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Why public theology needs to get a life

Why public theology needs to get a life

What’s the future of public theology? Amy Plender explores the need for theology to travel outside the walls of academia.

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“What has ‘theology’ ever said that is the smallest use to anybody? When has ‘theology’ ever said anything that is demonstrably true and not obvious? What makes you think ‘theology’ is a subject at all?”[1] Thus wrote Richard Dawkins in the pithily titled article ‘The emptiness of theology.’  Never one to defend Dawkins, as a church–goer and a recovering academic (and a systematician at that), I grudgingly see his point.

Anyone familiar with the Church and with church services will have sat through more than their share of some mind–numbing sermons, that particular variety which is well–meaning but ineffectual at best, or self–important and platitudinous at worst. Theology (and theologians) can be agonisingly dull, circuitous, or seemingly irrelevant. Harold Wilson started a trend amongst politicians of the 1960s and 70s of writing off anything which seemed obtuse or distant as “mere theology.”[2]  If liberalism has eaten itself, church preaching sometimes risks doing the same, churning out more and more noise and content with less and less effect on the lives unfolding in the world around us. 

Repetitiveness aside, that theology seems so obvious to Dawkins can be taken rather as a compliment.  How refreshing to have so staunch an opponent of theology find its claims so reasonable as to be boringly familiar.  Although we shouldn’t really be surprised.  Dawkins stands on the shoulders of centuries of Western thought, which, whether he likes it or not, has been influenced by Christianity to an extent that many of the most sacred contemporary norms – the rule of law, human rights, science, and the like – can be traced to theology’s influence.  That some of theology seems so obvious to Dawkins says less about theology and more about the culture in which we live.  What is ‘obvious’ to a society is what is for that society.   

Human cultures are good at normalising their own current circumstances.  Every civilisation has its norms – social, political, philosophical – which seem obvious at the time, but are swiftly or gradually replaced by others.  For millennia, slavery was an obvious fact of life, so obvious and accepted that only one Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa, spoke against it and it would take until 873 for a church leader to begin to address it (by Pope John VIII who outlawed Christians holding other Christians as slaves).  For the National Party in twentieth–century South Africa, apartheid was obvious.  For centuries in Britain, corporeal punishment in schools or wearing a hat outdoors was obvious.  I literally cannot guess which norms obvious to us today will be obsolete by 2117, because, by definition, they are part of the fabric of our lives and worldviews, as obvious as breathing.              

Yet, just because the language of the King James Bible is so familiar to us and the influence of Judeo–Christian ethics on modern morality has been so strong that it results in seeming ‘obvious’, does not mean theology has lost its ability to be ground–breaking.  Feminist philosopher, sociologist, and theologian Elaine Storkey once wrote in the Third Way magazine (RIP) that, contrary to the obvious view of the moment, the Christian concept of the human sees us as creaturely and not autonomous; dependant, not self–sufficient; relational, not individualistic; moral, not mechanical; unique, not mass produced; accountable, not self–regulating; eternal, not temporal – ultimately, that we are ordered to being rather than having.   

When it works, and sometimes it really does, theology is glorious.  Far more than ‘mere’ theology and like no other discipline, it has the ability to take us beyond ourselves, to open our eyes to things unseen, to shape cultures, communities, and characters for the better.  It can help us see ourselves and the world differently, and make profound changes to the way we live our lives.    

I was reminded of this at a recent conference on the futures of public theology, held in memory of the late Duncan Forrester, a pioneer of public theology.  Forrester was that rare species, a practitioner as well as an academic, spending years teaching in India before he founded the first ever Centre for Theology and Public Issues in 1984. His interpretation of public theology dealt with the realities of modern life: his work covered themes as diverse as racial ethics, justice, poverty, politics, and nuclear disarmament.   

Prompted by stories from his life and work, theologians and practitioners urged each other to “stop “theologising and start living.”  Some offered snapshots from the coalface of public theology – stories of where theories of ethics and theology come up against real life.  Stories like a group of women in India, survivors of domestic violence, who make an annual pilgrimage to see a statue of Christa: a depiction of the crucified Jesus as female, embodying and encompassing the suffering and pain of the crucifix’s female viewers.  Like the survivor of the Holocaust, who, when called to the bedside of a dying SS guard, who begged him for his forgiveness, couldn’t grant it – and spent the rest of his life wondering if he should have.  And the letter from a hospital chaplain, who told how they had offered the story of the Prodigal Son to a woman with AIDS, terrified of dying and meeting a punitive God.  “Will you tell me that story again when I die?” the patient asked.  “So I did,” wrote the chaplain, “about an hour ago, and now we are waiting for the undertakers.” 

Stories such as this show – contra Dawkins – the fullness of theology.  What sets theology apart from other disciplines like philosophy, and public theology from the equally valid sectors of philanthropy and charity work is the sense that in doing it, we are somehow participating in a narrative that is bigger than ourselves, somehow ‘transcendent.’  It links us to the past, present, and future of our communities, forces us to face the depths and lets us glimpse the heights of human existence, and, makes a tangible difference to the world around us, and drawing us into closer relationship with its Creator.

Academic theology is important.  Like medical research, it has to be done to enable those at the coalface charged with the spiritual care of our souls or the medical care of our bodies to practice well, with accuracy and insight.  Details matter, and though I don’t know or care how ibuprofen works, I do want someone else to understand that, so I can trust that it’s safe and efficacious for me to take when I have a headache.  Likewise, esoteric and infinitely detailed academic theology is important to support and inform the work of preachers and pastors, in the way of Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding.”  Also like medicine, theology has to be more than the equivalent of dissection; it also has to be general practice and emergency surgery and physiotherapy for the soul.  Irenaeus wrote that “the glory of God is a human fully alive,” and it is up to theologians to make their work enlivening, relevant, and important to those on the ground, and to disseminate theology’s riches more widely.    

[1]Richard Dawkins, The emptiness of theology.  Free Inquiry Magazine, 1998, 18, no. 2. 

[2]Duncan Forrester, Christian Justice and Public Policy, CUP, 1997. 27.


 Image by gnuckx from flickr.com available in the public domain

Amy Plender

Amy Plender

Amy joined Theos in August 2017, having previously worked with London–based and international non–profit organisations, and in English and Scottish print journalism. She holds an MA in Divinity and an MTh from the University of Edinburgh. Research areas include the theological responses to suffering and mental health, theology and the arts, liturgical practice, and interfaith dialogue.

Posted 20 December 2017

Atheism, Morality/Ethics, Theology

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