Why read theology?

I am thinking about the curriculum for a new compulsory module I have to teach entitled ‘Readings in Medieval Theology,’ and doing the usual academic thing with a new module, particularly a new module you didn’t design, of trying to work out some intentionality: why am I teaching this (beyond the fact that I have to)?; what do I want the students to get out of it? There are various levels at which I can answer the question. The module exists in part because we believe that reading primary sources in the tradition should be a part of a theology degree (there are other compulsory modules in patristics, Reformation, and modern theology). This is in part about content: I occasionally apply the ‘graduation test’ to the curricula I teach: what would really embarrass me if it suddenly struck me at a graduation ceremony that someone was on stage getting a theology degree without having read it? Amongst the medievals, only Thomas’ Summa Theologica really passes that test for me. (And so I have always taken every opportunity to get primary reading in the ST in – together with a well-honed piece on how to read the text, beginning ‘The Summa is divided into five parts, helpfully numbered one to three…’) There is also a skills element: reading primary texts, particularly ancient texts, intelligently is, or should be, a core skill in any humanities degree. Like most skills, it is gained only by practice, so compulsory readings modules have become a significant component of our degrees. I want to go deeper than either of those answers, however. Why should anyone do a theology degree at all? Some of our students are preparing for Christian ministry, but even there – why does a pastor need to have read Thomas Aquinas, still less Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, John of Damascus, or John Major (all of whom will feature in my module)? My answer comes straight from the medieval universities that Thomas and John Major taught in: we read theologians to learn how to think theologically. The texts we read are, at one level, entirely irrelevant. We are trying to learn an art, and thinking along with good practitioners of the art will help us to learn it. Thinking along with the greatest practitioners will help us to fly as high as we can, which is why undergraduates really should read Thomas (and Augustine, and Calvin, and Schleiermacher, and Barth) – and why graduate students should pick a great mind to live with for their three years of formation. (And why those of us who presume to teach should be reading the greats very regularly…) The point of a theology degree is not that you know what Thomas or Calvin thought about this or that; the point is that, when asked what a Christian should think about this or that, you are a bit more able to give a worthwhile answer than you would have been had you not done the degree. (Of course, giving the time you spent doing the degree to prayer, or evangelism, or serving people who are poor and/or marginalised, would have been far more productive in these terms, but…) You know where to look for answers, have a sense of which logical distinctions might become important, and are just skilled, in a thousand subtle ways, at thinking in this mode. (This generalises, of course. The point of doing any degree – possibly with the exceptions of medicine and law, amongst the traditional subjects – is to learn to think. The knowledge you acquire along the way is entirely accidental; what you (should…) gain is an ability to address any question, any problem,...

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On not having preached about sexual violence

I’ve been involved in an online Bible study organised by the excellent Sophia Network, and we have been looking this week at narratives of sexual violence in the Old Testament, particularly (or I was particularly struck by) Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13) and Shechem raping Dinah (Gen. 34). Various points were made in the discussion, but one which struck me was a contributor saying ‘I’ve never heard a sermon about sexual violence’. It struck me that in twenty something years of preaching, I’ve never preached a sermon about sexual violence. I am fairly confident that I have not avoided the subject deliberately: I cannot recall either planning a series and thinking ‘Let’s skip that text’, or facing a text with a narrative of rape or abuse and thinking ‘I don’t think I’ll mention that issue’. That said, I’ve generally preached series as part of a team and when others have planned a series on the life of David, or on Judges, and have chosen to omit the stories of male violence against women, I have not challenged the omission either. In view of this week’s discussion, I feel that this has been a very serious gap in my ministry. Of course, this is an issue we would like to ignore. It is ugly, and painful, and messy – and even with my level of pastoral awareness, it is an obviously difficult topic to deal with adequately from the pulpit. I think, however, it needs to be raised. Why? First, the statistics are, as is (or should be) well-known, appalling: Credible statistics (from the UN) suggest that, worldwide, one in three women will suffer some form of sexual violence in her life; in the UK, the figure is only slightly lower at one in four (source). UK police received one report of domestic/sexual violence every minute in 2000, but data from 2002-4 suggests that between two-thirds and three-quarters of incidents of domestic/sexual violence in the UK are never reported. Sexual violence is a massive issue in the world and in our local culture; it would be simply foolish to assume it is not an issue in our church congregations. Second, we face a major attitude problem that needs addressing. A 1998 survey suggested that, amongst young people in the UK, 10% of women and 20% of men believed abuse or violence within a relationship is acceptable (source). This, we should note, was when they were asked the question directly; the number of men in particular who justify abusive actions by suggesting it was only in fun, or that they didn’t really mean it, or that it was just the drink, or whatever, is no doubt far higher. Such attitudes can never be changed unless we challenge them directly and explicitly; surely the pulpit is precisely the place for such necessary and timely moral instruction? Third, there are issues of silence and shame that need naming directly. Women who experience sexual violence often – routinely, perhaps – feel shamed by, or even guilty about, their experience (the same is true of male victims of homosexual rape male on male sexual violence, of course [see below for reasons for edit, and apology]). An unwillingness or inability to report the crime leads to a situation where it can be repeated. Only open conversation in places that carry significant cultural weight can hope to lessen this stigma – this doesn’t just mean the pulpit, but it at least means the pulpit. Fourth, we need to acknowledge that there is a specifically ecclesial dimension to this problem. Scripture, and Christian theology, have been, and are being, used to justify sexual violence against women. I do not believe the Bible to be inherently misogynistic, or justifying of sexual violence – but I know it can be used like that. A primary role of the preaching ministry is modelling good use of Scripture in public; specifically naming and denying (ab)uses of Scripture that justify, or lessen the offence of, sexual violence is a necessary part of the contemporary preaching ministry, therefore. In telling the stories of Tamar and Dinah, and of several others, the Bible refuses to ignore the reality of male sexual violence against women; no preacher who pretends to be taking the Bible seriously can ignore that reality – and no preacher concerned to speak seriously into our contemporary culture can ignore it either. This is not a topic for every sermon, of course, but I can’t help feeling that not having addressed it once in twenty years of preaching ministry has been a significant failure on my part. [Restored do great work on this issue; they offer links here...

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