Saturday, May 17, 2008

Theology is not an academic subject

This is by way of an interim response to John's comment. It's a bit of a rant, and I'm sure that calm reflection would lead to rephrasings and more careful language, but I am more and more convinced of the main point as time goes on. (This is from my 'Let us Be Human' lectures.) Click 'full post' for text.

"Hear the word of the Lord O people of Israel for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty and no knowledge of God in the land, swearing, lying and murder and stealing and adultery break out, bloodshed follows bloodshed, therefore the land mourns and all who live in it languish, together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing." So what I said before about ecological crises and so on, links into faithfulness, righteousness, that the wider environment is giving feedback on the moral state of the people.

And it goes on "Let no-one contend and let none accuse - for with you is my contention O priest, you shall stumble by day, the prophet also shall stumble with you by night and I will destroy your mother," which is Israel or the church, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me and since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children, the more they increased, the more they sinned against me, they changed their glory into shame, they feed on the sin of my people, they are greedy for their iniquity and it shall be like people, like priest. I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds."

In other words all these things that are going wrong, it's the priest's fault. It's because the people who have custody of the knowledge of God and whose duty it is to teach that knowledge of God and to train people in God's ways - they have failed. So that's the theme for this morning. I hope you excuse me if it becomes a little bit of a rant. Hopefully my spleen will last long enough to keep us going to half past ten but I might run out, anyhow....

"My people perish for lack of knowledge." I have been talking about idolatry a lot, that idolatry is when we get our priorities wrong. That we give too much importance to things which aren't that important and we don't give enough importance to that which is most important - which is the love of God and the love of neighbour. These two sides of the same coin. And the role of the religious authorities is precisely to teach people about what is important and what is not important, because this is what leads to life. This is the task of the religious teacher. To enable the life of the faithful. It is not simply about filling heads with words. It's about changing the shape of the lived out faith in order that the life itself is fruitful, and the church, small c, has manifestly failed....

Next heresy: the academy. One of the major ones which definitely makes me angry. Theology is not an academic subject. It is not something which accepts the norms and the authorities which are accepted in the academy. And in one sense the origin of everything that has gone wrong with the church in the last thousand years is that theology got shifted from the cloister, from the Eucharistic community, into the academy. It got divorced from the practice of Christian life and worship and this happened in the Middle Ages, around 1100, the rise of Scholasticism, a change in the way that theology was understood, the way it changed the way that God was understood, and suddenly you have this very abstract understanding of the faith coming in, which has all sorts of barbarous consequences. I've gone into this in other sessions before, I am sure that I will go into it again, but atheism for example is the direct consequence of theology forgetting what it is there for. That the defence of the belief in God didn't rest in Scripture or revelation, but rested on academic, philosophical proofs. And this process went on over centuries and culminates in secularism and atheism. The idea that this is just an abstract sense of what you can believe. This is where things really started to go wrong. And of course what it has meant is that theology and the teaching of theology has been absorbed by modernism, by the philosophical agenda arising in the seventeenth century. And the sense that theology or faith is a thing about private preference, that theology is all well and good but keep it to yourself. You know, what I was saying about Qutb last week, I've got a lot of sympathy with some of the things he says.

But theology is rotten. Fortunately this is starting to be understood, but things like how you train priests, how you train the clergy, you are not going to get faithful ministers if you train them in academic criticism of the Bible. This might sound like a really obvious thing, but the way in which clergy are trained in the Church of England, and also in many other denominations, is through the academic study of texts. I think there is only one theological college in England which does it properly and that's Mirfield. Has anyone heard of Mirfield? The community of the resurrection. And their emphasis - they don't have lots of teams of cleaners and cooking people, working for the students to make sure they can concentrate on the academic study of the text, they have the students looking after each other, they clean their own rooms, they actually live out a life of service. That is what is shaping them to be priests....

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