It is no longer wise to go strictly by The Book

November 1, 2002

The appointment of respected scholar Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury has not pleased fundamentalists in his flock. But, argues Keith Ward, a free-thinking theologian is a godsend for the Anglican Church and the future of academic theology.

This week, George Carey steps down as archbishop of Canterbury. He will be succeeded by Rowan Williams, one of Britain's leading academic theologians, whose appointment will gladden the hearts of academics everywhere. It does not seem, however, to have gladdened the hearts of all Anglicans. Having failed to catch him out on the virgin birth, hardliners (a vociferous minority) have homed in on the issue of homosexual practice and want him to swear that he upholds the literal truth of biblical teaching on that subject.

At such points as these, academic theology and intolerant biblicism run up against each other. It should be impossible for anyone who has studied theology in Britain in the past hundred years to insist that all Christians take biblical moral teaching literally. The fact that it is not impossible points to a major difficulty that theology as an academic subject faces, as well as to a yawning chasm that can sometimes open up between theology and ordinary religious beliefs.

The ancient universities were founded in large part to train Christian clergy and were for years religious foundations, often limiting teachers and students in all subjects to members of one faith - in England, the Anglican. Nevertheless, when theology was proposed as an academic subject at Oxford in 1870, Canon Pusey opposed it on the grounds that it might mean the Bible was taught "like any other book". In the event, theology did become a separate academic discipline, but Pusey managed to influence the teaching of it so that it became primarily a defence of the Anglican faith and the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. In Scotland it was the Presbyterian faith that was defended, and Lampeter served as an Anglican outpost in Wales.

But the situation was bound to change. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, theology departments were opened in a number of English universities. The Free Churches and the Roman Catholic church both established an academic presence in a number of universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. Since theology was a subject usually offered to all undergraduates, it inevitably became more ecumenical in outlook. It could no longer be an exposition of the beliefs of one church, an internal academic discipline of a religious institution. Such a view was not inappropriate when universities themselves were founded and supported by religious institutions. It became untenable when universities became secular bodies, containing people of many faiths and of none.

This history accounts for two instabilities that still exist within theology. First, some see the subject as properly the systematic exposition of the beliefs of one religious organisation. Peter Abelard perhaps first used the word "theology" in this sense in the 11th century. Others see it as a study of such beliefs by and for people of any or no religious commitment. The latter view is the one explicitly accepted by all teachers of theology in British universities. It is normally not permissible to limit teachers of theology in Britain to adherents of one religious viewpoint - though there are some major exceptions to this principle. And it is not permissible to limit students to members of one faith. This, of course, leads to the second instability: whether theology should be a study of the Christian faith, or of all religious beliefs and practices. There are, after all, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish theologies. Why should their study not be embraced by theology departments?

There has been much debate over whether theology can be responsibly undertaken only by believers, who seek to relate traditional beliefs to new knowledge and forms of moral evaluation and work imaginatively and creatively with a religious tradition. An analogy can be made with music - which should surely be taught only by those with an appreciation for and sensitivity to music, who can teach students to love it as well as learn its history and techniques.

Williams is a supreme practitioner of this art (both in music and theology, as it happens) and one must applaud his attempts to lead believers to greater moral and spiritual sensitivity and understanding of the richness and diversity of Christian tradition.

Yet the study of religion might be undertaken with, and sometimes lead to, a critical distancing from belief. Can Protestants not study Catholicism profoundly without being Catholics? Can critical study of the Bible not lead to regarding it as a complex historical document containing many strands of belief, some noble and some abhorrent, without committing oneself to accepting it as "true"? Can study of the history of a tradition not lead to illuminating analyses in sociological or psychological terms, which may be undertaken more objectively without the prejudicial factor of special pleading that belief may bring?

Such discussion has led at times to a splintering between theology and "religious studies", and in most British universities both are now taught within the same department. When this split becomes extreme, it can be claimed that religious studies is methodologically naturalistic, or at best neutral with regard to religious truth. It either attempts to explain religious beliefs entirely in terms of social and psychological (most recently, evolutionary) factors or it claims to observe sympathetically but without any personal commitment. Meanwhile, some theologians begin their lectures with prayers, and make no bones about presenting a Christian view and refuting the opponents of faith.

The debate over whether theology should involve the study of Christianity or of religions in general (even Buddhists can be included if theo is interpreted widely, not as "God" but as "ultimate value" or "ultimate concern") has also split British theologians.

Historically most resources have gone into the study of Christianity, and it makes sense to concentrate scholarship on a tradition that has helped to define British culture. But Britain is now a society in which many religions exist, and some attempt to understand their history, diversity and inner character is of increasing importance in a world as interconnected as ours.

Both these debates are linked. If one studies the theologies (both beliefs and practices) of many religious traditions, the subject cannot as an academic discipline aim to defend just one tradition. It will have to be pluralistic. But if a certain sort of imaginative discernment and moral commitment is at the heart of religion, one cannot really provide understanding of religion without attempting to give sense, both to the passionate commitments of believers and to the passionate reactions of unbelievers. The discipline will have to be empathetic as well as critical. It will have to listen to the voices of creative and intelligent believers and non-believers alike.

If theology works in these terms, its aim will be to produce graduates who are aware of the attraction and profundity of religious belief, and equally aware of its diverse forms and of the strong challenges to such belief that exist in our society.

That is why no theology graduate should be able to insist that all Christians take biblical morality literally. A knowledge of the history and diversity of biblical interpretation, of the changes in moral viewpoint produced by the Enlightenment - including the abolition of slavery, the revision of strongly retributivist ideas of punishment and equality of gender, and of the history and diversity of the Anglican church make any such demand irrational.

It is a mark of the continuing instability of theology that intellectually able graduates can still so structure their studies that they evade all awareness of these things and retain an outmoded idea of theology as the vindication of their own narrow religious views and a stereotypical condemnation of all alternatives. That such people are still widely taken to be typical theologians, rather than dinosaurs of academe, is a measure of the chasm between proper academic theology and what is taken to be ordinary belief.

Williams takes the instability of theology and turns it into a creative dialectic. He is himself a richly imaginative exponent of Christian faith, and is also fully aware of the plurality of beliefs in our society and of the resources of textual, historical and anthropological criticism that any such exponent must learn from and respond to. Perhaps under him, the churches can fully embrace the riches that academic theology has to offer to faith, and academic theology may finally shed its defensive dogmatic image and be seen as a pluralistic, critical and empathetic discipline that enables issues of ultimate human concern to be studied in an informed and scholarly way.

Keith Ward is regius professor of divinity at the University of Oxford.

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