Why I... believe universities need theology and theology needs faith

May 28, 2004

Modernity lingers throughout the academy through the strong emphasis on reason, history and repeatable experiments as benchmarks of wisdom.

Disinterested scholarship is extolled even while strong governmental sirens require scholars to deliver measurable and economically useful goods to the consumer. Postmodernity, meanwhile, with myriad mocking faces, inhabits many departments. Feminists, deconstructionists, poststructuralists and psychoanalysts call into question the inherited traditions of modernity and their grip on the construction of disciplinary practices. Many academics in theology departments can be discovered in the crevices of this complex facade, sitting on the ledge with one or other of the forms of modern or postmodern approaches to disciplinary practice. Theology is then examined from these angles, and generations of students will imagine that this is what the discipline is about. Are they being misled? Yes. And does the university suffer as a consequence? Yes.

In the liberal secular university, most of these methodologies are accepted and some have great prestige. But being a committed Christian, Jew, Muslim or Buddhist as part of a methodological stance would be seen as anathema, possibly "fundamentalist" and certainly odd. The Hamlet response "get thee to a nunnery" is usual. But being "religious" might generate an intellectually respectable critical methodology. Indeed, it has something important to say to alternative methodologies and provides an ethical and holistic context to disciplinary practices.

Let's start with theology. As undergraduates, many of us were curious about the faith of our lecturers - along with their sex lives and other matters.

Modernity had dictated that religious faith was a matter of personal preference, best kept for Sundays, but not something to shape the public arena. But theology (and I speak only of Christianity, although there are strong analogies in other religions) has always required that faith be part of the rationale for its intellectual engagement. And it is out of this faith that reason, history and other methodologies are employed to engage with the object of study: God. Aquinas provided an unparalleled synthesis between reason and faith. From this faith context, various methodologies might be assessed. All these approaches have much to teach Christian theology. But if they become the means by which to engage with theology, they change the discipline, denying the methodological role that faith plays.

And other disciplines? Augustine's City of God provides a profound theological reading of history studied in departments of theology, classics and Latin. However, most historians would frown on the idea of a theological reading of history. This is pure prejudice. Augustine and Aquinas provided a framework within which civic law should be understood, a perspective that could benefit the study of law. Both saints frowned on self-interest and contractualism, those pillars of modern society. Both turned to the biology of their time to understand the design of nature, assuming that creation is a gift of God, bearing His mark. So when a Richard Dawkins or an E. O. Wilson argue as they do, surely there is a place for Christians who are natural scientists to show why both overstep their methodological remit, even while valuing what that methodology delivers.

Theological theology is vital to the modern university. It encourages interdisciplinary conversation and suggests that there may be a rationale for the university other than one that is pragmatic and utilitarian.

Augustine criticised his superb pagan education as vanity (bringing only social success and good pay) rather than an engagement with the true and good. A different type of theological education may be more relevant.

Gavin D'Costa
Department of theology and religious studies
Bristol University

Gavin D'Costa's book The Virtue of Theology in a Secular Society will be published later this year.

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