Today’s Eureka Street includes a piece by Neil Ormerod on ‘Why universities welcome theological colleges’. He concludes with this warning:
The movement [of theological education] to the university sector of course restores the ancient place of theology as a discipline within a university. But there are dangers in such a move. Theological colleges should be under no illusion that the interest of most of these universities extends beyond the financial. The colleges bring student numbers, and their theologians contribute relatively well to research outputs with minimal investment from the university. Apart from ACU they have no particular interest in theology for its own sake. A decline in student numbers or changes in government funding formulae for research could lead to a colder relationship. The last twelve months has proved tumultuous in the theological sector. The future is not likely to be less so.
The whole piece is worth reading, but his conclusion in particular invites reflection on a host of issues, one of which concerns the relationship between theology and religious studies. And that conversation reminds me of Karl Barth who, in his more generous moments, acknowledged the importance of various facets of religious studies, even though for Barth these could be never more than a beginning, and often a false start at that. The growing trend towards names like ‘religious studies’, ‘philosophy of religion’, ‘phenomenology of religion’, would seem, in Barth’s eyes, to give the game away. For Barth makes a quite fundamental distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘theology’, and the two are not to be confused. For Barth, ‘religion’ is something entirely human and concerns a human being’s search for God, a search so entirely fruitless or perverted that it ends with another god. Theology, on the other hand, is ‘God-talk’: not talk about God, for God is not an object that can form the content of our discourse, but rather the human response to, and participation in, the theologia that has already addressed, undressed and redressed us in Jesus Christ.
And whatever his critics may say of him, Barth’s work can never be faulted at this point. From the beginning, he is constantly aware of the demands of the subject. During the first year of his first university teaching appointment, in the academic atmosphere of Göttingen, Barth wrote to a friend:
To make you acquainted with my spiritual condition I will report to you what Barthold von Regensburg (AD 1272) once said: ‘A man who looks directly into the sun, into the burning radiance, will so injure his eyes that he will see it no more. It is like this also with faith; whoever looks too directly into the holy Christian faith will be astonished and deeply disturbed with his thoughts.’ And then he went on: ‘Often it seems to me problematic to what extent it is both good and possible to spend the thirty-four years that still separate me from my retirement at that task ‘being deeply disturbed with thoughts’. To be a proper professor of theology one must be a sturdy, tough, insensitive lump who notices absolutely nothing … will I perhaps in time myself become such a blockhead? Or explode? If you can see any third possibility, tell me of it for my comfort’. – Barth and Thurneysen, Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925, 92–3.
Grant us more insensitive lumps O Lord.