Hull Creative Learning Centre Theology Series

Introductory Issues 1:

Doing Theology Today


This is a contemporary theology course based on voluntary adult education principles, in which participants bring their own experience and reflections. The course charts the many forms of critical theology and looks at issues raised. Each session stands alone, but makes up part of a whole; and each session consists of a resource paper, key questions and open discussion.

There are two introductory sessions: this one that sets theology within religious education, and the second looks at theology in Britain and ethics comparing with theology. The theology is ecumenical; inevitably in England, indeed in Britain, there is a bias to Anglican expressions, but there is also a bias to the United States and Germany as the two main theological centres of the world - but not to neglect other expressions in other locations.

The course first took place in eighteen sessions in St Mary's parish church in Barton-upon-Humber among a self-selecting group of worshippers in the parish. It was described by the then Priest-in-Charge, now Vicar, David Rowett, as seminary standard. He knew the course was open, critical, even forensic, and let it run among the constituency of people interested in it, who'd had other examining topics in the In Depth Group. Now, depending on interest, an expanded version is being delivered in the building of the Hull Unitarian Church, Chamberlain House. It is expanded because it will cover topics not covered in Barton: I was moving house to Hull and also there was a sense in which the group wanted a change. The presentations might have resumed after a good pause.

That it is in the Unitarian Church does not mean it is a Unitarian course. It is not a Unitarian presentation. I have strong Unitarian sympathies, although I am not a member. It is not Unitarian marketing either. It takes place within the auspices of the Creative Learning Centre, and both Unitarian and non-Unitarian activies happen within its orbit. Unitarians have made contributions to theology, and are as entitled to be heard as any other. If they offer little theology now, there might be intellectual reasons why: why, arguably, theology has died among the Unitarians committed to subjective and borderless change in religious thinking. There will be some references to a legacy of Unitarian theology in this course - as there was in Barton, incidentally. Nevertheless, this is a good base for critical, limit-free, conversation on what constitutes the body of theology as it exists and we can take this as a service to the community. And I do intend to look at traditional Catholic and evangelical forms of theology, even if it much theology is associated with a more liberal tendency.

Why liberal? Because, twenty five years after Darwin's Origin of Species, Charles Beard, a Unitarian preacher, realised it had changed not just science but a whole outlook across disciplines. We would call it a paradigm shift in general thought for human reason, upholding emergent change and the outcome of specialist researched academic subjects. The trickle down effect of academic thought, as well as the practicality of handling technology, has become a common this-worldly thinking. People now expect our own answers to problems.

These subject specialities are all humanistic. Even when Economists talk of the invisible hand they do not refer to God. In this case the invisible hand refers to the workings of the market. Theology then moves from the Queen of the sciences to the odd-one-out, and problematic as to quite its role. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer refered to 'Man come of age' he was not making a moral point but an assessment about thinking itself, and a move away from dependency on a deity. You move in a direct line from him and Karl Barth to 1960s secular theologies, where God is truly hidden in a busy urban world.

Clearly theology has had to adapt to this sea-change. But what is it as an expression of faith? Is theology then for believers only, or does it present itself as a body or bodies of knowledge capable of self-defence?

There is a legitimate question whether a non-Christian (like myself) can do Christian theology, especially if one argues that theology ought to be linked to worship. Incidentally, I do think theology ought to be linked to religious practice. But my theology and practice, and your theology and practice, might be different, and your view even on this connection between theology and practice might be different. I look at it the other way around: that, being theologically informed, I have decided I am not a Christian by any workable definition. Most theology is by believers, however, at least in the core Christian confessions: as Christ incarnate, crucified and resurrected, somehow or other.

The course looks at a very broad range of constructions of theology as responses to the modern world: in terms of secularisation, political economy, social structures, the environment and feminism, postmodernism and theology as a communicative form of thought.

All this course does, really, is takes hold of what theology has been presented and discusses it.

Theology Within Religious Education

But what is it, and why lately has it been (in Britain) subsumed more by the notion of Religious Studies and Religious Education. One reason may be that theology is seen as confessional material from the inside, and so secular universities have to 1) move from privileging one faith and even one established Church, 2) as an institution be open to the non-or other-believer and 3) have a wider canvas of religion. But I would argue that theology is a subset of Religious Education.

Theology is to be compared and contrasted with other methods of Religious Education. We might go to an interfaith meeting where the presentation is usually phenomenological. This means that there is some descriptive core of essentials. Representatives of faiths describe the religion one to another, and in comparison you might look for similarities, overlaps and differences of belief, worship or practice, and behaviour. For example, how does the material and spiritual compare between, say, Hinduism and Christianity? John A. T. Robinson wrote a book on that called Truth is Two-Eyed (SCM, 1980), and of course he favoured a religion that was in the material and implied incarnation, Christianity, rather than the spiritual manifestations of story-telling, Hinduism.

Who are these representatives, however? Who has the right to describe a faith? Bishops, Imams? So another approach is the anthropological, that is to survey and grapple qualitatively with what people who are in faith groups actually believe and actually do. We might look at the core beliefs and stances and practices, and the representatives might describe, but do they really describe what happens? In school Religious Education, Warwick University has been the centre for this ethnographic approach. I've met male Muslim teenagers who go out for a drink in the pubs and, well, go the the mosque but not regularly. And those who are more regular in practice: what do they do and how do they understand what they do?

There's an RE perspective that is a humanist overview regarding religion, as if there is a universal secular standard by which to analyse religion. It is not very popular, this, as religious education: perhaps found more in France. France is also the place where one finds a confessional 'religious sociology' - a use of sociological methods to serve a theological given. Where the humanist base and method is found, of course, is in other disciplines that cannot assume a theist or supernatural explanation: in the humanist discourses of Sociology of course. This is why John Milbank accuses sociology (including sociology of religion) of being secular theology, except of course sociology is grounded by research and isn't simply another belief system. Sociology research with deductive reasoning tells you what isn't the case as well as what is the case. Historiography also shows the disciplines of doing history, and whilst some is inductive, some narrative and some postmodern, there is still every place for documentation - primary sources - and using evidence available now.

Theology may deal with tradition but to be robust has to be careful, critical, interrogatory. It bears some relationship to philosophy, if we think of philosophy as 'thinking about thinking'. It needs to be precise and not cut corners. Both philosophy and theology examine the meaning of it all, but the meaning of it all in theology is some form of deity and/ or salvation, and the meaning of it all in philosophy is the universe; or, theology involves a challenge to death as all there is, and philosophy makes an acceptance of death. We see these differences best in the Chinese systems of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, where they act mainly as philosophies but also act as religions, where as philosophies are sufficient for understanding humankind in society, but as religions they connect to systems of ritual, and ritual involves either magical or supernatural manipulation, or perhaps efficient and holistic repetitive or spiral processes of passing through life. Theology is firmly on the side of religion, and seeks to uncover its secrets.

Theology is surely about 'learning from' as much as 'learning about' religion. In fact, it is surely about 'learning to examine' religion. In school Religious Education, theology is called 'concept-cracking', which means it breaks down the phenomenology of religion, and does so from the perspective of holders of the phenomenon. Others (like me) might ask: is theology a body of knowledge, or is it (pehaps) more like art and just some creativity that involves religious speculation and then forays into history, social science (including anthropology) and philosophical methods?

Ethics First or Theology First?

Of course one area where theology ought to be active is in a claim to be ethical. Does theology have to be ethical by an external standard - like the humanism approach in Religious Education - or does theology produce ethical perspectives?

If you are Orthodox or, in postmodern times Radical Orthodox, in theology, then grasping rightly expressed and practised orthodoxy is to grasp the ethical: the Church is indeed the font of all things peaceful and ethical. This is Religious Platonism. The tradition is enough to define the ethical.

Otherwise ethical reflection begins with the personal but among the collective. Ethical reflection can focus on our own sense of self-worth and self-understanding, and such reflection inevitably leads to consideration of our behaviour, their behaviour and the inner mental states of others. So we go right back, each one of us, to the very me of me, and who constitutes them, of our very existences of mind, consciousness and body. Thus we arrive at the collective organisation of the I and others. We can only do these through communicating, and from communicating biological bodies cultural institutions follow that embody the communicated rules, expectations and taboos. Oh and then these institutions themselves define, through collective communicating, who we are as individuals.

Theology can rush in where ethical reflection is demanded. Now, ethics and philosophy can cover the field by its own secular resources, and does, but theology offers a resource of tradition, and reasoning, and claimed revelation, that can give at least additional substance to ethical reflection. So much is covered by a basic I-thou and a thou-I relationship that is ethical and theological.


Jürgen Habermas is a contemporary thinker and something of a revisionist of the once radical Frankfurt School of sociologists and political thinkers. He used to be very anti-tradition. His view was that, free of economic and social interests, and of the dead-weight of tradition, pure thought in conversation and debate would move towards pure Truth. The truth is always ethical. Habermas is said to be one of the last of the Enlightenment thinkers, still looking for that route of reason towards singular truth – the beauty of truth through reason. He calls it Communicative Reason. Not so many agree with him, and not just because economic and social institutions skew thought, but because even in a pure world thought could be plural. Isaiah Berlin wrote of the clash of values and beliefs, all with their own objectivity. Ethics can clash too - a plural conundrum of who is right. Ethics become situational, even relative - and ethics are never neutral.

Yet, with age, Jürgen Habermas has conceded that tradition can provide a resource for ethical reflection - if then put into reasoning. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is one such combined resource, that is Judaism and Christianity as resources, and so are those of many world faiths, particularly Islam and Buddhism and Jainism with strong ethical messages connected into their ways of salvation. So we come to resources for ethical reflection and indeed resources in their own right as ways of salvation, and, for these discussions, Christian theology. Immediately, though, we realise that no great world faith provides only one ethical resource, but each provides many ethical resources, and that they also have many theologies each.

Next time we look at how the move to Religious Studies in England has turned our theological backwater into a setting more interesting and distinct from the United States and Germany. Plus the British are a little reserved in coming to grand conclusions. The examples of British theology will include looking at Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley. We look at Western denominational theologies and what can be generalised.



Dr. Adrian Worsfold