Mark Goodacre recently posted a bit of news from the Church Times concerning the future of theological and religious studies departments in the UK. This naturally caught my attention because I’m in such a department, so I’m obviously going to worry about being intellectually homeless. It also caught my attention because the fears and concerns raised in that article were tentatively realised not long ago where I do my research.
However, I was more struck by a comment (well, really, the only comment) to Mark’s post, which reads thusly:
I have thought for years, religion and theology departments are part of a relic when “The Church” was attempting to use academic to combat newer enlightenment thinking. Today it seems to me that Religion and Theology departments of little to no value. All the important content that is taught in them is better rolled into history departments. And the Supernaturalistic aspects that are dealt with are better handled by priests and ministers. Theology and Religion departments are simply no longer of value. History departments is where the topic should be taught and studied.
Some of the specific points of this statement, as well as the underlying logic of the whole, are becoming more common; almost like a constant refrain to a really annoying song. It’s starting to take on the rhythm of many contemporary worship choruses, and we all know how I feel about those. But I digress.
While I would love to address the individual, overly opinion-driven points raised in this person’s argument; I want to respond to what appears to be it driving question: what’s the point in studying (Jewish-Christian) theology,* especially in an academic context? I should confess that the response I give is not my own; it comes from a scholar from generations past, but his insight on this matter is still worthwhile–primarily because it speaks to this very issue:
It is a cardinal canon of criticism that in dealing with any great work our prime endeavour should be to understand (as Aristotle would say) ‘the thing it was to be’. If, applying this canon to the New Testament, we ask what its writers aim to give us, the answer is neither belles-lettres nor superfine ethics, nor even lofty views about God, but Good News from God–authentic tidings of God’s good will to redeem and deliver sinful men. And to this day, when simple men and women go to the New Testament, this what they seek. They do not seek fine literature: they can get that elsewhere, in Shakespeare and many another. They do not seek merely moral light and leading: they can get that in the writings of many a good and wise man of this world. They do not even seek views about God: they can get these in any handbook of comparative religion. No, beset behind and before with sin and guilt, perplexed and bewildered by the burden and mystery of life, they seek ‘a Word from the Beyond for our human predicament’. And it is just because the New Testament is, from Gospels to the Apocalypse, one triumphant testimony that God has spoken this Word that it occupies a unique place in the literature of the world. That is to say, the importance of the New Testament is that it claims to be the record of a unique self-revelation of God on the stage of human history, a revelation which gives the key to all history’s inner meaning.
–A.M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (1972), 6-7
If one were to ignore the theological assertions in this argument (as I’m sure many would do), then that person might be able to make a case for relegating theological and religious studies to history departments. But if one divorced the theology from the history of the Bible, then the study of the Bible does not properly belong in a history department either.** To separate the two would create something ahistorical. People of the ancient world earnestly believed–even the Atomists (read: modern-day empiricists)–that something beyond (i.e. divine) had to be reckoned with in the cosmos in order for one to do justice to the story of life (i.e. history).
It is a polished relic of post-Enlightenment thought that promotes a separation between history and theology (or even philosophy, but even that doesn’t work); and by ‘theology’ I mean the study of the divine–not just the Judaeo-Christian view of God. Specifically, it is impossible to tell the story of the Bible without saying something about the theology that flows through the story. It would be like saying, ‘Tell me about Socrates without getting into the boring, abstract, philosophy stuff’; or, ‘Explain to me the conquests of Alexander the Great and even Takeda Shingen, but leave out the antiquated theories of Aristotle and Sun Tzu.’ It simply cannot be done.
To say that theological and religious studies need to be excised from academic faculties or at least shifted to history departments represents what looks to be a refusal to deal with what theology is and more of an ideologically-driven opinion of what some want theology to be.
* Let’s face it, the real target in these sorts of arguments is Jewish-Christianity, with a special focus on the Christian part.
** Maybe that’s the agenda: weed out theological and religious studies because they don’t belong anywhere.