There’s something that needs to be said about theology.
On Monday evening I attended a panel discussion at St. Martin’s in the Fields in Central London considering the question, ‘Does the Church Really Need Academic Theology?’ It felt to me that on the whole the panel seemed to take it for granted that ‘yes ,of course the Church needs academic theology.’ All but one of the panel had a PhD. Even as I read through the biogs of the panel in advance of the session I had a sinking feeling that the challenging aspect of the question would not be seriously considered. The sole member of the panel who could not lay claim to a doctorate (other than a honorary doctorate!) was the only one challenging the assumption that was inherent in much of the discussion. That assumption being as I stated above, ‘yes, of course the church needs academic theology.’
I remember that when I was at College we read and studied Karl Barth. I had the privilege of studying under a theologian who read Barth’s Church Dogmatics every summer and could readily and freely reference this vast work in response to many of our questions. However, while we studied, and pondered, and struggled, and wrestled with Barth’s voluminous writings – perhaps precisely because we struggled so much to understand Barth’s thought – we didn’t seem to place or comprehend those writings within their particular historical context as much as I now think would have been helpful.
And yet, it now seems perfectly obvious to me that much of what Barth wrote was precisely as a natural and obvious response to the ecclesial and social and political context in which he found himself. An very obvious example of this would be the way in which Barth’s thinking culminated in the Barmen Declaration: a severe criticism of those Christians who supported the Nazis. You can’t be a follower of Christ and at the same time accept and conform to a fascist regime. Here we have theology that is fully and courageously engaged. Here we have theology that is connected with incarnation. A follower of Jesus, in this case a professional theologian, engaged with the increasingly challenging issues of the day, wrestling to respond with Christ.
I would suggest that for many students the study of Barth is often limited to the words and concepts he wrote about the church, and God, and so on, as you might expect. But, I can’t help feeling that Barth’s writings gain their real edge, and power, when they are understood within the ecclesial, social and political context in which they were written. I can read Barth and marvel at his insights about Christ, the Christian life, or the atonement, for example, but for me these same writings take on a different gloss when they are understood contextually.
It is this engagement with life – ecclesial, social, and political – that, it seems to me, gives theology its purpose. Theology can so often be limited to what we can regard as academic theology. Theology in the academy – a learning community that occupies a limited, rarefied space, emerging from time-to-time to utter supposedly wise words to a mystified and sometimes confused public – at least to those who would even listen.
(My thoughts now are incomplete, random, and very much imperfect. And yet I am searching for something)
The term ‘theology’ in ‘academic theology’ is of course a noun. It is a thing. It is a field of study. But, I wonder whether we need to talk about theology in a more nuanced way.
When we speak of ‘theology’ as in ‘academic theology’, theology is the field of study, the subject area. Thus we should regard theology simply as a noun. Theology in this context is an objective reality – it is a mere thing, a field of study.
When we study theology, that is: when we engage in the learning process, acquiring knowledge about the writing of a particular theologian, ‘theology’ is no longer simply an objective reality. To some degree at least we are engaging with the ‘theology’ of someone. We are thinking about the reflections of theologians. How can we best describe this process? Certainly we are learning. We are learning about theology. We may think that we are doing theology – that is we are actively engaged in thinking deeply and richly about God, but I doubt it. Most often we are thinking about thinking about God. Now, without a doubt this is important. To draw on the insight of those on whose shoulders we stand. But, this – often regarded as academic theology – is not authentic active theology.
It seems to me that theology comes into its own when it is incarnated. This is when it become real, and purposeful. When it is engaged. When it is responding. This is theology as a verb. This is theology as an active, engaged process.
What I’m reflecting on here is theology-on-the-ground. The learning community/academy/community of believers wrestling with how to respond to its social, and political context. Wrestling to make a Jesus-centred response to the perverted attraction of consumerism. Or the ugliness of power. Or the apparent inconsequentiality of drones. Or the pervasiveness of post-truth / alternative facts. Or the unavailability of health care. Or the ease with which refugees are turned away. This is authentic theology. We are drawing on the reflections of others – those who have written about God before us, but we are processing those theologies through the filter of our own context. This is engaged incarnated theology.
This is theology as God intended…?