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Thoughts and deeds

04 March 2016

The parish and the theology department need each other, argues Catherine Pickstock


Vaulted: the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, built in the 15th century to house “the lectures and disputations of the theology faculty”

Vaulted: the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, built in the 15th century to house “the lectures and disputations of the theology ...

IT IS often said that Christianity in Britain is at a turning-point. Some would describe it as a crisis. The circumstances are complex, and by no means simply religious in character; and points of difficulty are also occasions of renewal.

There is an intellectual dimension to this. Only because it has been able to present a cogent and liveable account of reality has Christianity spread throughout the world and shaped the basis of many different cultures. To marginalise the intellectual task is a dereliction of missionary duty.

Historically, for instance, religious scepticism has often emerged from within an intellectual milieu, later filtering into the popular imagination, as ressentiment at the failure of religious symbols and rituals to deliver to ordinary life a magical ease that they had never promised. Such a process has been intensified over the past 20 years, for reasons that remain under-examined, by the popularisation of the “new atheism”.

This challenge must be met at an equally popular level. But, unless academic currents are also met on the high ground, where they first arise, there will be no coherent and contemporary Christian view to be disseminated. It is encouraging that, already, they are being so met, and in creative and sympathetic ways. But this development itself requires ecclesial consolidation, if it is to be sustained and integrated.

Equally, theological reflection needs to relate itself to the current sociological context, which — as I have suggested — is a scene both of apparent decline and of hidden renewal.


MODERN theology has undergone many changes in the past 40 years. Where the tendency had been to focus on 20th-century figures (Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jüngel, or Balthasar, often read somewhat out of sequence and context), today, in a spirit of ressourcement,our contemporaries are Philo of Alexandria, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Hugh of St Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, Dante Alighieri, and John of the Cross. Contemporary theology invokes earlier thinkers as pertinent to contemporary questions and, if read carefully and creatively, offering new possibilities.

Theology stands in a renewed relation to other academic disciplines. Our responses can risk turning ourselves inside out and loosening — or losing altogether — theology’s conviction or integrity. Yet, with a strong sense of our own integrity, inter-disciplinarity need not be feared. Indeed, it could offer a way in which to consolidate our integrity as a discipline.

Internally, theology is already interdisciplinary through and through. It involves a collaboration between historical, literary, philosophical, and doctrinally expositional approaches. Moreover, if theology draws by participation into God’s thinking, as for Aquinas, it is not especially about any one thing, and has no fixed domain of its own. It is, rather, the divine science of everything, which we can but fragmentarily grasp in the glancing difference that it makes to every single thing or proposition.

Furthermore, many disciplines now raise questions concerning knowledge, truth, being, and goodness, and so engage with ineluctably theological questions, even if they approach these questions in an heterodox, agnostic, or dogmatically atheistic fashion. In general, the study of religion and theology is more central to secular discussions than it was 50 years ago.

This is a rich opportunity here for church leaders and theologians. Consider the recent interest of continental philosophers in St Paul as a philosopher. These discussions have brought St Paul to life as the initiator of so much in our cultural legacy, in a way that the supposedly inner-Christian critical study of Paul has failed to do, it might be argued.


THESE remarks lead to a third frontier: the university at large. In the 1990s, theology stood awkwardly as the discipline whose subject matter could not be pinned down, and whose methodology was problematic.

Kathryn Tanner has recently written more optimistically that, since post-modern trends in the academy have problematised all claims to disinterested or universal knowledge and judgement (even in the “hard” sciences), theology no longer need feel ashamed of herself, or hunted out.

This insight is crucial and affirming. However, I think we can now detect a new twist in this story. If the post-modern moment gave licence to theology as ungrounded or constitutively incomplete, a new, post-post-modern need for an affirmative certainty (not least through reductionist appeals to science) lends warrant to theology’s speculative or metaphysical dimension.

Beyond that, theology’s own constitutive attention to its own incompleteness (whether ontological or epistemological) can serve as a paradigm within the university for the structure of knowledge and scientific discovery as such, and so for the university’s own understanding of itself. Such incompleteness need not be seen as an humiliation of its endeavour, but rather as its own kind of perfection: the fundamental conditions of our being and understanding are too close to be known directly by us. In order to comprehend further the ground of understanding and existence, we must make certain assumptions, take things on trust, and make inspired guesses. At the heart of speculative reason, faith must be operative.


THE position of academic theology in relation to secular norms is an increasing challenge. Similar problems arise for the Church in the face of normative secularity and default atheism.

How are we to appeal to a society whose expectations, structures, and norms seem inimical to theological purpose? How do we engage with such a society without losing ourselves?

The atheist theorist Régis Debray has argued that human existence is basically religious, because culture comprises a system of meaning that necessarily cannot complete itself, or perfectly validate itself, and so must appeal to a kind of transcendence. It follows that, as human beings, we need to become better informed about religion in order to understand ourselves.

And if religion, in Debray’s terms, is more explainer than the thing to be explained, then, as Charles Taylor argues in A Secular Age, we cannot see “the secular” as a normative default position, but should regard it as something to be accounted for.


IT IS key to the immediate problem of student university and seminary recruitment, as to church attendance and popular interest, that we examine ways of presenting what we do in terms that will capture the attention of primary- and secondary-school children, as well as of young adults. The key lies in boldness, confidence, and freedom in our setting of agendas, and not in capitulation.

Key themes might be set down that are central to secular concern, and are engaged with theologically — challenging productively and constructively, rather than grimly, nostalgically, or apologetically; themes such as life, existence, good, time, beauty, truth.

So, we must combine a new confidence with a readiness to understand why — as Bruno Latour puts it in Rejoicing — so much religious discourse can sound reactionary and no longer real. However important and distinct from secular voices the best examples of Christian social witness may be, we must combat the perception that the Churches fight shy of talking about God and religion, and, in a futile retreat from this quandary, would rather talk about anything else.


I HAVE so far referred to academic theology and the Church as facing similar problems. But the relationship between the two is itself no longer a given. Indeed, it is a frontier under threat, as the link between the training of ordinands and seminarians faces the possibility of being detached from university theology.

I have already mentioned that the Church must keep connected with the theological study of ontological questions, for example, if it is to understand its role in contemporary society, and so survive. Inversely, academic Christian theology cannot neglect its relation with the Church, or faith communities. The Church is the first and final context of theological endeavour, and without such a link, we risk academic decadence.

One sometimes detects squeamishness in academic circles when this relation is aired, as though engagement with “practitioners” or “beneficiaries” will sully the stringency of academic endeavours. Yet, theology would not exist without ecclesial claims for the final revelation of God in the incarnation of Christ, and the Church’s subscription to credal norms for the interpretation of scripture.

While academic theology must reaffirm its sometimes forgotten or overlooked connections with the Church, it must also welcome its new pluralist context: studying the history of religions in a way appropriate to our globalised era; engaging with non-Christian faiths as intensively as possible; not being afraid of addressing the largest shared ontological questions, while not flinching from the implications of differences between faiths and their important texts.

Just as theology has always been interdisciplinary, and just as theology has always been linked with the Church, so it has always been “interfaith”. If theology shies from the big questions, or fails to communicate itself, this can encourage negatively non-reflective religious practice, which may degenerate into the atavistic in a way that colludes, by excessive opposition, with a dogmatic and intolerant atheism.

There are signs that theology is responding to these challenges. David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God finds crucial and surprising common ground across a range of religions concerning the three Hindu categories of being, consciousness, and bliss, which he profoundly relates to Trinitarian theology. From an external perspective, religious studies offers the chance of an inter-cultural literae humaniores, a humanist education appropriate to a globalised era.

This sense of shared wayfaring might indeed offer a useful guiding image for the Church’s relation with academic theology, and engagement with other discourses and faiths, including absence of faith.

And so, in the case of each of these frontiers, thinking matters. Today, we may deplore a secular world dominated by numbers, abstraction, and simplistic metaphysics of utility and autonomy. We may wish to oppose to this the more imponderable, yet effective, ancestral wisdom of religious traditions, which we find more intensely present in ritual, symbol, and practice than in theory.

And yet, to make new space for this, we have to meet secularism on its own terms — terms that have artificially erected the intellectual domain to pride of place. This means that abstract, metaphysical issues now become of first concern, even within ordinary pastoral practice. And yet the Church retreats from theology just at the moment when it needs a greater depth of theological engagement; while, inversely, theology at times loses sight of the practical exigency of its enquiries.


Catherine Pickstock is the Professor of Metaphysics and Poetics in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Emmanuel College.

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