Why universities welcome theological colleges

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.


  1. Good post, Jason. The distinction between theology and religious studies is quite real. Here in the US the term “religious studies” covers a multitude of sins, and theology (or divinity) in Barth’s sense happens in few places, mostly in seminaries not connected to universities, and in the few remaining first-rank divinity schools such as Yale and Duke. In my three academic sojourns to Britain I found a different set of problems. I recall meeting a chap at a B and B in Northumbria who had majored in theology as a undergrad. He was a social worker, had no interest in being clergy, and was not even a believer (he like Don Cupitt), but was just interested in theology as a subject. I know of no parallels here. But one of my theology professor friends here has Wiccan and pagan students in his classes. Religion flourishes here, but it looks so often like Barth’s “fruitless search.”


  2. Thanks for this post Jason. I have been trying to grapple with just how important ones understanding of ‘God talk’ is to theology as I ponder both Barth and Jenson. It is interesting that Jüngel sees this stance toward God’s ‘objectivity’ at the heart of the difference in orientation between Barth and Bultmann, whereby the former is compelled to ask in what sense we ‘must speak of God’ and the later ‘what it means to speak of God'(Webster summarizes this clearly in the introduction to ‘God’s Being is in Becoming’). Katherine Sonderegger has made a related observation regarding Barth and Jenson, insofar as she discerns an ‘architectonic’ in Barth’s theology of ‘witness’ and in Jenson’s of ‘interpretation’. This, at least in her view, means that Jenson is more than a mere radicalizer of Barth, his conception of the theologians role in the ‘interpretive community’ of the church (I know . . . that very phrase might require a whole book of prolegomena!) means that he perceives far greater warrant for the necessary translation of the content of dogma. Thus his greater penchant for metaphysical revision. Anyway, its interesting to reflect on their shared disdain for the idolatry of the religious quest (which for the later Barth seems to transfer slightly to ‘natural theology’) – what they do with the human subject’s ‘throwness’ ends up quite different.


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