...we need to turn to the clarity that academic theology can bring, argues Tom Wright
I recently listened on the radio to two bishops speaking about the Iraq war. The interviewer was trying to make them say either that God was on our side or that he wasn’t. They didn’t fall for it, but it left me reflecting on the need for people who can move sure-footedly through complex moral and spiritual issues without tripping up or getting stuck in a bog.
The Christian gospel has never been about only private spirituality, it’s about the kingdom of God addressing the whole world. Having articulate theologians is not just a matter of Christian interest, but of the health of the whole community.
The word “academic” is regularly abused to sneer at boffins who ought to get out more, at turgid prose proving more about less. The word “theology”, too, has sometimes been used to mean “useless theory”. And there are always the Richard Dawkinses who deem God-talk dangerous as well as meaningless. But the tide of secularism is on the wane. Advertise a lecture on “spirituality” and watch the hall fill up.
Inside the church, academic theology remains vital. Doing without it is like running a car without mechanics to help when things go wrong. Of course, you can believe without studying, just as you can drive down the road without help. But when puzzles arise, or faith is under attack, you need specialist help. You may even need help to read the map.
To some, “academic theology” means dusty tomes that you can read for a week without coming closer to God. To others, it means the modernist theology that was popular in some circles, where to be “academic” meant to deny as much traditional belief as possible to make university colleagues take you seriously. Today’s leading UK theologians are exciting individual minds that are orthodox in a way that would have shocked the daring young men of the 1960s. The older “modernisers” used to dismiss orthodoxy as outdated dogma, but it is proving itself energetic and newly fruitful.
We have moved away from the hare-and-tortoise puzzle that used to bedevil this discussion. If theology and its components were to be “relevant”, people used to ask, how could they be properly academic, when to be academic meant to be neutral, to follow an argument wherever it went?
But would you rather be taught music theory by someone who was tone deaf, and therefore “neutral”, or by someone who was an active, if controversial, composer or conductor? Doesn’t it mean that the research will be done more carefully? Of course, most research consists, early on at least, of people following leads without knowing where they are going and being prepared to challenge existing paradigms as they do so. That is as true for theology as for any other discipline. But just as an engineer needs to build a bridge that will not wobble and a medical scientist needs to concoct medicines that will heal people, so the Christian theologian hopes to allow the church to think and speak coherently and truly about God, the world, what it means to be human and what can be said about evil - and in the process to address urgent issues with fresh wisdom and clarity.
One such issue today is hope. Christian theology speaks of new creation: not simply of making the old world a bit better, nor of escaping from it into a private spirituality, but of a divine power that bursts into the world and will, one day, transform it.
This integrated vision so surprises many people that it takes theologians to undermine the assumptions that hinder it and to articulate a new vision of truth and possibility. Academic theology has much work to do. It has the chance, now as much as ever, to contribute to the holistic wellbeing of the next generation.
Tom Wright is canon of Westminster and bishop-designate of Durham.