A calling to engage with the God hypothesis

Olga Wojtas meets a Kirk minister bringing faith-centred education to the Highlands and Islands

July 31, 2008

The Reverend Andrew McGowan, principal of the "self-consciously evangelical" Highland Theological College, might appear to have little in common with biologist and arch-atheist Richard Dawkins.

But in his recent inaugural lecture as professor of theology at Scotland's federal higher education institution for the Highlands and Islands, the UHI Millennium Institute, Professor McGowan argued that he and Professor Dawkins were singing from the same hymn sheet.

In April, Professor Dawkins stood at the same podium to talk about "science and the God delusion" as part of UHI's public lecture series. But Professor McGowan has no truck with Professor Dawkins's view of himself as an objective scientist, unencumbered by the pre-suppositions that burden Christians.

"His atheism is as much a presupposition as my belief in God," Professor McGowan, who is also honorary professor of reformed doctrine at the University of Aberdeen, said in his inaugural lecture. "Each of us is faced with a mass of facts and evidence. Each of us develops a theory or hypothesis to try to explain this evidence. His hypothesis is that everything which exists came about by pure chance. My hypothesis is that there is a Creator."

Professor McGowan took an honours degree in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen, becoming a Church of Scotland parish minister and studying part-time for a PhD.

His first charge was Mallaig and the Small Isles in the north of Scotland - six churches, five of which could be reached only by sea. He saw first-hand how young people wishing to pursue their studies had to leave the area.

When in 1992 he learned that there was to be a new federal higher education institution for the Highlands and Islands, the UHI, Professor McGowan wrote a paper arguing that the institution should include a theological college. He and fellow Kirk minister, the Reverend Hector Morrison, worked together to establish it, a task that Professor McGowan claims only half-jokingly has probably taken 20 years off his life.

Professor McGowan and his colleague became director and deputy director, respectively, of what was then known as the Highland Theological Institute in 1994. It became a college in its own right in 1999, one of UHI's 15 partner institutions, and it now has 14 full-time staff and several hundred students. The majority are mature students and, as is common in UHI, many study by distance learning. The college offers not only a BA, but also an MTh, DMin, MPhil and PhD, with courses ranging from Hebrew and Greek to church history and counselling.

"UHI, with its network of colleges, is the only way you could deliver higher education to such a disparate group of communities," Professor McGowan said. "Students have become ministers, teachers, workers with parochial agencies and missionaries; (some have) gone on to do further academic work."

Theology was the first UHI subject to be reviewed by the Quality Assurance Agency, a key stepping stone towards the UHI's continuing bid for full university status. It was commended, and Professor McGowan has been told that standards and content are comparable to those in Scotland's four divinity schools.

Theology in higher education comes under attack from two directions. On the one hand, there are those like Richard Dawkins who question whether it is a proper academic subject. On the other, there are many Christians who believe that it should not be subject to scrutiny by secular authorities, but should be taught in church institutions.

Professor McGowan said the question of there being a place for theology in a university would have been almost incomprehensible to scholars in the past, given universities' religious heritage.

China's leading higher education institution, Beijing University, sent a team of scholars to visit the world's leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, he said. And on discovering that they all had departments of Christian theology, Beijing has set up its own masters degree.

Professor McGowan stressed that theology is not the same as religious studies. The latter, he says, is a sociological discipline, focusing on religious people, places and things, while theology talks about God.

He classifies theology as a science and says that, like all sciences, it requires the appropriate methods of investigation. The only dissimilarity with other sciences is that God is not simply an object to be studied, but an active subject.

Professor McGowan quoted the University of Edinburgh theologian, Thomas Torrance, who won the Templeton Prize for his work on the interface between science and technology: "In a genuine theology, we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God."

Since 2006, the Highland Theological College has been approved to train candidates for the Church of Scotland ministry. But the college differs from the divinity schools of Scotland's four ancient universities in its explicit commitment to the Christian faith.

The divinity schools appoint on criteria that may have nothing to do with the requirements for church ministry. While there have been divinity-school heads who have been non-Christians, Professor McGowan described his college as self-consciously evangelical.

"Sometimes, when people hear that word, they confuse it with fundamentalism. We're definitely not fundamentalist. Evangelical means that we believe that the Christian faith is true."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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