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Theology next: looking ahead

24 March 2016

What is going to be the next big thing, if there is one? We asked seven theologians to gaze into the future

Ruth Jackson

Ruth Jackson

What key influences are shaping theology now, and into the future?

Ruth Jackson: Academic theology is a contentious subject in the modern academy. Truly theological language is different from the descriptive language used within the social and natural sciences; and theologians are asked to justify their work within research frameworks that demand the production of “useful” information. We’re asked to capitulate to ideas about value and meaning which are different from our own.

Mark Jordan: There is a prior question for me: Is it more useful to talk about an abstract theology, or about embodied theologians who hardly agree in their methods and preoccupations? Living Christian theologians are provoked and inspired by other university fields, by the church authorities to whom they answer, by cultural trends they endorse or dislike, and by what they experience, or imagine, as the needs of their communities. Even as an academic field, theology faces outwards. Theologians often have more in common with conversation-partners outside the field than with their colleagues in the next office.

Morwenna Ludlow: I’m inspired by theologians working constructively with early-Christian thought, especially those who experiment with form, challenging our narrow ideas of what theological texts are. Now that publicly funded research-papers have to be published with open access (free for all to read online), I hope that theological essays will be more accessible beyond academia. I find pastoral theology that dialogues with sociology and ethnography both fascinating and important: the fourth-century theologians whom I study, with their acute curiosity about the human condition, would be equally enthralled.

Gareth Powell: Theological works that explicitly explore the shape of Christian community in the light of consumerism and individualism, that attend to the question of human beings (and creation) flourishing together. Much 20th-century theology was attuned to difference, but that can mean having lost sight of what binds and unites us. We are now seeing a more mature theology of the reconciliation of difference in Christ, in a way that takes account of post-colonial, or feminist, critiques — for instance, of simple singularity.

Stephen Shakespeare: Theology does not exist in isolation from the world. It therefore has to face the continuing European legacy of imperialism and slavery; the growing dominance of markets in every aspect of life; the transformation of our humanity by accelerating technology; and desecration of the earth and non-human life.

Judith Wolfe: Our traditional ideas of what it is to be human are being stretched by scientific advances in genetics, neuroscience, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. This is forcing theologians to think carefully what a Christian account of human beings can and must say.

Simeon Zahl: We are in a very exciting time for theology. Theologians from across the map are increasingly seeing the great 2000-year theological tradition as a creative contemporary asset, rather than as a yoke to be thrown off, or to be defensive about. Thanks to works such as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, theological confidence is strengthened by the increasing recognition that secularism and non-belief are as much a product of their context and history as Christianity is, and not some inevitable development. This helps theologians see the Christian theological tradition as a powerful asset for engaging creatively with, and within, a pluralist world.


What’s going to be the next big trend in theology?

RJ: Much more than we need to indulge a new buzz-word or gimmick in theology, theologians need to spend more time and attention on the vital topics of sex and sexuality. These issues won’t go away, and more of us need to try to articulate a coherent theological approach to them.

MJ: I hope that Christian theologians will exert themselves to find more adequate, more persuasive, and more beautiful forms of writing — whatever their topic. This is not a wish for more popular writing, which can be as inadequate, unpersuasive, and ugly as the dullest treatise. I hope, instead, that theologians will reconsider the disciplinary decisions by which they ceded their most powerful forms of writing to literature.

ML: As a historian of theology, I’m wary of making predictions. Theology is the way in which we attempt to talk about God. Although God doesn’t change, our perception of our own created situation does — and the language we use to talk about God and salvation shifts somewhat in response. Theology will continue to inform, and be informed by, issues such as globalisation, climate change, and developments in medical science.

GP: Increased ecumenism: both within the life of the Church, and also increasingly in its theological writings, there has been a marked shift towards drawing from traditions wider than the ones we own; and we are substantiating this more and more, in a shared common life (seen in new monastic communities). We are now seeking to be reconciled as Christ calls us to be, yet aware of difference and the manner in which it manifests itself in power, structures, gender, education, religious belief and practice.

SS: I detest trends. I suspect it will be something awful.

JW: The ideals that drive scientists’ visions of the enhancement of life are related in complicated ways to religious ideals; and theologians will need (and want) to grapple, for example, with what the Christian belief in the abolition of death has to say about medical and genetic advances, or how the religious idea of sinfulness and the possibility of its being overcome, is similar to, or different from, transhumanism. The fact that today more theologians than at any other point in the past 50 years are writing systematic theologies — integrated, large-scale visions of how Christian beliefs fit together — is a sign of this wish to explain the distinctive shape of the Christian vision of the world.

SZ: Although the Pentecostal movement is more than 100 years old, academic theology is only just starting to engage seriously with the extraordinary global rise of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianities. Their astonishing success in a very wide variety of cultural and geographical contexts is, perhaps, the single best evidence that theology is not simply fighting a long defeat in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. There is a great deal of work left to be done in thinking through the Pentecostal achievement, its strengths as well as its weaknesses. I also think we are about to enter a new period of creative theological return to scripture in academic theology.


What will be the standing of theology in universities in future?

RJ: It’s easy to be pessimistic, even cynical, about the future of academic theology, but academic theologians can and must offer a radical alternative to popular neo-liberal narratives about the “value” of knowledge, and the “value” of pursuing study in the arts and humanities.

MJ: In the United States, at least, the cultural agreements that permitted Christian theology to continue in secularising universities have long been under pressure. The pressure has only increased with the more general crisis in funding for the humanities (to which theology is usually assigned). It is time to experiment with new sites for learning theology, and to revisit the presumption that the best theology will be done in a degree-granting institutions.

ML: Big changes in the funding of universities mean that the standing of theology depends not only on convincing scholars (and, increasingly, managers) of the value of our discipline, but on persuading each new generation of school-leavers that it is worth studying. Current school syllabuses inspire young people about the big philosophical questions, but universities need to be better at communicating the sheer richness and breadth of theology, especially its relationship to history, literature and the arts, sociology, and anthropology. Theology and the study of religion are partners, not rivals, in this enterprise.

GP: The potential diminishing of funding for the humanities, combined with decreasing numbers of candidates in residential ministerial training, means that change is inevitable. I hope that relationships will be kindled in a formal way between theology faculties, dioceses, and other religious bodies, to enliven our society’s understanding of itself, and of how religion, and indeed Christian theology, serve the common good, and offer a rich vision of the common good.

SS: Under fire. Universities are being warped by the utilitarian imperative that makes markets the arbiters of all goods. There is still a thirst among potential students to study beliefs seriously, and many departments are able to respond to this. Playing the game is not enough, however. Theologians need to resist explicitly these neo-liberal narratives of education, or they will eat us whole.

JW: Well, the cynical (but pragmatic) answer is that, if universities continue to be treated as business ventures, as they are currently, then the standing of theology faculties will depend less on what they stand for than on their ability to be profitable explicitly — that is, to attract students, grants, and other sources of income.

SZ: It is an irony that a period of such creativity and energy in theology, especially British theology, comes when theology’s place in universities still needs defending, in many cases. Younger scholars, especially, across academic disciplines, show renewed interest in religion in general and in Christianity in particular: historians, cognitive scientists, philosophers, and scholars of literature and of art. To a new, less theologically hostile generation, it is more obvious than ever how important it is to have theology and religion departments. Global religion is hardly going quietly into the night, and other disciplines are increasingly recognising how valuable theological expertise is for understanding human culture and history — even human nature itself.


What do you think will happen to theological literacy beyond academia, and how might academic theology contribute?

RJ: In the UK, we have rich traditions of generating Christian art, music, literature, drama — right down to the parish nativity. They have their roots in scripture and liturgy, and enable theological literacy well outside typical academic circles. These traditions are inspirational for academic theology. Academics should use the gift of our training in order to explain, and open up, the complex theological ideas they contain.

MJ: In the United States, the decline of public acquaintance with Christian theology continues — not least among reporters, and other writers for mass media. It continues, as well, among many churchgoers, and, for that matter, among incoming or returning university students. I suspect that none of them will be helped by loud insistance that we should be more rigorous, or even more orthodox (as those terms are typically used). If you want people to read you, you need to persuade them that you have something worth reading.

ML: Both Church and academy are guilty of obscuring what we do with jargon: to an outsider, some informal sermons or prayers are just as difficult to decode as complex analyses of the Trinity. But the increasing awareness of the social value of religious literacies (understanding multiple religions, and influences of religion) might move us towards wider theological literacy in the Christian tradition. We academics need to complement open access publication with more accessible language.

GP: This is a period of great opportunity for the Church of England to deepen the discipleship of its laity through rigorous and academic training. The Reform and Renewal agenda includes substantial funding for this. We could see a surge in places of learning in dioceses, which enable laity to deepen their faith, and connect with some of the most profound problems our society faces.

SS: Clearly, theology cannot take a familiarity with Christian language and belief as a default starting-point. But that should not be an excuse for theology’s seeing its task as some sort of patronising apologetics, “educating the masses”. There is a need for creative, constructive, and experimental theological writing, and conversations that engage with people where they actually are.

JW: By theological literacy, I understand a matter-of-course familiarity with the ideas, images, and stories of the Christian religion, which we used to (but perhaps no longer) gain from casual church attendance, or detailed study of Christianity in RE. Academic theology can help, for example, by supporting journalists, museums, and other institutions and courses that deal with our Western heritage and culture by interpreting and explaining art, literature, and history that no longer make intuitive sense.

SZ: At one level, it does seem that theological literacy is not very high at the moment: even undergraduates arriving at university to study theology are often deeply shaped by popular misunderstandings, such as the idea that Christianity is basically just a set of moral principles, or the very shallow conflict-thesis between science and religion. I would love to see more theologians in universities taking up the venerable old genre of popular theology alongside their more conventional research. Time pressures may make this difficult, but it can still be done, especially once someone is no longer fighting to secure a permanent academic post.


What makes you concerned about the future of theology?

RJ: We are still too prone to ignoring minority voices, and vulnerable voices. Also, I’ve already mentioned the pressure on academic theology and its objectives to capitulate to the external targets set by the Government, by funding bodies, and by research frameworks: academic theology becomes a market, in which researchers compete against each other for resources, status, and jobs.

MJ: I am concerned, first, by my own limits and failures. On any day, I might write theology better than I do. I am concerned, next, by the shared despair that encourages me to settle for theology as a merely academic discipline. Finally, most sharply, I worry about any arrogance that would reduce theology to the mere policy of church institutions — or to a tidy programme for social reform.

ML: Theologians: we’re very good at gate-keeping, and pretending that we’re maintaining rigour. Disciplined thought is important, but there are different ways of achieving this, and in the end good theology doesn’t depend on reading all of Barth/Augustine, nor a mastery of difficult Greek verbs. But I’ve also been told that academic theology is irrelevant to the Church — and that’s another kind of gate-keeping. Both Church and academy need to listen to each other with generosity and with sensitivity to our different situations in a complex and changing world.

GP: There is still suspicion of academic theology in the Church, and the dominance of practical theology in the majority of our priestly training-institutions is worrying. Practical theology has a poor history of relating to systematic, philosophical, and historical forms of theology, to its detriment, and theirs. We need to address this issue, and not allow this parting of the ways to continue. These disciplines need one another.

SS: Much well-funded modern theology is living in a fantasy world. It pretends that historical criticism of the Bible never existed. It oozes nostalgia for a Christendom centred on Europe. And it bristles with contempt for anything that contests that narrative, from Islam to liberation theology. Little is worse than the privileged theologian telling oppressed groups (in the name of some idealised Church) what they may and may not say, how they may and may not organise.

JW: Many theology faculties are too quick to conform to what they think a secular market wants, namely, programmes of religious studies. Certainly, we live in a pluralist world, and want to understand religions in general. However, many undergraduates say they come to theology “to understand why religion motivates people”. Answers to that question are found within the religions — their ideas and texts and traditions — not outside them, in generalised comparisons, or anthropological analyses. Religious-studies programmes are in danger of giving away some of the best means for answering the pressing questions.

SZ: Student funding is a perennial area of concern, especially at graduate level. That calls for fund-raising for studentships, and embracing, with wisdom and care, modes of learning that allow students to continue to work while they study. I’m excited to be helping next year to run the University of Nottingham’s Distance Learning MA in Philosophical and Systematic Theology. But that is a practical concern. On the intellectual side, I am really very optimistic about theology’s future.


What makes you optimistic?

RJ: Academic theologians are outrageously good at navel-gazing, and we often have difficulty remembering that God — the true and proper object of theology — can’t be conjured up by rubbing pen against paper. But I have hope, because in those radical moments where theology stays true to its actual purpose, it is capable of subverting the grim and hollow aspects of the university system.

MJ: If theology means trying to find words for our meetings with divinity, then there is a deep desire for it. We can be confident that that desire will not be uprooted. The question about the future of theology is not whether but where: where will theology appear next — and how can I sharpen my eyes to recognise it?

ML: My students! They are intelligent, imaginative, excited, and committed. They are a more diverse body than ever and, especially at Ph.D. level, they learn a great deal from each other. I learn an immense amount from them, especially about the relationship between academic theology and a lived life.

GP: I continue to encounter people across the various traditions in the life of the Church who are passionate about education that does not constrain or narrow one’s belief, but expands it to understand all things in the light of the gospel. There is a hunger to address the issues we face socially, politically, and economically with renewed theological rigour. We are now afforded a real opportunity — when so many of our political and social institutions are failing to provide any coherent hopeful narrative for our common life — to offer a wonderful vision of humans (and creation) flourishing in every sphere of life, and every place.

SS: Nothing; optimism is a form of wish-fulfilment. If I were to say what excites me, I’d point to the vitality of feminist, queer, and black theologies, the resurgence of mystical theology, and the emerging work of people prepared to experiment in the name of liberation (such as Katharine Moody, Marika Rose, Keith Hebden, Karen Bray).

JW: Above all, the inherent value and excitement of the subject, and some of the brilliant young thinkers we are training. Theology allows students and scholars to get into the nitty-gritty of linguistics, history, literature, philosophy, (canon) law, and scientific questions, but also to relate them to the biggest possible questions about God and the world. It is, in that sense, the most human of academic disciplines, and will continue to draw and delight.

SZ: A great deal! There is the massive energy, increasingly finding its way into university theology, of Pentecostal and Charismatic theologies, and the new sense of hope and confidence in Roman Catholic theology inspired in part by Pope Francis. There remains a robust global interest in high-level academic theology, especially at the graduate level, which we see in the very strong numbers of international students applying to do doctorates in theology in the UK. There is the sense that we are now coming out of a period of amnesia, on the university level, about the intellectual power and complexity of the Christian tradition. Taking religion seriously in the academy feels exciting and new again — even a bit transgressive!


What recently published books are going to make a significant impact on theological learning?

Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory (English translation, 2011); John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015). RJ

John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (2006, Blackwell, 2nd edition); the trilogy of Papal Encyclicals: Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est (2005) on charity; Spe Salvi (2007) on hope; and Francis, Lumen Fidei (2013) on faith; J. Williams (ed.), The Holy Spirit in the World Today (2011). GP

William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist? A preamble to Black Theology (Beacon, 1998); John Caputo, The Insistence of God. A theology of perhaps (Indiana, 2013); Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and planetary entanglement (Columbia, 2014). SS

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007); Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale University Press, 2009); the body of work by two outstanding theological thinkers in positions of church primacy: Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams. JW

Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An approach to fourth-century Trinitarian theology (Oxford University Press, 2004); Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James (Princeton University Press, 1999); Nimi Wariboko, The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical methodology in New Spirit (Eerdmans, 2012). SZ


Ruth Jackson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities in the University of Cambridge.

Mark D. Jordan is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School.

Morwenna Ludlow is Professor of Christian History and Theology in the Department of Theology & Religion at the University of Exeter.

Fr Gareth Powell is Priest Missioner at the Community of St Margaret the Queen in Lambeth South Deanery.

Dr Steven Shakespeare is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy in the Department of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University.

Dr Judith Wolfe is Lecturer in Theology & the Arts at the University of St Andrews.

Dr Simeon Zahl is Junior Research Fellow in Theology at St John’s College, Oxford, and has recently been appointed Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Nottingham.

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