FAITH AND ACADEMIC THEOLOGY
Faith and Academic Theology (with a little bit of Philosophy thrown in)
Or ‘Why Should You Listen to Me, Anyway?’
This conversationally-styled article was adapted from a talk originally given to the St Aldates Postgraduate Christian fellowship, Oxford, on 11/03/14.
Why should you listen to me? Why should you listen to what I have to say? For that matter, why should you listen to what anyone has to say? Why do we set stock by and attribute value to different people as being authoritative? These are some of the questions I want to invite you to think about in this article.
Before I begin I better give you some credentials, following on from this question of why you should listen to me.
As this article is about faith and academic Theology, I had better give you my theological academic credentials. Currently, these are: I have a BA in Theology from Oxford University, as well as an MPhil in Modern Theology, and I am currently working on a DPhil, of title ‘Theopoetics: On the Task of the Christian Creative Artist with reference to Kierkegaard’. I do a little bit of undergraduate teaching and I also teach Theology and Philosophy in a local secondary school.
As for my faith credentials, or my ‘spiritual credentials’, if you will, they are: Er… Well, I’m not sure really… I’ve had a Christian faith for 26 years, my whole life. I’m a weak, fallible man who makes mistakes frequently. I also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, and that, as a Christian, Christ lives in me. Do those count as credentials?
I think we can already see a kind of disjunction here between academic qualifications and what we might call ‘spiritual qualifications’. In what follows I want to draw on my own experience of faith and academic Theology and Philosophy to present some constructive ideas about them and elaborate further on this disjunction.
If you are reading this and you are someone who does have a Christian faith or has a super-exalted view of academic Theology and Philosophy, I want potentially to try to lower your view of them. If you are reading this and you are someone who doesn’t have a Christian faith or attributes not value to academic Theology and Philosophy at all, I want potentially to try to raise your view of them, and more importantly of Christ, in what follows.
I’ll start with some of my personal experience as a platform to build on. (If you’re not interested in this then feel free to skip ahead to the ‘LOWERING OUR VIEW OF THEOLOGY’ section.) What has is it been like being an aspiring academic theologian with a Christian faith, for me? Here’s my story:
- As I mention, I was raised a Christian. I actually wanted to study Theology since the age of 12, when a brilliant Sunday school teacher opened my eyes to the idea that the narratives in Genesis 1-3 didn’t just have to function on a literal level, but could also be speaking about (what were for me) far more interesting, spiritual, existential truths. At this point I was determined to conquer the theological-philosophical world, arrogantly convinced that I would be able to unravel and solve all the mysteries of existence by the power of my own human intellect, heading on an analytical Philosophy / Natural Theology kind of trajectory.
- Fortunately, I soon had a run-in with my Grandfather, Sergei Tarassenko (see http://www.unbleuciel.org), a Russian Orthodox nuclear-physicist-turned-itinerant-preacher-on-science-and-faith.
One Christmas Eve I dared to ask him some questions about Theology and we ended up staying up talking until about 4am. One of Grandad’s science-influenced big ideas is that human experience and rationality is merely a self-projection of man’s own ‘brain images’, and he soon put me off the idea of solving the Universe’s problems using analytic Philosophy and Natural Theology and introduced me to Kierkegaard, Barth and Bonhoeffer, whom I much preferred. (While I strongly admire these writers, I differ from their opinions in some key ways, just in case you are reading this as an academic theologian and are about to pigeonhole me and stop reading…)
- Fast forward a few years, and I was having my interview to study academic Theology as an undergraduate at Oxford. Here I was told by my prospective tutor that she was worried that my naïve, unsubtle evangelical faith would “cloud my vision” and get in the way of my critical thinking. I ended up having to defend my faith and give an account of how I understood the relationship between faith and critical reasoning to her, all in my Oxford interview. Phew! In the end she let me in, and I came to study for the Theology BA at Worcester college. However, alarm bells had started to ring in my mind as a result of this challenging interview experience.
- As an undergrad, I then experienced at various points something of an intellectual crisis whilst studying academic Theology, which is fairly common and cliché for Theology students with an evangelical faith. I discovered that many of my teachers did not share that faith, espoused a much more ‘liberal’ form of that faith or simply didn’t have a faith at all, which was a challenge. What’s more, the subject matter was even tougher. I found myself confronted by various things such as historical criticism of the Bible, reductionism, liberalism, scepticism, pluralism, scientific materialism, and a whole host of other things that end in ‘-ism’, which were challenging. I could have easily lost my faith or become very liberal, and I nearly did.
- However, late into undergrad, I had an emergence from this existential crisis and experienced a renewal of my evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal faith, which I’ll get into shortly. First I need to set the scene a little bit with a little bit of an explanation and assessment of the current state of much academic Theology and the climate in which I was being challenged at that time as an undergraduate…
LOWERING OUR VIEW OF THEOLOGY
In some corners in the church, though not everywhere, academic Theology is regarded with a certain kind of mystique and high importance that means people attribute special authority to what academic theologians have to say and are often paralysingly worried about ‘what the theologians think’ about a particular matter. (If you don’t have a Christian faith or this is not the case for you, please bear with me for a moment, or feel free to skip down to the ‘RAISING OUR VIEW OF THEOLOGY’ section.)
However, much academic Theology these days is not really Theology at all but is actually ‘Theologology’. By this I mean that it isn’t ‘words about God’ (Theo-logy), discussing ideas about God at a primary level, but that it is ‘words about words about God’ (Theo-logo-logy), discussing what other people have said about God. I very cleverly thought I had invented this term as an undergraduate and employed it in my essays and exam answers, but have subsequently discovered (through a simple google search) that it was first coined by a Dutch Jesuit theologian called Franz Josef van Beeck who beat me to it. Much of present day academic Theology is actually much more akin to History, or Sociology, or Literary Studies, and looks at ideas about God from one step removed, analysing the process of their material formation (‘How did these beliefs come to be articulated and documented?’), as opposed to engaging with them on a primary theological level (‘Is this belief actually correct?’). In fact, sometimes, one is lucky to get even to do Theologology, and just as much time is spent doing Theologologology –talking about people talking about people talking about God!
What is not Theologology today in secular Universities and non-confessional contexts (which is usually extremely little) is often very dismissive of evangelical, charismatic faith. And sometimes, when a clear distinction between different kinds of confessional or non-confessional contexts is not maintained, and even sometimes when it is, theologians are called upon as special authorities in a manner which supports and reinforces this dismissal of evangelical faith.
But a question presents itself: Why should we listen to these people -why should we listen to what theologians have to say?
In response, here’s a bit of the New Testament, from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
2 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”
-1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
For those reading this who have a Christian faith, let’s not have double standards here! We often read this passage and pay lip service to it, but then we go on inviting flashy speakers to preach in our churches with impressive academic qualifications and we go on overly worrying about what theologians and philosophers think, valuing academia and human wisdom over God’s power and wisdom. (ESPECIALLY in Oxford!) But the reality is that a DPhil counts for nothing in the Kingdom of Heaven! It’s what I use it for, how I use it for his glory, that is worth anything in that Kingdom.
Paul goes on to say in the letter that “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). I think this whole question of who we should listen to really comes down to a question of power and authority. I’m taking authority here as something like “the right to be recognised as having power”; there may be other more nuanced definitions of authority out there but that’s the working definition of authority I’m using here.
So, where do theologians get their authority from? Well, quite rightly, theologians and other academics spend a lot of time studying, researching and thinking about certain matters and so become “authorities” on them in an intellectual sense. However, I want to contend, following Paul in 1 Corinthians, that a person can have all the academic authority in the world and still have no spiritual power and so no spiritual authority.
In other words, academic qualifications are not the same as spiritual qualifications. A person who I think puts this very well is a contemporary underground Chinese church leader called BrotherYun, of whose book Living Water I am rather fond (as you can see from this review).
You might ask, ‘Why should I listen to Brother Yun?’ Hopefully by the end of this article it will make sense why I think he is worth listening to based on other criteria for establishing authority, but for now let’s just say he articulates the idea I am trying to express very clearly, when he writes:
“In the West, especially, the gospel has been intellectualised to such an extent that there is almost no mention of true faith and trust in Jesus anymore. Academic qualifications and speaking ability are held in high regard, while spiritual maturity, character and the call of the Holy Spirit have been relegated in importance and largely consigned to being irrelevant when it comes to God’s work […] A university degree has never been a prerequisite for missionary activity. [And by implication he means not just missionary activity but simply being a disciple of Christ and having spiritual authority.] Certainly secular qualifications may help a Christian who has been led by the Holy Spirit to obtain them, but what counts most is a call from God and a heart of passion for the Lord Jesus.”
-Brother Yun, Living Water, ed. Paul Hattaway (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2008), pp.59, 62.
Another reason that those who attribute too much authority to theologians (i.e. not everyone, but some people) might want to reassess their attribution is that, as closet theologoloists, ‘theologians’ can often spend a lot of their time thinking and talking about Christianity without bothering to practice or try out much of it first-hand. But thinking about Christianity is not the same as being a Christian and so such thinkers may not be as authoritative about it as they seem.
Another thinker who I think expresses this idea very well is Kierkegaard, the philosopher-theologian whom I am currently studying for my partly theologological DPhil.
Again, you might wonder, ‘Why should I listen to Kierkegaard?’ An ironic joker, Kierkegaard would probably wonder that with you, and claimed during his life that he actually wrote ‘without authority’ because of these very issues. But see if these words he put into the mouth of his pseudonym Johannes Climacus synchronically resonate with you at all (this is the little bit of Philosophy I promised in my title):
“The question about what Christianity is must [now] be raised, but it must not be done in a learned or partisan manner on the presupposition that Christianity is a philosophical theory, for in that case speculative thought is more than a party or is simultaneously party and judge. The question must therefore be raised in terms of existence, and it must be able to be answered and to be answered briefly. That is, while it may be all right for a learned theologian to spend his whole life learnedly investigating the doctrine of Scripture and the church, it would indeed be a ludicrous contradiction if an existing person asked what Christianity is in terms of existence and then spent his whole life deliberating on that –for in that case when should he exist in it? […] …while everyone is busy with learnedly defining and speculatively understanding Christianity, one never sees the question ‘What is Christianity?’ presented in such a way that one discovers that the person asking about it is asking in terms of existing and in the interest of existing. And why does no one do that? Ah, naturally because we are all Christians as a matter of course. And by means of this superb invention, being a Christian as a matter of course, things have gone so far in Christendom that one does not know for sure what Christianity is. Or by being confused with a learned explanation of Christianity, the explanation of what Christianity is becomes such a prolix affair that one is still not entirely finished but is looking forward to a new book.”
-Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. E. & H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 370, 373.
So, because academic qualifications are not the same as spiritual qualifications and theologians often spend a lot of their time abstractly discussing things in a way that is divorced from their own existential situation, if you are a Christian who attributes specially elevated status to Theology and Philosophy, I want to say to you: Don’t attach so much mystique and importance to academic Theology and Philosophy! Theologians and Philosophers do not often have the authority that they think they do! And there is one who is infinitely more authoritative than they, as we’ll get on to. Let’s avoid those awkward silences where everyone is afraid to speak up because we are all deferring to ‘what the theologians think’ on a particular matter.
RAISING OUR VIEW OF THEOLOGY
Despite all of the above, I nonetheless want to argue that Theology and Philosophy are still important, to a degree, and have a valuable place. I’m not advocating a kind of irrationalist intellectual bigotry whereby we unthinkingly dismiss all human reasoning that doesn’t agree with our own particular self-validating worldview and faith. After all, for a start, this is Theology that I am doing now and that I have been doing above in writing this. I would be a complete hypocrite if I were now to turn around and say that all Theology and Philosophy is therefore completely useless, because all this time I’ve been making theological-philosophical judgments and putting forward a theological-philosophical argument.
What I want to say is that, if you do not have a Christian faith or if you are a Christian who accords no value to academic Theology and Philosophy at all, they are still important, even in the light of the above, and more importantly they can help orient us towards Jesus Christ, to whom all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given.
I believe that Theology and Philosophy can still be valuable, not as purely human ways of exalting arrogant human rationality above God and purporting to describe fundamental reality by the use of reason alone, but as ways of articulating and understanding a rationally coherent faith from within in a way that appeals to the supreme authority of Christ. I believe that the Holy Spirit doesn’t completely bypass and destroy our reason, though he does confound it often and exceed it always, but both appeals to our reason in part and makes it obedient to him. Hence academic Theology and Philosophy, reasoning about God in an academic mode, are still important and can still be worthwhile.
On what authority do I say all this this? I hope and have faith, Christ’s authority.
Why does Christ have authority and why should theological-philosophical authority be related to him and seek to draw its authority from him? Why should we listen to what Jesus has to say? What follows is theological language to present my case for why, ultimately, Jesus has more authority than theologians/philosophers and so theologians/philosophers should seek to get their authority by agreeing with Jesus. Please note that this is being said by an aspiring theologian but an aspiring theologian who has Christian faith and who is looking to gesture beyond himself towards Christ, appealing upwards for authority and saying ‘Test these words, weigh them, and please investigate them, and Christ, for yourself’.
I’ve put forward these ideas before (particularly in ‘WHY I AM STILL A CHRISTIAN’ and more recently in ‘IN OFFENCE OF (/AT?) CHRISTIANITY’) but I stand by them and they have grown in part from rereading the New Testament and asking ‘One what bases do people become Christians?’ in that text, so here they are again, with a slightly different slant:
I put it to you that Jesus has the authority, the right to be recognised as having the power, to do the following things:
1. Work astounding, faith-raising miracles, even today. My (re)discovery of this at undergrad was one of the key things that helped me emerge from my intellectual theological crisis. When I read modern-day contemporary accounts of Christians, usually missionaries, that seemed credible and trustworthy, experiencing wonderful miracles in confirmation and support of the Gospel, it raised my faith and encouraged me. What a relief that God is actually who he says he is and that he still does the things that he says he will do! One example of some writers who talk about these things is the Bakers. Heidi and Rolland Baker are something like heroes of mine. I choose them here (of many possible writers) because they both have PhDs in Theology from King’s College London –they have got their academic qualifications.
But they are also missionaries to Mozambique, where in preaching the Christian gospel they have witnessed the blind see, the deaf hear, even the dead being raised. Not convinced? I challenge you to go and read their books for yourselves, especially as you will find lots of good stuff there in addition to these miracle reports. (In fact Heidi has a new book out which I’m reading at the moment and which I thoroughly recommend, called Birthing the Miraculous). Or to ask a charismatic Christian you know if they have ever experienced or know someone who has experienced a supernatural miracle. Try it, you might be surprised! This isn’t the only reason I cite in articulation of my faith, but it’s a real one. It was a comfort to discover these manifold reports as an undergrad and read in John 14:11-12 Jesus saying “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the miracles themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” Further, I present it first because it feeds into the second reason…
2. Convince you of the truth of the historical testimony about himself (this is a bit of an odd way of putting this point but I think it works best given the context). Obviously for the Western intellectual this is where some scientific Theologology (as well as Archaeology and History) does come in useful, for examining the reliability of scripture. But if you have become convinced that miracles still happen today it changes the whole way that you approach much of the historical criticism of the Bible that has sought liberally to sunder the ‘Jesus of History’ from the ‘Christ of Faith’. This is often thought to undermine evangelical faith by consigning the elements of the biblical accounts that are supernatural or miraculous to the ‘mythic’ pile, as being the result of the collective imagination of the believing community embellishing the original stories over time. This kind of ‘scholarship’ then gets packaged to the public as scientific (which in a narrow sense it is if you put your faith in a ‘scientific’-materialist worldview), unbiased, conclusive historical finding. But most of it rests on the assumption and prejudiced presupposition that miracles and supernatural events do not happen, which can be challenged. The historical critical enterprise has whittled down the Jesus of history to a core of something like ‘a Jewish eschatological prophet who said some controversial things and was crucified’. But there is still room for faith in Christ in the view of this core, especially if one takes a different stance to the miraculous in the New Testament, there still room to be convinced and persuaded of its historical reliability and veracity as testimony. When I read in John 20:31 the writer saying ‘these things are written so that you may believe in Jesus’ and so on, it reads to me like genuine, sincere human report, and I trust it. And I believe that Jesus has the authority to convince you of the truth of the historical testimony about him too. Not convinced? Have you ever read the whole New Testament for yourself? If not, try it, you might be surprised!
3. Meet you in a personal, transformational encounter with his love. The third thing that Jesus has the authority to do is to meet you personally today through a spiritual experience of his presence which changes you powerfully. Part of the rest of my story is that in many ways growing up and as a teenager I had been quite unhappy, frustrated and depressed. But part of the journey of emerging from my theological crisis of faith involved repeated profound experiences of God’s presence and love through faith in him and his Spirit, which also led to a personal transformation and liberation from much of the unhappiness, frustration and depression I had often experienced up until that time. In John 6:68 Jesus’ disciples, when asked if they are going to abandon him because of the cost of being a disciple, say ‘To whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life’. Jesus has the power and authority to meet you in an experiential encounter by his Spirit today and release you more into his abundant life (not a perfect, easy, trouble-free life, but a full, filled-out, fulfilling life). Not convinced? Have you ever earnestly and perseveringly prayed asking him to reveal himself to you? Try it, you might be surprised!
The Christian gospel is that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to it, and that all we need to do to receive forgiveness and eternal life is turn to and believe in his Son. This gospel is followed by signs and wonders, attested to in convincing historical reports, and can be known for yourself by personal experience. For me, none of these things get a person the whole way, but together they form a mutually reinforcing description and articulation of the inner rational coherence of faith, some of the light in which a believer can step into in faith.
As a brief aside, we might have here some new criteria for assessing the credentials of theological-philosophical speakers, teachers and preachers, as opposed to the numbers of letters after their names:
1. Have they been used by God to work any miracles? (In 2 Corinthians 12:2 Paul says “When I was with you, I was patient and worked all the powerful miracles and signs and wonders of a true apostle.”)
2. Does the testimony of the believing community endorse them and verify their message? (This includes the believing community extended through time, with particular emphasis on the New Testament communities, hence this criterion can become the ‘agrees with the Bible’ criterion as well).
3. Does their personal character line up with their message –do they practice what they preach? (Perhaps the most important criterion –you shall know them by their fruit).
Incidentally, Brother Yun and the Bakers satisfy all of these criteria. This is why I’m often a lot more interested in listening to what they have to say than I am in listening to academic theologians and philosophers. I’m not so sure about Kierkegaard –I’m not aware that he ever performed any miracles- but thanks be to God by faith because of his grace we can still say things that are authoritative without being miracle-workers, by appealing upwards to the supreme authority of Christ, the greatest miracle-worker of all.
But this is all still precisely that, faith. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is a risk, a step, an active placing of trust, not blindly or in the dark but in the light that God shines into our hearts, and into our reasoning minds. I would argue say that faith has an arational basis in its object –a God who is completely above and beyond human reason, which we do well to remember, hence Theology and Philosophy should not have such an exalted place. But it also has a rational character in that that God does not completely annihilate and obliterate our reason when he comes to us, but appeals in part to our reason, reorienting and transfiguring it, hence academic Theology and Philosophy can still have a valuable place.
So, to conclude…
If you have a faith and you attach too much authority to academic Theology and Philosophy, they aren’t so great so don’t get so worried about them –all authority has been given to Jesus, and he lives in you!
If you don’t have a faith, or if you have completely relegated and ignored academic Theology and Philosophy in your estimation, come and look at how great they are –and more importantly come and meet Christ for yourself!
Questions for thought and/or prayer:
1. Are you attributing too much authority to academic Theology (and/or Philosophy) when it comes to your faith/lack of faith?
2. Are you being theologically (and/or philosophically) lazy in any way as regards your faith/lack of faith –are there any academic areas which you have a responsibility to look into?
3. How do you personally understand the relationship between faith and reason?
4. What are the reasons that you have faith/don’t have a faith, or, what is the reasoning that helps you describe your faith/lack of faith?