What is the value of Christian theology taught at University?

Introduction

In an earlier essay entitled: what is Christian theology, and why does it matter,my arguments leaned heavily against too much theology in favour of simple Christian piety.

The term too much theology was coined by Daniel L. Migliore, describing it asabstract and unfruitful. He argued further, that it is “theology that gets lost in a labyrinth of academic trivialities” (Migliore 1996, p.6).

Cornel West’s Crisis of theological education, draws up similar conclusions ontoo much theology noting that it was excessively frivolous and meretricious in its enactments. In his words:

the demystifying of European cultural hegemony, the deconstruction of European philosophical edifices, and the decolonization the third world has left theology with hardly an autonomous subject matter (hence a temptation to be excessively frivolous and meretricious in its enactments) and with little intellectually respectable resources upon which to build (p. 273).

Darragh (2007) sees the role of curriculum shapers and lecturers as critical success factors in providing the right balance between both sides of the spectrum, he wrote,

The role of theology teachers in academic institutions is not just to inform students what other theologians have written, nor even to teach them the art of critiquing the writings of other theologians. This turns theology into commentary on endless commentary. The role of the theology teacher is also to teach students how to do theology themselves. This is not just a matter of exposing students to good theology and hoping they will guess how it is done. It is a matter of being very explicit about the methods of practical theology, and at the same time of being self-critical about those same methods (p. 2).

To this end, my essay seeks to:

– evaluate Colin Gunton’s essay on the practice of theology;

– assess the value of Christian theology taught in universities; and

– draw up a conclusion.

An evaluation of Colin Gunton’s essay on the practice of theology

Faith seeking understanding, was Anselm’s take on reason and faith. For Kant, faith and reason were mutually exclusive as he argued that it is not rational and logical to make sense of a God who could not be truly known. Schleiermacher’s view leaned towards feeling as to reason. Feeling he acclaimed, was central to our humanity regardless of religious inclination. He argued further that religion was essentially what makes us human, hence he saw theological pursuit as useful in describing the supranatural.

I think, therefore I am religious, came to be known as Hegel’s strap line for his contribution to the debate, as he embarked on combining revelation and reason. All through the age of enlightenment the pendulum kept swinging for, against or in between faith and reason, with further contributions being injected into the debate by many others, most notably: Kierkegaard, Barth, Ayer, Wittgenstein and Polanyi.

In similar vein, thinkers in Jesus’ era would have had similar debates over his messianic claims — little wonder why many did not receive him. Which brings me to a statement he made when the seventy came back from their mission and were giving him an update of their activities, “At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Luke 10: 21–22).

Perhaps in the same way the internet disrupted commerce and communication, the impact of these thinkers have left indelible marks on the minds of Christian theology students all around the world. According to Gunton (2001),

There are two ways in which we can compare situation of the ancient theologians with the modern who operate in the university. On one hand the situation is similar, in some ways remarkably so. Not only is philosophy neutral, or actively hostile to Christian theology, then as now; but theology operates in a world, like the ancient world, when many different religions are competing for attention and acceptance (p. 454).

Interestingly in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he said, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesian 4:11–13); then to Timothy — his protégé, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The latter quote puts the demand for excellence on followers of Christ — do your best. To do is praxis, an outworking of our Christian service demonstrated in preaching, praying, worship, teaching, hospitality, civic activities, Bible translation, and other means of communicating the gospel in an ever changing world. The challenge to keep the gospel relevant to old audiences, while reaching out to newer and younger audiences is ever before us.

Strengthening this argument, Forde (1959) boldly stated that, “Theology is for proclamation”, emphasising the outreach element as most crucial to its underlying purpose. Again, very much in line with 1 Peter 4:11a, “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God”. According to McGrath (2011), Christian theology means the systematic study of the ideas of Christian faith, this includes: sources, development, relationships, and application (pp. 101–102). Note that, proclamation as highlighted by Forde, sits comfortably with McGrath’s application.

In Migliore’s (1996) effort to highlight the various tasks of Christian theology, he grouped the voices of the major schools of thought under the following strands: to provide a clear and comprehensive description of the Christian faith, to emphasise the importance of translating Christian faith into terms that are intelligible to the wider culture, to think about issues from the perspective of Christian faith, and as a reflection on the praxis of Christian faith within an oppressed community. According to him, underpinning all these various arguments is “the assumption that faith and inquiry are inseparable”, and this perspective defines the theological task as a persistent search for fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ, as to the notion of a body of repetitive traditional doctrines (p.1).

So I sum up Darragh’s idea with the words, learning culture. But in order to develop this culture we will need to invest our time and resources in studying the sacred texts and body of work of other academics, and perhaps no other environment is better placed to lay these foundations than Universities. They provide students with a forum for intellectual intercourse and circulation of thoughts, to help students to understand, live out, and exemplify their Christian faith; very much like what John Quincy Adams described as the highest glory. In his quote on how America’s fight for freedom from British rule was underpinned by Christian values, he mentioned, “the highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity”.

Centuries later, we see these same principles giving impetus and delivering lasting changes on issues like slavery, suffragettes, civil rights, and in more recent years, rights for gays and lesbians.

An assessment of the value theology taught in University

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the value of something is: the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.

Most major work on the value of a university degrees allude to the fact that it adds value to the lives of graduates and communities at large. Sadly like most things these days, these researches focus majorly on monetary values. But by pure chance, I came across a report by The University of Washington with some interesting data. According to their piece, graduates vote at a higher rate than non-graduate citizens, and are more likely to volunteer (43% of citizens with a BA or higher report that they volunteer at some during the year). Also, “College graduates have significantly lower rates of unemployment and poverty than high school graduates, are healthier, and more public spirited.” (Source: What is a college education worth… for the Citizens, Community, Employers, State and Students?).

So, what then is the value of a degree in theology?

A useful pointer from Migliore (1996), states: “Christian faith invariably prompts questions, sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as they are, continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, ourselves, and our world” (p.2). With this statement as a backdrop, let us first consider the intrinsic value (the end) of theology, by having another look at Ephesian 4:11–13. From this reference, we could deduce that the end is for the work of ministry and building up of the body of Christ. So, assuming this as an end goal, how then can universities be placed to meet these goals?

By drawing from Darragh’s idea I mentioned earlier in my introduction, we understand that people are integral. Why? Because they shape culture, develop curriculum, run institutions, run organisation, lead communities and even nations. For this reason two universities can deliver similar courses with completely different outcomes for students. As a result leadership, succession planning, recruitment, induction, retention, and high quality continuous personal development programme; become integral in making lasting and sustainable impact for students.

With this in mind, it might be best if we talk in terms of universal and local values. Universal value being the ultimate goal of the Christian follower or observer, local value being the vision for the university and perhaps its faculty of theology. Once this is achieved, we can then progress towards developing further matrices for measuring inherent and imposed values of the subject at hand.

Conclusion

In a letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 8–13).

This passage explains in simple terms that our growth in knowledge are constrained in our humanity, even as we believe or reason our way through the maze of life in pursuit of God. The prophetic voice of Isaiah are ever resounding today as they were centuries ago when they were first declared, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).

So, our faith calls us not into conformity to all major influences, but rather to be transformed and innovative (Rom 12:2), in our quest to make lasting positive impact in the world around us with the love of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore the value of Christian theology as taught in university is largely dependent on policy makers, delivery team, resources available, and how these resources are deployed. The impact will ultimately be measured in the lives the students lead, and their legacy.

In the words of Gunton,

It is an exciting time to study theology, as questions claimed to be closed open up again, and the Christian tradition appears once again ready to contribute to the great questions of the day, and perhaps especially questions about the nature of the human person in the world apparently threatened with depersonalising forces (p. 454).

Bibliography


Forde, G. O. (1959) Theology is for proclamation. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers

Gunton, C. E., Holmes, S. R. and Rae, M. (2001) The Practice of Theology: A Reader. Edited by C. E. Gunton, S. R. Holmes, and M. Rae. United Kingdom: SCM Press

Migliore, D. L. (1996) Faith seeking understanding: an introduction to Christian theology. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Mcgrath, Alister (2011): Christian theology: An Introduction. Chichester: Blackwell Publishers

Neil Darragh (2007), The Practice of Practical Theology: Key Decisions and Abiding Hazards in Doing Practical Theology. Australian eJournal of Theology 9 (March 2007)

Victor Anderson; Yancy, George (2001): Cornel West: A Critical Reader.Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

https://admit.washington.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/WhatIsACollegeEducationWorth.pdf last accessed: 10/4/2015

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