Theologians: witnesses to truth

12 February 2016

They can learn from scientists about persevering with sceptics, argues Andrew Torrance

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Winter dawn: the Milky Way above the chapel of Languidou, in Brittany

Winter dawn: the Milky Way above the chapel of Languidou, in Brittany

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognised to be true.

Albert Einstein

 

I HAVE been running a programme, Scientists in Congregations Scotland, which has been working over the past two years to encourage a constructive conversation about science and faith in the life of the Church (News, 30 May 2014). I have found myself inhabiting two very different worlds. But these are not the world of science and the world of faith: contrary to widespread assumptions, these worlds have little trouble coming together in the Church. Rather, the two divergent worlds are those of the Church and academia.

For many, it is perhaps obvious that these are very different. As most Christian theologians know, the academic world does not allow them to use the same teaching methods that they would use in Church. It is generally accepted that prayer, evangelism, and personal testimony have no place in the university lecture theatre.

It also seems strange, however, that the Christian theologian should see the Church and academia as two different worlds. Surely they are both devoted to the pursuit of truth. If so, it would seem disingenuous for Christian theologians to pretend that God does not exist and does not speak into this world. It would seem peculiar for them not to do all that they can to help students recognise that they are created, sustained, and surrounded by the love of God.

This is because, for the theologian who is a Christian, the reality of God cannot be reduced to a “human idea” or a “human belief”. The Christian theologian exists as a witness to the reality of the living God.

 

LET us pause for a moment to ask what it means for someone to be a witness to a reality. Since the Enlightenment, society has put the scientist on a pedestal as “the one who studies the hard facts of reality”. Scientists examine the natural order to gain a better understanding of the way things really are.

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When scientists make a new discovery, they will hope to share the news of it with others. Depending on their audience, this may take some time. If they are faced with teaching someone who is sceptical of their field of study, it may take years for them to prepare that student to understand the discovery.

If, however, the committed scientists are convinced of their discovery, they do not respond to scepticism by questioning whether it is appropriate to talk about it. Not for a moment do they compromise their teaching methods to conform to the wilful mind of the sceptic. Instead, they are so confident in their discovery that they will persist in teaching in a way that will help others become privy to the same recognition.

I have spoken to many scientists who have found themselves unable to communicate their scientific understanding to a religious believer because of a perceived tension between a scientific discovery and a religious commitment. When faced with such scepticism, however, scientists do not cave under pressure. They do not disregard their understanding; nor do they pretend that their discovery does not pertain to the reality of the world.

When I was a graduate student studying theology, I remember being stopped in my tracks by a three-word sentence: “God is real.” This should have been obvious to me. Yet it hit me as a wake-up call. Caught up in the history of ideas, I had slowly begun to forget that theology is a form of witness.

 

IN THE academic world, Christian theologians are placed under immense pressure to disregard their faith in the reality of God. They are expected to compromise their teaching methods accordingly. They cannot present the reality of grace as good news, as transformative of our perception of the world. And they are constantly under pressure to reduce their relationship with God to just another human world-view.

When Christian theologians become caught up in this context, they are likely to find themselves being drawn into a dynamic of compromise that subliminally erodes their faith, prompting them to forget that they are a witness.

What emerges is that Christian theologians must learn from scientists. They must learn to respect the nature of their particular task, as it corresponds to the living God.

 

THIS does not mean that Christian theologians should be unwise. They must learn to be sensitive to the rules of the secular mission field within which they operate, lest they find themselves losing their opportunity for mission: for example, by losing their job, or facing disciplinary action.

They may, for example, need to pray for their students by themselves, at home and outside the classroom, rather than openly within the classroom. They must, however, recognise strategic compromise to be just that. And they must continually reflect on ways in which they might be able to teach theology with the integrity with which scientists teach students about the natural world.

Christian theologians do this by continually looking to Jesus Christ and to scripture to understand what it means to be human rather than turning to some “more enlightened” worldly understanding. They do this by praying that the Holy Spirit might come to transform their students by the renewing of their minds, not restricting themselves to their own capacities for teaching.

And they do this with a humility that recognises that we have been created by a loving Father, who gives us a purpose that is much truer than any purpose that we might try to establish for ourselves.

Just as science professors seek to open the eyes of their students to the wonders of natural world, so, too, must Christian theologians seek to open the eyes of their students to the reality of the triune God.

They must do so not simply because they are Christians, but also because they are academics who have devoted themselves to the pursuit of truth — to scientific study of the living God.

 

Dr Andrew Torrance is a Research Fellow at the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, and programme leader for Scientists in Congregations, Scotland (arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/scientistsincongregationsscotland/).

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