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Faith & Reason: Feuding theologians will always be ignored

Why do theologians have no impact on the main debates in British public life? Because they cannot learn to eschew tribalism, argues Ian Markham, Professor of Theology and Public Life at Liverpool Hope University.

Given that the circulation of journals dedicated to academic theology is fairly small, I suspect that most Independent readers might have missed a statement by a group of academics calling for "A New Theological Vision". But the statement could prove significant, for it is the first attempt in recent times to reflect critically on the state of theology in contemporary society.

The genesis of the statement was a meeting of British academics held in Liverpool last September. Over the course of a weekend the group grappled with a range of issues at the heart of which was the question: why is it that British theologians are not attracting much attention in this country or elsewhere? The answer given is that we must get away from the tribalism that dominates so much of our contemporary situation. In theological circles today labels are enormously important: people are "sound" or "not sound"; some evangelical Christians will not countenance a theologian who is pro gay rights, even if, on every other question, the theologian is conservative; to suggest that one can learn from other faith traditions is considered by others as a betrayal of one's own faith. Meanwhile some liberals are so determined to accommodate modernity that anything affirmed in the past cannot be true. The result of this tribalism is a blindness that limits the conversation and excludes certain vantage points.

Throughout this century control of theology has fluctuated between liberal and conservative movements. Both have not hesitated to use their power to dismiss the other. Currently the conservatives are in control. They believe that theology should be done within the Church and engagement with other faiths or society in general is wrong. Liberal theological approaches are therefore finding it difficult to get a hearing.

In addition the climate in our universities discourages anything which is not specialist in its approach. The greater part of theological publishing of a serious kind is, at present, devoted to works that interest only fellow specialists and are unlikely to mean anything very much to a wider public.

The result is that theology does not make the contribution to society it should because theologians are too fearful of upsetting the tribe to which they belong or indulging in vulgar popularism to the annoyance of their colleagues in other subjects. For this reason recent church reports like Unemployment and the Future of Work have been written, almost entirely, without the assistance of mainstream theologians. It is no wonder that theology in Britain is not attracting much attention outside its own specialist clientele. Even church life is too busy or too preoccupied with practical questions to have much time for it; viewing it as either a luxury or irrelevance.

Yet we live in an age that needs clear and constructive thought about religious diversity, gender and sexuality, as well as the traditional questions of religious belief and the relationship between ethics, spirituality and culture. To contribute to this theologians need to be braver and much more daring.

The statement calls for a renewed sense that diversity and disagreement are intrinsically worthwhile. Theology is difficult precisely because understanding God is difficult and so is understanding the complex history of Christianity and of other religions. The recognition of a variety of vantage points is part of the necessary vitality of the theological enterprise of moving towards understanding more of the hidden nature of God by learning from other faiths, in particular those which give a strong place to revelation. The tendency to call for witch hunts or exclude certain theological approaches is a denial of this fundamental theological truth. Given the practicalities of our current religious situation, both in society and in the academy we need to keep all doors open for discussion and to recognise the God- given role and value of disagreement.

The signatories of the statement cover the spectrum from liberal to conservative. Most of the major Christian denominations are represented. Both old and new universities are there. It is appropriate that the Church Colleges sector figures prominently: they are institutions with a Christian foundation that need to find ways of developing their Christian commitment in a modern, pluralist world.

The hope is to stimulate a wider discussion than has taken place in academic theology in this country for some time on the content and purposes of the subject in the context of the academic institution, society at large, and the life of the churches and other religious institutions. If it does not succeed, theology runs the risk of becoming ever more irrelevant to the modern world.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely