Theology and equality

December 25, 1998

Objections to theology in British universities are sometimes hysterical and preposterous, but Manfredi La Manna (THES, Letters, November 20) presents a sober and interesting argument. It goes like this: although any scholar can teach and research into what theologians have said, only a believer can be a theologian; therefore British universities break the law when they appoint theologians, since appointing should be irrespective of religious creed.

Let us assume for simplicity that we are referring to Christian belief and theology, although the same argument would apply, mutatis mutandis, to Muslims teaching Islam and so on.

I take it that this is a serious point of principle for Mr La Manna and not merely a legal quibble: he says he is a rationalist, and rationalists are driven by deeply held convictions. But if one carries the argument to its logical conclusion, one would have to maintain that anyone except a believer can teach theology, and that believers, uniquely, are prohibited from speaking on behalf of their faith in the academy - that would be not only horribly repressive but, if done in the cause of equality, absurd. Hence we have established in the United States that it is not legally discriminatory to select a Catholic to teach Catholicism, a Jew to teach Judaism, a woman to teach woman's studies or an African American to teach African-American studies.

Once the egalitarian objection fails, I cannot see any other rational objection to theologians in universities, nor any reason to single them out for purging.

Clearly theologians need not be irrational (compare Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin). Their work is disciplined, erudite and deeply rooted in our history, they can and should abide by our standard rules of argument and evidence, and they can and should respect freedom of speech and opinion.

That they are informed by convictions whose content is neither self-evident nor demonstrable and perhaps that they cannot fully understand or articulate does not distinguish them from historians, literary critics or even, I dare say, economists.

Philip Lyndon Reynolds

Thomas Aquinas associate professor of Catholic theology

Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, US

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