lecturers. None of that is without value, but what is missing is reflection on the impact that this has on the faith we express and live. And as we withdraw chaplains from many universities, the ability to have creative partnerships, as we have had here, between the secular religious studies academy and the church, is greatly diminished. Church and theology faculty become increasingly separate.
    And that’s before we get on to the options for training our ministers, or the opportunities for theologically educating our lay people. We need to recognise the vocation to academic theology in lay or ordained Methodists, and resource, nurture and develop it. We need the opportunities for serious levels of undergraduate Greek and Hebrew learning, for those who would become speicialist biblical scholars, for example. And we need to show commitment to our universities as places of debate and engagement, not just within the narrow box labelled ‘theology’, so that we can be taken seriously as partners within that debate.

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  4. Why should the secular world take any notice of theology, when the church seems frightened of modern theology? How many young people have been advised to go to bible college “where they will teach you ‘the truth ‘” rather than a university theology department “where they will undermine your faith “.
    A presbyter with a good science degree told me a few years ago, “While scientists stand on the shoulders of giants by building on the work of their predecessors , that approach is irrelevant in Christianity because no one can add to the words of Jesus and the first apostles. It was all revealed 2000 years ago. By questioning Church tradition you just prove that you are not a Christian. ”
    The church has constructed a neat tapestry of doctrine and seems terrified that if one thread is removed it could all fall apart. So we are stuck with a 4th century creed and medieval atonement theories. The church prefers to pretend that the many paradoxes don’t exist rather than to explore them.
    No wonder anyone looking at the surface level of church teaching from the outside should think that theology has outlived it’s usefulness. Yet because it searches for meaning rather than pursuing facts and details which consume so many other disciplines, it remains the Queen of the sciencestorm.

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  5. Thank you Aaron,
    I too came relatively late to the faith & as a Local Preacher, really enjoyed the tutorals that we had while training, My faith & understanding came on in leaps and bounds, even though I had problems with the christmas story. I currently share in a local preacher book club, but the theological books we have been sharing have in the main been dire, especially our latest, which we are due to finish, “The Challenge of Jesus” by NT Wright. I cannot see how these types of book actually help spread the Gospel? They appear to be for University small study groups of similar thinking, also some of the evidence produced just choose readings which agree with their argument & ignore contrary readings. I am sure the congregations would be really interested in Jesus bringing the true end to exile.

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  6. I am sorry if my last post looks like I want to dumb down theological research and understanding. This not the case, I have found great insights into my faith through theological books. For instance I have just read, although not new, “The Language of God,” by Francis Collins, a great aid in explaining the place of God in scientific thinking. I found it a good antidote to Richard Dawkins.

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