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Interview: John Hull, academic, theologian

17 May 2013

'Anger is the starting-point for Christian theology'

When you have been blind for more than 30 years, it simply becomes an accepted part of your life. I suppose the lack of free and spontaneous movement remains a problem, and social immobility is also difficult. Just remember, blindness is only my hobby: it's not my work - theology requires so much effort. It really is like work.

I'm really a jumped-up RE teacher, or a jumped-down one, depending on what your values are. I became a lecturer in Divinity at Westhill in 1966, and in 1968 went to Birmingham as a lecturer in RE.

My principal concern over the years was to create a Christian theology that would permit, and even encourage, the teaching of multifaith religious education - an exercise in practical theology. I also launched a course in the theology of education, ranging from Schleiermacher onwards, to find out what theologians' theories meant for education as a whole.

I went on to the theology of adult education, and that's taken me into all sorts of areas in an attempt to educate adults - and me - in the theology of money, blindness, disability, politics, ecclesiology. . .

I was trying to justify the teaching of religion in a fairly secular environment; so it was a battle. When I went to the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, in 2005, I was able to teach from faith to faith. I've absolutely loved it.

The battle here takes different forms - no, it's not a battle; it's just that the people who come to Queen's may have Ph.D.s in theology, or have no theological background - don't know one end of Genesis from Revelation. When they encounter critical theology, it can be a big shock. We have to nurture them through the first term, and often find they are much changed, and far more confident in their faith. So it's a battle against preconceived ideas or churchmanship.

My principal interest now is prophetic ministry today. I got on to that because I teach Christian Mission. In the "Five Marks of Mission" approved by the Church of England, the fourth is "transforming the unjust structures of society". That's the one we tend to neglect.

Every ordinand has to do some work in this area. We have protested against nuclear weapons; we have protested against the economic system, singing alternative Christmas carols in the city centre and taking the mickey out of the financial sector. I'm writing a book, Toward a Prophetic Church, which occupies the counter-cultural ground, and witnesses to justice in society.

We started justicemail.org.uk this year. It's a little enterprise started in two churches, but spreading. It's for busy people who want to take part in campaigns but don't know what to do. We scan through the action groups and send an email to the people with a link, and they can send an email to the Prime Minister or whoever about the current campaign. It educates people, and encourages them to go on to more serious campaigning.

I love teaching children. One of my regrets about blindness is that it's very difficult. You don't get the feedback from the children's faces. Adults will stop and say: "Hang on. What do you mean by that?" I have five children, and found it was very difficult to adapt my stories to the child, because you can't see the wrinkle of the lips, or the tear, which tells you when you need to change gear. And discipline is difficult. There are blind teachers in secondary schools, and I take my hat off to them.

Teaching RE teachers is exciting, because you're contributing to maintaining knowledge and respect for religions in a culture where it's generally misunderstood and despised. In those days we led the world in RE: we were the model that other people followed. But the most delightful thing is to participate in the renewing of Christian faith and the Church, which is what we try to do at Queen's.

I lost my sight through cataracts when I was 13. Surgery was followed by a long series of detach-ments, and I lost the sight of one eye when I was 17. Further eye surgery finally led to the loss of sight in the remaining eye when I was 45. I am one of the five per cent of British people registered blind who have no light sensation whatever.

On the whole, the Church doesn't cope very well with disability. Many Christians still persist with a literal concept of miracle, and the imitation of Christ is sometimes thought to involve healing miracles for disabled people. The true miracle, however, is when disabled people are fully integrated into Church life and accepted exactly as they are.

Yes, attitudes are improving generally. The human-rights agenda, and particularly the campaigns for the rights of disabled people, including the 1995 and 2006 legislation, have made a big impact.

In the English language - and, I believe, in most languages - the word "blindness" is used as a negative metaphor, suggesting insensitivity, ignorance, clumsiness, and lack of discrimination. This negative language is also found in the Bible, and has come into our hymn books and our daily speech.

I don't suppose the Church is any better or worse than most of our society. Little things, however, can make worship much easier for blind people: announcing when you should stand or sit, avoiding confusion when receiving the bread and wine, and remembering to greet blind people.

I have learned to regard blindness as a gift - a strange gift, but one which can sometimes be used effectively for the Kingdom of God.

I read the stories about Christ healing the blind with annoyance. Blindness is associated with sin, unbelief, and darkness. When your blindness is removed, you become a follower of Jesus. The healing miracles are bad examples of how the Church should treat blind people today. After all, there were no blind people among the disciples of Jesus.

Becoming blind has given me a sense of solidarity with other marginalised minorities. I have become more conscious of human suffering. This has changed my theology profoundly, since I tend to start from pain rather than from historic revelation.

As someone committed to social justice on theological grounds, I am active in campaigns against nuclear weapons and the sale of UK armaments to despotic regimes.

Anger is the starting-point for Christian theology. I am deeply and continuously angry about the millions of infants who die every year from preventable causes.

Family is very important. Marilyn and I have been in love for more than 30 years. Marrying her was the most important choice in my life. We have five adult children, all of whom are close to us and to each other. Massive homecomings with other friends are a feature of Christmas and Easter. Home is my fa- vourite place.

My father was a Methodist minister, and my wish was to follow in his footsteps. Both the Methodist Church in Australia and the then Congregational Union in England wisely rejected my attempts to train for ordination.

Like a child, I live for the present, with few regrets. The future is in the hands of God.

The strongest influences on my Christian faith have come from Paul Tillich, whose sermons kept me in the Christian faith during a dark time of my life. Also, the American process theologian Charles Hartshorne; and the German Jewish neo-Marxist political theologian Ernst Bloch.

Daniel Berrigan, Paulo Freire, and P. G. Wodehouse are my favourite authors.

Psalm 139 has meant more to me than any other part of the Bible, except, perhaps, Romans 8. Matthew 23, where Jesus is reported to have used blindness as a term of reproach, troubles me.

Favourite sound? The clink of whisky being poured on to ice cubes.

I'm happiest when I'm reading a book that stimulates and refreshes my faith, and when I'm successfully teaching theological students.

For me, prayer is the binding and the orientating function of community worship. I respond to prayers of adoration and thanksgiving, and I understand intercession as a corporate expression of concern which orientates us toward others.

What makes me most fearful about the future is an accidental exchange of nuclear weapons. What makes me most hopeful is to witness the tireless and courageous rejection of nuclear weapons by both secular and Christian activists.

I'd most like to get locked in a church for a few hours with Jeremiah, the prophet. He passed through the darkest times, but never lost hope in the love of God.

Dr John Hull is Honorary Professor of Practical Theology in the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, and Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham. He was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. A new edition of Touching the Rock (SPCK Classics, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99) is out this month. A new work, The Tactile Heart: Blindness and Faith, is published by SCM Press in August.

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