Saturday, 14 February 2009

Recruitment Problem?

The Revd. Dr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, and writing a Cambridge Ph.D on Thomas Aquinas, says that the use and profile of theology should be raised in the Church of England, for "we should go orthodox and thoughtful".

He laments the loss of the use of theology in many areas of Church life: so that there was a liberal turn to social sciences, and he cites an example of a short training course that was nothing but management theory. Priests today trained at a time of loss of confidence in creeds, doctrine and theology draw on spirituality and Church history. The Doctrine Commission has said nothing on the current economic crisis. It is as if theology is left to individuals, and a theology is not put in the way of newcomers. Current disputes and changes seem to dodge around theology into procedure and law.

As an ex-Unitarian I see parallels here within Unitarianism. First of all there was the loss of a general theological framework as a result of the pluralism of thought and belief. In an individualist community, there really was no way to impose a thought system. Secondly, some of those who were more conservative, or conserving, moved towards preservation of form: you can think what you like, but we will do it in a noticeable Protestant Christian manner in recognisable worship. Thirdly Unitarians started living in the past, with an overbearing interest in history. To some extent history is unavoidable, because when theology is weak then legitimacy and authority and continuity comes through references back into history.

I do this myself. I have become something of a nineteenth century junky, finding the insights of actually liberal theology and seeing streams of this that come from German and American theologians, and also that of James Martineau.

However, the difference is (and expressed in the town's In Depth Group) that we tackle theologians who stood as correctives to them and who have themselves led to controversies and later up to date theologians. So in our little corner, we are doing it.

It is unfortunate that Andrew Davison is having another general swipe at liberalism, but I would say there is a theological liberalism and a liberal approach to theology that he might welcome.

The fact is that the days have gone when theology can be imposed upon people: never mind other faiths: even within the Christian faith the extent and breadth of theology (and much of it contradictory) simply disallows some kind of imposition. Nevertheless, we can try to tool ourselves up, so to speak, with a look at the theological output that has taken place.

I've made the same arguments with Unitarians: that just because there is such breadth there is no reason to abandon looking at some of the important theological principles that go towards even the existence of plurality.

Nor should we apologise for inserting into theology important insights of educational theory, social sciences, sciences and historical methods. Nor should it forget the arts and writing itself. Theology applicable to the current economic crisis, for example, must contain social scientific insight.

I have just submitted my next piece to Episcopal Café on the economy and a small theological insight regarding sin.

My own view is that the creeds are weak and antiquarian, and that they are going the same way as the Thirty-nine Articles. They are a less adequate way of saying that this is part of a tradition, if that is what they are for, because they imply current belief that many people do not share. But this is where theology steps in, to ask why, and what happens instead.

Recently, on the basis that "these days theists are content with small gains", Keith Ward gave an example of how science can be used to discuss God issues. What he discussed was not science as such, but how science can affect the doing of theology. So the discussion of God becomes one of process and instant process (outside of time), of dimensions beyond our big bodies' lived in four, and mathematical models. It does not, itself, add up to Christian orthodoxy, though someone might try it afterwards, but it does show how theology can work these days. The same is done with educational theory (for example concrete to abstract, plural to universal - though I argue against that!), or with social sciences (conflict and consensus, poverty, needs and wants) or with writing (the story form giving rise to deep human meaning).

What's the problem? Can't they get the academic recruits?

1 comment:

June Butler said...

The fact is that the days have gone when theology can be imposed upon people

Indeed! One wonders what the new new thing in theology will be - or the old thing that will be taken up again. Meanwhile, many of us make it up as we go along in relative ignorance.

But how then do you live your life? Does that change with changing theological ideas? I think so.