On discovering (again) the utility of theology

The last few days have included at least one gift of grace: a series of conversations in which I have been reminded that what I do with my life is actually useful from time to time.

Such a statement already presumes an account of utility; I have to acknowledge that I don’t really accept a proper academic account of what it is to be useful. The hero of A.S. Byatt’s Biographer’s Tale (whose name, not inappropriately given the story, escapes me) comments at one point ‘I do exist on the earth, and would like to be of some use, and discover a meaning or two…’ That is the way an academic is supposed to think, regarding the finding of meanings as useful; I own that, whilst I’ve been around universities long enough to be reasonably confident that I am moderately good at this task, I fail to find it very satisfying of itself.

If I am completely honest, I want to make a dent or two – or, better, to repair a dent or two – and not just to find a meaning or two. I want to change the world in some small but noticeable way, not just to understand it. In the words of a beautiful Over the Rhine song, ‘I want to take this world, and get it undamned…’ (OK, I’m too much of an Augustinian to believe this is possible, this side of Jesus’ return – but also too much of an Evangelical not to want to try…)

I know I am very far from the only university employee to think like this; but I also know that this is a deviation from the presently-accepted core mission of the university in Western culture. We have constructed a culture in which academics understand things, and pass on their understanding to others, who use them to do things. That is OK, but when the specialism reaches the point of resisting any question of the utility of research, I become uncomfortable. I want the work I do to make a difference, and a value it because it can.

I am conscious that this thought hovers close to a contemporary discussion about research funding in British universities: should researchers be asked to specify the public goods produced by their works in advance, if they wish to receive public funding? This is not the same question as I am asking, and I would deny that they should for two reasons: first, I do not accept that every academic should think the same way as I do; second, I want to distinguish between caring about the public good that academic work might produce, and being able to specify the public good that academic work might produce.

So, for me, a passing expression of gratitude from someone who is giving their life to changing the world is one way I find some validation of my work. ‘Do you remember, I asked you about X last year and you said look at this or read that?’ (The answer is almost always no, I don’t remember; these sorts of conversations come far too often.) ‘Well, I read it, and it was just what I needed, and now look what has happened as a result!’ Such conversations mean an immense amount to me; they are moments when, buried in the business of teaching and considering the research of others, I realise that theology is useful, that the expert knowledge I have amassed over two decades or so can be put to positive good in the world.

But, when I reflect on these sorts of conversations – as I say, several over the past week – I notice that the bits and pieces of theological thought that turn out to be useful to someone are, as often as not, odd little corners of the tradition, and are not in any way predictable in advance. This is only at the level of anecdote, of course, but if it turned out to be a general observation – for theology, or for academic disciplines more generally – it says something interesting about the particular role of the academic, or at least of the academic theologian. Usefulness comes not from pursuing it, but from patiently gathering enough of a reservoir of material so that one has the quirky bit of knowledge about practices of iconography, or Catholic mysticism, or Reformed Christology, or ninteenth-century missions theory, or whatever, that turns out to be the key to unlocking the problem which someone offers. The academic theologian becomes useful to the church and the world by reading widely, and remembering broadly, across the tradition, by being and becoming a catalogue of what has been done before (and by being plausibly imaginative in how the tradition might be used to address contemporary problems.)

(Does this apply beyond theology? I don’t know enough to say, but I reflect on overhearing chance conversations about advances in scientific disciplines that came from wondering whether this obscure bit of maths might model that observed physical phenomenon helpfully; this seems a similar dynamic to my, admittedly inexpert, mind.)

By God’s grace, this week I have been reassured several times in chance conversations that the knowledge I have passed on has helped to change the world in good ways; not because I have sought useful knowledge, but because by seeking a breadth of knowledge I have had things to hand that turned out to be useful. My knowledge of theology is perhaps like the random assortment of tools and ironmongery that my neighbour keeps: the value of his collection is not in the utility of each piece, but in the likelihood that, somewhere in the whole, he has what is needed for any given job – and knows he has it, and is able to lay hands on it quickly.

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  1. Hobo Kore Dojo » Blog Archive » Why We Do What We Do - [...] mixing with exploration and action. This is at the heart of what drives science. As Steve Holmes observes: Usefulness …
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