Leader: Let us not prey on theology

Despite its many detractors, the discipline does have a role in the country's universities.

January 24, 2008

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?" It is "the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing", it is comparable "to searching in a dark cellar at night for a black cat that isn't there". Theology isn't short of critics. The walk-on cast of popes, cardinals, bishops and sundry other clergy that has played its part in the history of Britain's universities seems oddly feeble arrayed against them. Yet institutions from Lampeter to Chichester, Aberdeen to Winchester owe their existence, and much of their estate, to the hopes of pious men.

But if history is beguiling, religion can be odious. It is easy to overlook all that piety and heritage when faced with the intolerance that religious viewpoints are often accused of promulgating. Last year, the University of Oxford investigated its private theological colleges and found that they did not provide "an Oxford experience in its essentials". The university was being polite. Oxford, which spent much of the 19th century trying to assert the supremacy of Anglicans, or the "frozen chosen" in Bill Clinton's memorable phrase, thought the overtly partisan nature of those colleges was in danger of compromising freedom of inquiry.

To outsiders, theology is suspect not only because of its association with unthinking zealots (in whose company it is hardly alone); it is dubious because the discipline is also devoted to the study of a fraudulent notion - God. Its locus is the plain nasty, or the obviously ludicrous, or both. Such obtuseness becomes especially dangerous to secular academics when manifested as creationism and intelligent design. Creationism isn't a big deal in this country, but its religious roots make theologians a target for detractors who might otherwise be content to warble a carol with them at Christmas.

Theology as practised in the UK has two, often contradictory, strands. The first is its traditional role of exegesis. The second is a more sociological, anthropological and philosophical appreciation of the role of religion - and different religions - in society.

There are historical benefits to the first. But it is hard to imagine theology surviving in universities if it is reduced to a refinement of what many consider obsolete and/or in-house training for the clergy. That may have sufficed a century or so ago but such "education" will have all the credibility of a university funded and controlled by Billy Graham if its sole raison d'être is to confirm the faithful in their prejudices. If true believers find modern universities contaminating, perhaps they should consider pursuing their ecstasies in euphoric isolation.

The second strand - Ninian Smart's religious studies - is more intellectually compelling. Billions of people on the planet consider themselves religious. Study of them and their interaction with the rest, or the lack of, is surely a worthy endeavour. How can we comprehend the trajectories of Ann Widdecombe and Tony Blair, the past three millennia, today's Middle East, the US, or Greece awarding 12 points to Serbia in the Eurovision Song Contest without theology? Which is more fruitful: the cack-handed pursuit of Osama bin Laden through the caves of Tora Bora or the quest to understand what persuades a disillusioned Midlands youth to seek suicidal solace in the pages of the Koran? What is the point of ignoring a phenomenon whose effects are undeniably real?

That is enough reason to renew the lease on the theology faculty. There is another: some regard the subject as redundant at best and harmful at worst. Yet the vehemence with which such arguments are sometimes expressed suggests that critics find theology challenging rather than inconsequential. That is significant in itself. Gadflies are important, they shouldn't be carelessly swatted.


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