Theology matters. That’s been a theme running through many of the contributions we’ve heard at the annual Society for the Study of Theology conference in Nottingham this week. Whether it is in interpreting popular culture (including Dr Who, zombies, vampires and all), in confronting the great injustices of our world, thinking through the Cartesian dualism present in current thinking about AI, understanding thoughtful forms of atheism, or simply trying to bring pleasure and meaning together to create delight, theology matters.
As an erstwhile theologian and as General Secretary of a learned theological society (Modern Church: www.modernchhurch.org.uk ), it is nice to be in a context where theology matters. It’s been refreshing to talk theology and be able to use all the jargon and short cuts; it’s been good to hear many familiar theologians being used and quoted, and to learn of many more that have popped up since my time. It was especially good (and very moving) to have a panel discussion at the end of the conference with Robert Beckford on his book Documentary as Exorcism as we were led through the powerful ways in which Colonial Christianity continues to enslave and oppress black people (and white Christians) in this country and beyond and how new theological paradigms are needed. It’s good to find a couple of hundred people who, while rarely agreeing, can do so with civility, all believing that theology matters.
But looking out the windows of the university buildings through the murk towards the city of Nottingham, the question also arises of for whom theology matters. It matters professionally for most in the room, and it matters personally for many too. But for how many people outside the room does what we’re discussing matter, even in church circles? Not many is the short answer. Ours is not a society which, and ours is not a time (and perhaps ours is not a church) when the work of theologians has much impact on the world, let alone on the lives of the general population, or even on your average church-goer. So, really, theology doesn’t matter.
Part of the reason theology doesn’t matter in general terms has to do with the messenger. By that I don’t mean these very nice people who gathered in Nottingham who are professional theologians. They are not generally the people through whom theology is mediated to the world. What I really mean by that is the church, and especially its leadership. Sadly the medium and the message have diverged, and what people see is not what they need or want, or we want them to hear.
One contribution we had in the conference used a part of Aristotle’s Rhetoric to talk about how logos, the word or message you want to communicate, needs to be accompanied by ethos, the credibility of the speaker and the moral framework out of which he or she speaks, and pathos, the emotional content which might engage those with whom you would like to communicate. This is a good framework for communications and one that every aspiring communicator, especially inside the church, ought to learn.
However good your logos or message is, if it is not accompanied by credibility (as an individual or institution), then even if you get the pathos or engagement right, you will not be heard. As an institution, the church has lost so much of its ethos, its credibility, its moral framework even, in recent years – over its treatment of women, its approach to issues of gender and sexuality, its treatment of survivors of abuse, its failure to come clean aboout its colonial and even imperial past, and so on – that its logos, its message of God’s love for a broken world, is no longer heard. It speaks only to itself in ever diminishing circles of mutual handwringing. It really has become doing theology in La La Land, a fantasy world of inept pastoral letters, mission action plans, and institutional fear, in which there is an institutional inability to see that no one is listening to the noise they make.
I wish it were not so; I want theology to matter. I want the message of God’s love in Christ to be heard here and everywhere, and for theology to make its contribution to culture, politics, and policy, for theology to be the force for liberation that it could be. I want the world to know that God’s love is not only for those in La la Land, but for everyone, however it is that God has created them. But until our ethos matches our logos, until we rid ourselves of our ridiculous and pompous insincerity and hypocrisy, and our risible institutional insecurity, nobody’s going to listen, theology will continue not to matter. It’s not only a shame, it’s avoidable and it’s shameful. The world, especially today, needs theology to matter.
General Secretary, Modern Church (www.modernchurch.org.uk)