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Interview: Ian McFarland, Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge

20 April 2018

‘The emphasis in Britain on “value for money” seems absolutely poisonous for meaningful education, especially in divinity’

During term, pretty much all my time is devoted to teaching and administration (and I’m currently chair of the Divinity Faculty Board). But one reason Cambridge was attractive to me is that terms are short and vacations relatively generous, and, during vacations, I can devote myself pretty much full-time to research.

I work on contemporary Christian thought. I’m currently finishing a book for an academic readership on Christology, which follows books on creation, original sin, and what it means to be human, exploring topics often considered problematic, trying to show how they function in a more positive way than they’re often understood. It’s a theology of retrieval of classical formulations, showing how they can address contemporary Christians’ problems.

For instance, on original sin I’m pretty Augustinian; so I’m responding to modern critiques and arguing that it’s a reflex doctrine — not a primary focus — resulting from the proclamation of grace. It’s not there to tell people how bad they are, and then to tell them how they can be saved. Just the contrary: it teaches that we really only understand what sin is after we have heard the good news of salvation.

Also, the doctrine of original sin has functioned very conservatively, keeping people in line. I emphasise that thinking about sin always begins with oneself. Because original sin teaches that all human beings are equal in their captivity to sin, the doctrine should function not as a lever to keep others in their place, but as a reminder of my own incapacity to know the fullness of my sin — and thus of the need to listen to others if how I behave harms them.

One important reformation of the doctrine I affirm is the irreducible character of human agency. Calling people victims of sin, while intended to be helpful, can actually undermine their healing process, which depends on them claiming their own agency. Of course, this raises the worry that people will blame themselves for the harm they have suffered, and here it’s important to distinguish agency — and self-responsibility — from blame.

Original sin means that all of us, in all our actions, participate in sin. But it doesn’t follow that all of us are equally to blame for sin and its effects; so the doctrine shouldn’t be used for assigning blame. The confession that Jesus is the saviour of us all means we all need saving — we’re all caught up in the dynamics of sin. That’s the root of the doctrine: it teaches fundamental human solidar­ity before God, in which we’re all equally in need of grace.

I also enjoy undergraduate lecturing. Most undergraduates beginning their degree don’t really have a strong sense of what theology is; so it’s a real pleasure to introduce them to the subject.

As relatively newly arrived from overseas, and not having been educated at Oxbridge myself, it’s hard to know how to assess things here. I did teach at Aberdeen for seven years, but my education was in the United States. I went to a small liberal arts college to read Classics, then to Union Theological Seminary in New York for a Master’s in divinity. I did another Master’s in Chicago to fulfil ordination require­ments, but I decided to do a Ph.D. at Yale. I did serve a year in a Lutheran parish as part of my ordination training, which I really enjoyed, and I’m still a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, but here I worship at our parish church.

Compared to the US sector, where private institutions are such a big part of the mix, the administrative burden imposed by the Higher Education Funding Council for Eng­land feels onerous, and the emphasis in Britain on “value for money” — which really means about economic return on a degree — seems absolutely poisonous for meaningful education, especially in divinity.

Obviously, university training provides lots of technical expertise in various fields, all of which help society to run, but what distingu­ishes a university from a technical school is a vision of intellectual engagement beyond simply training in a specialism. Universities, at their best, train people to be curious about what they don’t know and self-confident about engaging with new ideas. I worry that this distinctive dimension of university education is increasingly being eclipsed by a view of university as little more than advanced job training.

I hope that the divinity faculty contributes people who combine a passion for truth — indeed, ultimate truth — with profound modesty about the extent to which truth is something that we can ever grasp or control. Our graduates go into a variety of careers, and to the extent that they’re characterised by their learning, they’re an invaluable leaven to a culture that’s all too often either dismissive of truth, or simply equates it with power and control.

My predecessor, Professor [David] Ford, wanted to recognise the dimension of faith in academic theology, and it seems to me that one thing that’s truly distinctive about our programme is that there’s a strong focus on engaging faith trad­itions from within: not just learning what people believe, but exploring and engaging with arguments that shape those beliefs. Taking a faith perspective in exploring theology isn’t to sidestep critical assessment of traditions, but precisely the necessary condition for making such engagement possible.

Many religion departments in the UK focus on religious studies. Cam­bridge isn’t like that, and I hope that we’ll continue to maintain our distinctiveness as a place where students are challenged to think theologically both within and across different religious traditions.

What I want to avoid is a place that’s organised as “Christianity and everything else”. We can’t study every tradition, and our centre of gravity will continue in the Abrahamic faiths because that’s where we have an anchor already. But I’m convinced that to study Christianity alongside other traditions actually helps to illuminate what is distinctive about my own faith. We have a first-year introductory course which examines themes of creation, evil, and the general difficulty of talking about God, and, in so far as these are themes prominent in Jewish and Muslim traditions, I’d like to think about teaching that course in a more interconfessional way that brings out the distinctiveness of the different traditions.

For me, the experience of God comes when I hear the Word preached and receive the sacrament. That’s God addressing me — if I have the wit to listen. I’d be very reluctant to ident­ify any other experiences as experiences of God. They may be — and, of course, whenever and however God speaks to us, we need to listen — but history also shows that it’s all too easy, on the basis of appeals to experience, to mistake for God some­thing that is most definitely not God.

I was the oldest of three, in a comfortable childhood in a standard US nuclear family. My wife and I have two daughters. Our older daughter just started university back in the US, and the younger is doing GCSEs here. It makes me happy to see them thrive.

I like hiking in the countryside, and reading non-theological books to get a different perspective on things. I like to go back to Proust and Dante — partly because it keeps my French and Italian up — and keeping up with my daughters’ reading.

I love hearing church bells ringing in the distance.

Lots of things make me angry — many petty, some less so. I react most viscerally to arrogance and cruelty.

From a Christian perspective, it seems to me that the only meaningful hope for the future is God’s faithful­ness — and that’s more than adequate.

I pray most to be faithful, in all those contexts that I’m called to be faithful.

I’d ask to be alone in a church with Malcolm X — assuming that he’d want to sit down with me. He has a remarkable personal story of how he came from radical disinterest to a profound sense of transformation. He was a Muslim, of course. There are few people I know in any tradition who had a more profound and grateful sense of God at work in their lives.

Professor Ian McFarland was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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