Christian Scholarship Beyond the Theological Guild

An important debate about the future of Anglican theological education has broken out in the pages of Church Times. It was evoked by the appearance of the Church of England’s Resourcing Ministerial Education report which, inter alia, proposes to transfer the funding of ministerial theological education away from central institutions to the dioceses. 17 distinguished theological educators wrote a letter on 27 March protesting against the proposal. They voiced an entirely valid concern to protect ‘the public, intellectual engagement of the Church of England with pressing contemporary issues’, fearing that the proposed transfer would imperil such engagement. One correspondent promptly replied with a pointed challenge to the signatories’ argument. No doubt others will be weighing in on this specific issue. I express no view on the funding question here.

The opening letter also obliquely, and perhaps inadvertently, raised another issue which I think is at least of equal importance to that of ministerial education, namely how to form Christian scholars in disciplines other than theology. The ‘pressing contemporary issues’ on which the Church should offer ‘public, intellectual engagement’ include, I take it, not only those preoccupying internal academic debates within the theological guild or those currently animating the Church itself, but also those arising in ‘secular’ disciplines other than theology. The bulk of the letter, however, refers only to the former two, leaving unclear how the signatories envisage theological education in general, however delivered and funded, to equip Christians to speak to those wider public intellectual issues. The question obviously concerns all Christian churches and is a momentous challenge for the larger mission of the global church as it seeks to be a transformative presence amidst secularising cultures heavily dominated by largely secularised university sectors.

The signatories to the letter likely assume that theology can best address such issues through ‘interdisciplinary’ encounter. This, we might suppose, would take place both by individual theologians themselves acquiring a degree of expertise in another discipline sufficient for such encounter, and/or by the creation of interdisciplinary fora (research projects, symposia, journals, etc.) where theologians are brought into critical conversation with those whose primary expertise is in other disciplines. Some of the letter’s signatories are themselves distinguished practitioners of this approach, and I strongly affirm it.

But there is also the different and arguably even more important task of training up theologically literate Christian scholars whose primary expertise lies in those other disciplines and who will occupy positions within them. Some of the theological training such scholars would need might, perhaps, take place in university theology departments; for example, some might take a masters degree in theology before proceeding to doctoral work (although these are rarely customised for that purpose). But that will only take them so far. For if they wish to be authentically Christian scholars and not merely scholars who happen to be Christian, they face a formidable challenge beyond the calling and capacity of theology departments themselves. That is to rethink from a theologically-informed standpoint the pervasively secularised foundations and paradigms of their own disciplines and to develop fresh perspectives capable of gaining a hearing in those disciplines and proceeding from or at least comporting well with that standpoint.

However well informed their theological teachers may have been about the relevant non-theological discipline, they will only very exceptionally possess the deep and wide immersion in it that will be required if they are to mentor such emerging Christian scholars as effective and critical participants in their intended ‘secular’ disciplines. Such scholars may emerge equipped with, say, a possibly quite sophisticated ‘theology of’ money, personhood, power and so forth, but that will not remotely be sufficient to generate a credible theory of finance or of mind or of the state in the respective disciplines of economics, cognitive science or politics.

One telling outcome of the deficit of Christian scholarship in non-theological disciplines was recently on unfortunate display when the Church of England’s proposal in the ‘Green Report’ to upgrade training for its senior leadership appeared to rely uncritically on a version of secularised management theory wholly uninformed by any theological insight – as signatory Martyn Percy compellingly argued at the time (Church Times, 12 December 2014).

Insofar as mentoring in this kind of Christian scholarship takes place in the UK it is ad hoc and episodic. As far as I can tell it is offered from one of four sources:

Much of this mentoring work is done well but at best it can only be partial and piecemeal, unable to supply the extended, intensive formation required for the production of seasoned, confident Christian scholars working in the ‘secular’ disciplines. Denominational or independent theological colleges are generally ill-equipped or disinclined to take up the challenge.

Among the most effective dispensers of such Christian scholarly formation in the USA are leading Christian research universities such as Notre Dame, Baylor, Fordham and Seattle Pacific, or the handful of established pathways offering such formation in other universities, such as the outstanding programme offered by the Centre for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. The latter describes one of its flagship courses as designed for ‘students interested in pursuing a career in law but who have deep interests in theology, ethics, social and political theory, or church life’. Some of the better Christian liberal arts colleges also do a competent preparatory job at undergraduate level. Between them these institutions and programmes produce some outstanding Christian scholars whose voices are reckoned with in the mainstream academy. There is virtually nothing like them in the UK. (The only UK offering remotely approaching the one at Emory of which I am aware is the cluster of courses on biblical law taught at Bristol University law school.)

Yet in spite of this apparently serious mentoring deficit when compared to what is available in the USA, one frequently encounters among UK theologians and, indeed Christian scholars in other disciplines, a profound aversion to the very idea of a Christian university. Typical retorts are that a Christian university would necessarily be ‘separatist’ and/or ‘second-rate’: ‘separatist’, because of the (actually demonstrably false) assumption that students and faculty in such institutions only talk to themselves and don’t engage with ‘secular’ scholarship; ‘second-rate’, because, it is thought, the ‘best’ UK scholars wouldn’t risk damaging their prospects for professional advancement by pursuing a career within them (a self-fulfilling and defeatist claim, also increasingly being proved false by some Cathedrals Group institutions).

Indeed one sometimes hears such negative views towards the idea of a Christian university uttered as if the Cathedrals Group institutions either didn’t exist at all or (in tones of ‘Russell Group’ condescension) didn’t count. Now it is true that the extent to which Cathedrals Group institutions are actually able to deliver the kind of intensive Christian scholarly mentoring in non-theological disciplines I have been calling for will depend on whether they accept the case for a ‘Christian perspective’ in non-theological fields in the first place, whether their faculty have been trained to deliver it and whether such a perspective substantively informs course design and curricula and not only the institution’s ‘ethos’. (How far most American Christian universities or colleges meet such conditions is also questionable.) My impression (but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong) is that, notwithstanding some aspirational mission statements, and several fine individual offerings – such as St Mary’s University, Twickenham’s excellent MA in Bioethics and Medical Law – they are not yet seriously institutionally committed to such goals.

I am increasingly inclined to think that a higher educational institution with the explicit mission to pursue such a goal will be needed at some point if serious and sustainable progress in offering serious mentoring in Christian scholarship in non-theological disciplines is to be made. Such an institution would aspire to serve as a concentration point for, a stimulus to, and perhaps eventually even a beacon of, Christian scholarship for other institutions and individuals across the academy. It could, for example, play a key role in training up both the Christian scholars that church-based universities need to hire and those seeking positions in secular universities. (The latter will and should remain in the majority – the intention is obviously not to drain the secular academy of Christian faculty and the prospects of that occurring are in any case miniscule.) A fundamental precondition for any move in this direction is, of course, that the substantive case for the possibility of Christian scholarship in non-theological disciplines has to be made before a UK audience (on which one major starting-point for a debate might be Gavin D’Costa, Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation).

Perhaps one of the Cathedrals Group institutions will in time step up to pioneer such a project. Short of that, either the existing institutes and ministries mentioned above would need to be substantially better resourced (the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge is one model here), or some new dedicated entity (initially well short of a university) would need to be established for the purpose. Whatever route is taken, extended consultation, a critical mass of qualified faculty, significant resourcing, bold and visionary leadership and favourable political conditions would all be required. I see few signs of these emerging in the near future. For them to emerge, a major paradigm-shift in how the churches think about – and devote resources to – theological education is going to be needed. Such will be required if the churches are effectively to train up future generations of well-formed Christian scholars truly able to engage with the ‘pressing contemporary issues’ being wrestled with in the secular academy and not only those preoccupying the theological guild or the churches.

3 Responses to Christian Scholarship Beyond the Theological Guild

  1. Bowman Walton April 11, 2015 at 1:48 am #

    Christians need to know more about themselves and the social worlds they inhabit. Yet as we might expect from our faith’s critique of idolatry, no society has ever held a disinterested mirror up to itself. * What is “pervasively secularised” about the “foundations and paradigms” that accredit discourse in the public square today is that they are driven by ideologies of interest or identity. As our friend Adrian used to insist, theology is rarely practised as an empirical discipline. ‘Theology of x’ research seldom authoritatively advances understanding of x itself. And theologians are not always without agendas of their own. Thus, their guild is not making the maps of self and world that Christians need.**

    In contrast, empirical researchers with faith can often offer a “fresh perspective” on these matters. Most simply, faith-given freedom from crude ideological preoccupations can enable more independent testing of hypotheses. More profoundly, life in Christ can be a helpful heuristic, leading investigators to wonder about neglected topics, ask questions that reinvigorate inquiries, and transpose those inquiries into new categories. Either way, the result of faithful investigation need not be a ‘Christian science’ rivaling ‘secularised science’ to contribute to more reliable public knowledge about our selves and our worlds. Jonathan Chaplin has identified an urgent need of C21 churches everywhere. A discussion of how best to meet it is well worth having.

    ________________________

    * For example, it seems that the British media are not accurately describing ‘austerity’ as the British government actually implemented it. Much coverage implies that the government has been cutting steadily for five years. Yet the data show (see link) that the government did indeed make deep cuts in 2009-2011, but paused in 2012-2014. Similarly, some media reports compare the British economy to others more favourably than the facts warrant. Amid such misinformation about what has actually happened, it is probably difficult for Christians to fairly assess either the campaign manifestos of the parties or the bishops’ letter for the general election.

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/04/osbornia-revisited/

    ** To continue the example above: by what evidence-supported macroeconomic policies can the long-term prosperity of the poor in Britain be most probably realised? The prosperity of the poor is not the only concern of a Christian, of course, but an independent look at how aggregate demand, the exchange rate of the pound, etc affect the availability of work and the cost of living would enable one to put some current debates about poverty and prosperity in responsible perspective. Indeed, the persistent disagreement between UK business leaders and UK academic economists over whether austerity could possibly cause prosperity makes the churches’ positions all the more important and an independent, faithful, empirical perspective all the more needed.

    http://mainlymacro.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/economists-vs-business-leaders.html

  2. Dave April 10, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

    Jonathan wants scholars to rethink “the pervasively secularized foundations and paradigms of their own disciplines and to develop fresh perspectives capable of gaining a hearing in those disciplines and proceeding from or at least comporting well with that standpoint.” from “a theologically-informed standpoint” This is a tall order and not what most scholars spend their time doing. Most scholars follow established research procedures on new data. Any wider thinking is a hobby until it becomes a specialism. such issues may form part of an introductory course but then it is down to business. New insights are likely to come from philosophy or seeing what other disciplines are doing. Theology has a part to play but this is theology tailored to the issues in hand. Much of theology has no bearing on these issues.

    It is the job of the church to support all undergraduate christian in developing a christian mind. This needs to be done in a way which does not distract from learning their own discipline.

    I am suspicious of christian universities. They sound too much like a safe environment for avoiding the world.

    The majority of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham have some kind of christian foundation. If the Russell Group look down on the Cathedral Group they may be basing this on some independent ratings.

    This list gives some clues as to where such thinkers come from. http://www.collegecrunch.org/professors/the-20-most-brilliant-christian-professors/

    Dave

  3. Bowman Walton April 9, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

    These are easily among the most consequential sentences I’ve read in Fulcrum–

    “…The question [how to form Christian scholars in disciplines other than theology] obviously concerns all Christian churches and is a momentous challenge for the larger mission of the global church as it seeks to be a transformative presence amidst secularising cultures heavily dominated by largely secularised university sectors.

    “…theologically literate Christian scholars whose primary expertise lies in those other disciplines and who will occupy positions within them… face a formidable challenge beyond the calling and capacity of theology departments themselves. That is to rethink from a theologically-informed standpoint the pervasively secularised foundations and paradigms of their own disciplines and to develop fresh perspectives capable of gaining a hearing in those disciplines and proceeding from or at least comporting well with that standpoint.”

    The scope of the problem posed (and perhaps the depth of the resistance to facing up to it) is much more clear if one reads ‘scientists’ for ‘scholars’.

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