Theology fit for purpose in universities?

By Graeme Smith
28 Mar 2014

It was with some fear and trembling that I noticed the teaching of Religious Education (RE) was in the news again last week. Press reports about RE never go well for those of us who love the discipline. This time, however, the emphasis was not so bad.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on RE has concluded in a report this week that the teaching of RE is good for society. In particular Stephen Lloyd MP, Chair of the APPG, said that, "Religious education is uniquely placed to help children and young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to play their part in today's society and tomorrow's world”. He explained RE’s importance, saying it “prepares children for the challenges and opportunities of multicultural life, and helps them live harmoniously with others”.

The MPs report argues that RE can help pupils combat ill-informed prejudice, false myths and simplistic stereotypes as well as build knowledge and understanding of diverse beliefs, faiths and philosophies. It also allows pupils to explore ethical issues and questions.

This new report follows on from the Group’s rather damning report of November last year in which they highlighted how RE was neglected in around a third of all schools and that many RE teachers, about 50 per cent, were non-specialists. It is hard to imagine non-mathematicians being left to make it up for the Maths GCSE or Physics being taught by historians. Yet something akin to this is happening in RE, leading this week’s report to argue that society requires better quality RE.

At first sight, this week’s comment on the effectiveness of RE in schools is good news for those of us who teach in university Theology and Religious Studies departments. If more high quality RE teaches are required, then we shall require more students studying theology and religious studies at university. But I can’t help thinking it won’t be that long before MPs start to ask themselves what is happening in university departments. Then I wonder whether this new emphasis on RE will be such unqualified good news.

To begin with, I imagine most theologians will resist the reductionist idea that theology should be taught so that people can live in community peacefully. We’re not against that idea of course! It may be that some whose expertise is in religious studies or sociology of religion might agree with the aim, even if they also would have some reservations. But few would argue that fostering good community relations is the prime purpose of theology or religious studies.

If social harmony is not the main purpose of theology and religious studies, then the question is, what is? What are we seeking to do in theology and religious studies university departments, and is it of any importance to people outside of the subject area?

The answer to this is not simple, and I can’t cover all options in a short article. But we can identify some pointers. Some will have relatively uncontroversial answers: church historians study the history of the Church, sociologists of religion studying the place and nature of religion in society, and religious studies scholars examine diverse religious belief.

Some answers may be less obvious. Do we still need biblical scholars to interpret and analyse Christian Scripture, or is the Bible of so little importance today that we can do away with this discipline? Most people appear to think so if the evidence of declining knowledge of the Bible is correct. Furthermore, most British communities are no longer at loggerheads over their interpretation of biblical texts. What about ethics: do we need this to be done by Christians in public institutions when its questions and issues could be explored from a variety of perspectives in philosophy departments? Hasn’t Christian ethics become something of a code or vehicle for conservative or anti-progressive ethics, as the Church seems to demonstrate so frequently?

And what of Christian theology itself? Few people are going to Church, fewer still are going because they are inspired or guided by Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Rosemary Radford Ruether or James Cone. If the Church needs to sort out what it believes about God then shouldn’t it establish and fund its own institutions to carry out the task? After all we don’t have Conservative Party departments of Politics so why Christian theology departments?

When the MPs do get around to turning their gaze on Theology and Religious Studies in universities, then theologians will need some answers to these questions. In my own institution in Chichester we have begun to explore these questions with some innovation and some traditional emphasis.

The innovation aspect recognises that when people have theological conversations today then the topics look different from the ones traditionally studied at undergraduate level. So we have found we need to talk more today about religion and violence, about diverse global Christian identities, about the new atheists and we need to explain to people why the Bible is important in Western society as well as teaching them what is in it. We believe theological issues and questions pervade our culture, in film, TV, art, music and literature – so we need to demonstrate this to students and get them to investigate it.

But we do this believing that as theologians we come to these topics with a unique perspective. We are not sociologists with a Christian or religious bent, nor are we historians looking for the churchy bit, nor cultural theorists calling ourselves theologians, nor philosophers with a particularly closed mind. Rather we come as theologians, shaped and formed in the religious, ethical and spiritual tradition of our culture, who utilise our knowledge and understanding to analyse and evaluate our world today.

What does this mean for the MPs. Well I suspect that when they do come calling we shall have some questions for them as well.

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© Graeme Smith is Reader in Public Theology and Head of Department in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the international journal Political Theology (http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/) and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.

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