As a discipline, theology is under pressure from just about every direction. Some of those pressures — the most obvious and certainly the most understandable — come from beyond the Christian community. For the majority of nonreligious women and men, theology is an irrelevant, though perhaps otherwise innocuous, preoccupation of the pious. It may have a place in a church or monastery, but it is best left out of public discourse and institutions. Once the “Queen of the Sciences” — locating all the other subjects in relation to their divine origin and final purpose — theology has largely been replaced by a more modest program of religious studies in universities and otherwise sequestered to Sunday schools and seminaries.

For atheists of a more militant persuasion, theology is not only irrelevant but harmful to one’s health. It is the ideological underpinning to humanity’s greatest captivity. By it, human beings rob themselves of their best attributes, ascribing them to some remote deity rather than to themselves. “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing.”[1] The atheist of this school thus recommends a cynical inversion of John the Baptist’s confession (John 3:30); God must decrease that we might increase.

These pressures are by now familiar, and it is safe to assume that they are not going away anytime soon. To those who kindly request that theology keep to itself — playing about the halls of religious communities — many theologians are all too happy to comply. Theology is after all a component of Christian discipleship. It is hardly suited for the kinds of disinterested inquiries often heralded by proponents of higher learning. It is certainly ill-equipped to meet the market demands increasingly placed upon academic departments (just ask a priest or theologian about the typical graduate salary for those studying the Queen of the Sciences). As the late John Webster elegantly put it, “Theology is an aspect of the sanctification of reason, that is, of the process in which reason is put to death and made alive by the terrifying and merciful presence of the holy God.”[2] Such mortification and vivification seems a bit much to ask of those disinterested in or unconvinced by the claims of Christianity.

There are nevertheless some good reasons for recommending theology even to those outside the Christian community. For starters, as Tara Isabella Burton argues in a thoughtful contribution to The Atlantic, the study of theology both requires and engenders empathy for those living, working, and worshiping in a context other than one’s own. “If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the ‘outside,’ the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events ‘from within’: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who —in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.” Want to understand the poetry of John Donne? Pick up his sermons. Want an insight into the motivations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr? Attend to the “gospel of freedom” proclaimed in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

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There is also an argument to be made for the university as a space designated precisely for diverse intellectual currents and traditions to meet (and often compete) in a shared commitment to the pursuit of truth and human flourishing. In this case, Christian theology may offer itself as one of a number of rival traditions — opening itself to rational critique but offering in its turn a critical rejoinder to other intellectual traditions. It may be that one’s theology ultimately folds under the pressure of such scrutiny. It might also be the case that theology finds itself capable of resolving certain tensions and contradictions in other traditions in a way that demonstrates its inner coherence and explanatory power.[3] It’s a risk to be sure, not least because the university is rarely a disinterested arbitrator in such intellectual disputes. But it may be a risk worth taking if theology is to take seriously its universal scope, not to mention the apostle’s injunction: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

To those who insist that theology degrades and debases humanity, the theologian can only argue to the contrary: the dignity of humanity resides precisely in our being in relationship to God.[4] To be human is to be addressed and commissioned by God to play a unique role in his loving purposes for creation. Human rights, we might say, are inviolable only to the extent that humanity’s vocation is eternally secured. Moreover, for a person to be defined first and foremost by her relationship to God means that her identity is never reducible to the role she plays in meeting someone else’s need. No one belongs to anyone else because all belong equally and inseparably to God. And to belong to God means to exist as both a recipient and an instrument of his love.

None of these arguments can, of course, claim to be final. The tensions I have mentioned are part and parcel of doing theology in a pluralistic context. There is no use pretending otherwise. Theology may even stand to benefit from such external pressures. An overly accommodating culture can breed intellectual and spiritual laziness; overfamiliarity quickly gives way to complacency.

More surprising (and worrisome) than the external pressures facing theology are those pressures arising from within the Christian community. Nowadays many (most?) Christians are just as disparaging of theology as their unbelieving contemporaries. For reasons of practicality and piety, theology is a largely unwelcome enterprise.

By theology, I mean here the study of God and all things as they relate to God; I mean the kind of intellectual discipline that takes as its goal glad and obedient attention to the “deep things of God,” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[5] That such a definition sounds so alien and antiquated today surely attests to its cultural marginalization even within the Church.

On the one hand, there are those Christians who begrudge theology for being overly theoretical and hence woefully detached from the practical concerns of everyday life. Theologians are so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good.

In the world of ministerial training, this means that theology is often subordinated to the more pressing demands of training clergy for the tasks of public ministry: preaching, counseling, managing teams of volunteers, etc. But as Edward Farley argues, “Defining ministry by its community tasks ignores the community’s own redemptive nature, its received tradition, its truth convictions.”[6] A priest is not primarily a teacher, or social worker, or counselor (however noble these pursuits may be and however much a priest may exercise such tasks in the service of the gospel). A priest is God’s minister of reconciliation entrusted with his message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19). Theology is therefore integral to priestly formation precisely because the explication of this message and the extension of this ministry require attentive submission to “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.” It should go without saying: A priest is one who points others to God; it is therefore necessary that a priest knows something of God.

Impatience with theology for being overly theoretical goes well beyond the curricula of seminaries and divinity faculties. It is commonplace for Christians to locate the real value of theology in the practices that it engenders. Theology must be useful: it must result in obvious outcomes to the benefit of my marriage, my community, my political party, etc. As I noted in a previous post, this conviction often results in pressing more “abstract” doctrines into the service of a strictly practical agenda. The doctrine of the Trinity becomes a model for ideal community. The Incarnation becomes a lesson in enculturation.

Theology no doubt has much to say about practices, and communities, and culture. Theology treats all things in relation to God, including marriage and political responsibilities. To know God is to know oneself in relation to God and one’s fellow creatures — to consider every desire, every action, every social, political, and economic arrangement in the light of God’s creative and redemptive purposes.

But to know God is also an end in itself. Indeed, it is the end for which human beings were called into being. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[7] If theology is, to a certain extent, useless, that is because God is ultimately useless. Which is to say, God is not a means to some other end, some more desirable object or outcome. God is not to be used; God alone is to be enjoyed. Theology is the stubborn pursuit of this enjoyment.

Finally, there are those Christians who may very well agree with Augustine’s depiction of the “restless heart,” who are happy to prioritise the pursuit of glad and obedient attention to God, but who nevertheless see little benefit in theology as an intellectual discipline. For these Christians, it is not so much the study of theology that is the problem, it’s the study of theology that raises concern. Surely ancient disputes about the two natures of Christ are an unhelpful distraction from the person of Jesus. Surely one can receive the benefits of the Eucharist without rehearsing 16th-century debates about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the rest. What does Barth or Bonaventure, or Greek or Hebrew, or attributes or eschatology contribute to one’s knowledge and love of God? What more is required than the writings of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit?

St. Augustine begins his great treatise on Christian education by addressing similar concerns. Endeavoring to provide his readers with helpful rules for interpreting the Scriptures, Augustine anticipates those critics who insist that “all worthwhile illumination of the difficulties of these texts can come by a special gift of God.”[8] While it is obviously true, Augustine grants, that God is capable of imparting an immediate knowledge of himself to the saints, the normal course of Christian intellectual formation is in community and under the tutelage of others. Even the most basic insight into the meaning of a particular biblical passage involves an intricate web of human instruction: the acquisition of language, the ability to read, the writing and compiling and translating of the biblical texts, the rule of faith informing a given interpretation, etc. At no point does God begrudge the mediation of human teachers. As Augustine insists, this vast network of mediated knowledge is to our spiritual benefit. It is both a corrective to pride (the temptation to think of oneself as the originator of such knowledge) and a stimulus to love, for “there would be no way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learned nothing from other humans.”[9]

The Church may have a difficult time convincing those outside the community of faith of the necessity of theology. Universities and public policymakers may have their own reasons for dispensing with the Queen of the Sciences. But the Church abandons theology to its own detriment. Theology remains necessary for the Church because God remains necessary. And as Augustine notes, this means that theology is an indispensible aspect of Christian charity — the love that clings to God and that endeavours to liberate others to do the same.

Footnotes

[1] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (Prometheus Books, 1989), p. 26.

[2] Webster, Holiness (William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 8.

[3] I am indebted at this point to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the possibility of debate “across traditions” in his “Prologue to the Third Edition of After Virtue: After a Quarter of a Century,” After Virtue (Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. xiii-xv.

[4] This is the argument made at great length and to great effect in Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (Ignatius Press, 1995).

[5] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia q. 1 a. 7; for an elegant summary of the relationship between theology as an intellectual discipline and theology as an individual knowledge of God in premodern thought, see Edward Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Wipf and Stock, 2001), pp. 29-39.

[6] Theologia, p. 128.

[7] Augustine, Confessions I.1.

[8] Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Oxford University Press, 2008), preface, p. 4.

[9] Ibid., 13.

About The Author

The Rev. Jordan Hillebert is tutor in theology at St. Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff, Wales, and serves as an assistant curate in the parish of Christ Church, Roath Park in the Diocese of Llandaff.

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