Theology

A Hunch About Love

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Theology is…

‘Theology is the hunch that love really is the meaning of everything.’[1] So began my first ever theology lecture. Did any of us fresh-faced eighteen year olds really know what we had signed up to in undertaking a theology degree? When our intimidating, almost maverick, lecturer asked us what we thought theology was, our timid answers were noble enough: the study of religion, asking questions about God, tackling the tough topics in contemporary society. But the definition of theology we were left with, and which most of us subsequently ran with for the remainder of our studies, was one that rested on a hunch about love. Of all the things we learnt in that introduction to theology course, (the theological method, why we should read all thirteen million words of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, and a recipe for a particularly potent brew of parsnip wine), that hunch about love proved itself to be the driving force, however unconsciously or indirectly, of our theological endeavours at university, and perhaps beyond.

While not having a single concrete, agreed upon definition of theology is not inherently problematic, certain ideas or understandings of theology have often meant that the discipline has come under intense scrutiny over its place in higher education; ‘ever since the fading of its illusory splendour as a leading academic power during the Middle Ages, theology has taken too many pains to justify its own experience…theology has first to renounce all apologetics or external guarantees of its position within the environment of other sciences, for it will always stand on the firmest ground when it simply acts according to the law of its own being.’[2] Theology has seemingly fallen from being “Queen of the Sciences” to a pariah of higher education. In one of his many diatribes against theology, Richard Dawkins wrote, ‘what has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true?…The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?’[3] Perhaps this suspicion of theology in universities can be blamed on how it ‘usually exists not just as the most delicate but also the most spectacularly tiny department in most of our universities,’[4] or, more likely, on a post-enlightenment general misgiving about religion. But to go against Barth and justify theology’s place in our universities today, I have to appeal to a hunch about love. Storge (στοργή), Philia (φιλία), Éros (ἔρως), and Agápe (ἀγάπη) are the four Greek words for love which roughly translate as familial love, friendship, romance, and God-love respectively.[5] Under these four types of love, the role of theology in higher education will be explored, its potential examined, and the hunch about love may yet become something stronger than just a hunch.

Storge: on pursuing your passions

Storge, what C.S. Lewis refers to as Affection, is ‘the least discriminating of loves…almost anyone can become an object of Affection; the ugly, the stupid, even the exasperating.’[6] It is a form of Need-love, personified by familial relationships, particularly those between children and parents, and is paradoxical in the way it is a quasi-selfish love based on how children require something of their parents, but their parents long to give something of their selves in the first place. For theology, affection can be understood as pursuing what it is you are passionate about. These passions, these affections, are not to be dismissed. The pursuit of knowledge can never be trivial, as is often demonstrated in university mottos, like Cognitio, Sapientia, Humanitas, (Knowledge, Wisdom, Humanity, Manchester); Rerum cognoscere causas, (to understand the causes of things, LSE); and In limine sapientiæ, (on the threshold of wisdom, York). That theology offers so many avenues to explore is a testament to the discipline itself. As a student, my theology degree has taken me from religion in popular music, to the Gospel parallels in Quentin Tarantino movies, to the theological implication of Rembrandts, Bacons, and Bruegels. None of these affections are inconsequential to either theology or the person to whom the passion belongs. If theology’s sole role in higher education is only Storge, then that in itself justifies its existence.

Philia: on not doing theology from an ivory tower

‘Can other sciences really keep theology separated from themselves, isolated in some corner like a merely tolerated Cinderella?’[10] asks Barth. Theology is impossible to do in isolation; you cannot do theology from an ivory tower as what it means to be a theologian can only be lived out. To live out theology is to do it in community, in Philia, in friendship. As a complex and multifaceted discipline, theology interweaves systematics, biblical studies, philosophy, history, languages, sociology, anthropology and more, and is enriched by being in dialogue with other disciplines from biology to literature. Celebrating inter- and intra-disciplinarity does not dilute theology’s importance, but it points to how engaging and active a subject it is. If no man is an island, then no theology student can be an island either; there is much to gain from connecting disciplines and approaches. This Philia between departments is what makes universities flourishing and cohesive communities, and also helps in the development and discovery of Affections. Theology as a discipline is ideally structured for collaboration with other disciplines, its breadth and fluidity preserve it from becoming static. Take the area of biblical studies for example, a sub-discipline of theology with, quite literally, thousands of years of scholarship behind it, it has seen a rejuvenation in recent years through the discipline of biblical reception history, facilitating a fresh look at texts and their historical interpretations in light of contemporary ideologies and cultures, and allowing for critical theological engagement with relatively new media such as film. The inherent relevance that theology will always hold should not make it complacent but determinedly ready to engage with new developments in culture and society as they arise. And as universities have a duty to be at the forefront of academic engagement with the world, having a place for theology within higher education should therefore be a necessity.

Ultimately, ‘theological work is service…it cannot be pursued for its own sake,’[11] it has to act over and against itself, point towards an other. Historically, theology has worked in service for faith communities, and this can be seen in the confessional foundations of many theology departments. Today, theology is in service for and in Philia with a whole host of communities, secular and sacred. Theology, at its best, works for preferential treatment of the vulnerable and works against the oppressive status quo. In what Gorringe terms ‘over-againstness,’[12] theology’s duty is not to be an end in itself, but to look beyond itself. Sometimes theology has failed in its duty to do this; ‘it is a challenge for religious studies and theology departments to be inclusive without making an unspoken but nonetheless conspicuous truth claim like those associated with theological pluralism,’[13] and insider privilege remains problematic. Theology has not always been in Philia with all those trying to do theology. Liberation, Black, Feminist, and Womanist theologies all arose in part due to the exclusivity systematic theology can be prone to and, even today, systematic theology is still perceived as a sub-discipline with ‘gendered baggage.’[14]

But theology, when it takes its commitment to Philia seriously, is valuable and powerful. The best theology I have done as a student has not been done from the ivory tower of the university, it has been done literally in the mud and the dirt. In a final year module on food, faith, and farming, we were taken to see farmers struggling against supermarket oligopolies, we had soil thrust under our noses so we could experience what truly healthy topsoil smells like, and we augmented our own community as students by preparing and sharing a meal together. Theological service done well is not about being a voice for the voiceless, but about quieting down the other voices so that the voiceless can use their own voice for perhaps the first time. Theology should grapple with questions of meaning and truth and engage with ideas of beauty, but theology ultimately should be done in the mess and the pain of the lived experiences of the oppressed. When it engages over-againstness and points beyond itself, theology’s most important purpose is revealed.

Éros: on welcoming everyone

Éros is powerful, beautiful, and fragile and might appear an incongruous way of describing theology’s role in higher education. A theology of Éros is a Eucharistic Éros. Jesus’ instruction to “do this in remembrance of me” should not ‘be understood simply to refer to Jesus’ handling of bread and wine on the night before he died, not exclusively in relation to the death that he was about to die. Jesus was, rather, calling the disciples to recognise and to remember the whole pattern of his table-fellowship – his profligate, decorum-snubbing, purity-endangering habit of sharing of bread and wine with sinners.’[17] A Eucharistic Éros thus begins with a welcome of what the wider world might see as the least desirable but which theology has a duty to see the beauty within. Theology is about saying ‘yes’ where the world may say ‘no,’ which is important in a higher education context where boundary markers have so often been placed to keep the unwanted at bay. Welcoming anyone and everyone ensures theology will never stagnate or become static, and it also helps keep universities accountable to being accessible for all.

Agápe: on loving and being loved

Any discussion of theology’s purpose cannot avoid the God question, the God/god/gods/goddess problem. ‘One major challenge of [this] century is to find the institutional creativity that can form environments in which theological wisdom can be pursed with integrity by those with different commitments.[18] But because the God question cannot be ignored, we turn to Agápe, this ‘primal love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential.’[19] Agápe finds its zenith in the crucifixion, it is a one word picture of God’s desire for the whole of creation, a passionate commitment to the other which absolutely refuses possessiveness, violence, and oppression and instead doggedly pursues reconciliation, healing, and hope. Through all angles of the theological method, this key act of loving and being loved has been the driving force of theology and remains so today. Through Storge, Philia, and Éros, theology has upheld Agápe without necessarily having to articulate a commitment to the God of the cross event in how it has sought to love people selflessly and also be loved through the enjoyment that can come through doing theology. Agápe is possible through secular and sacred theology because loving altruistically is not the domain solely of confessional theology, even if the cross event does function as the paradigm for that kind of love. This kind of love makes a serious commitment to others where the rest of the world may have maligned them; this kind of love pays close attention to people’s experiences of pain and of hope; this kind of love is empowering, enabling people to find their voices and then facilitating those voices being heard. This is the purpose of theology in higher education, yes to educate and challenge and inspire, but more so to set a precedent on how to live and act for others. Theology in higher education extends far beyond the walls of the university and permeates every facet of society – at least, it should. This is not an idealistic whim, a gushy rhetoric on the discipline that I am passionate about and which, if some people had their way, would be forced to shrivel and die. This is not idealistic because Agápe is not idealistic. Something so rooted in a love which embraced death so that the other might have life can never be idealistic or meaningless, let alone allowed to fade from our universities. The magnitude of that love is too great for such a thing to happen.

So what is theology and what is its purpose in higher education? Is it those noble questions about religion, society, philosophy, life, death and, if you ever take a lecture with Tim Gorringe, why topsoil is like Jesus? Yes, but it is all this and more. Theology’s role in higher education is about pursuing the things which matter to you, championing those who have been brushed aside, and welcoming everyone regardless of what they may or may not bring to the table. Theology in higher education is about learning that justice is important and then living that justice, it is about playing a role across disciplines and then sharing the findings that more people may be inspired, and it is about following the most selfless act of love and embodying it as best as a fallible person can. I would like to go one step further than my erstwhile professor and say this: theology is the proof that love really is the meaning of everything. Long may theology, and all who do her, live this.

[1] Gorringe, T., ‘Introduction to Theology’ lecture given 05/10/10. [2] Barth, K., Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, (Grand Rapids, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), p.15. [3] Dawkins, R., ‘The Emptiness of Theology,’ Free Inquiry Magazine, 18, 2. [4] Barth, (1996), p.11. [5] I am taking as my dialogue partner here C.S Lewis and his definitions and uses of the four loves. See Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012). [6] Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), p.40. [10] Barth, (1996), p.111. [11] Ibid., p.185. [12] See Gorringe, T., Karl Barth: Against Hegemony, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). [13] Quartermaine, ‘Theology and/or Religious Studies: A Response from Graduate Students,Discourse, 7, 1, (2007), p.51. [14] Guest, M., Sharma, S., and Song, R., Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies, (Durham: Durham University, 2013), p.15. [17] Higton, M., ‘The Theology of Tim Gorringe’ in Higton, M., Law, J., and Rowland, C., Theology and Human Flourishing: Essays in Honour of Timothy J. Gorringe, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011). p.2. [18] Ford, D., Theology: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.173. [19] Lewis, (2012), p.153.

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