Tag Archives: Comment

Why Study Theology?

The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol, the angel (The National Library of the Netherlands)
The Evangelist St. Matthew with his symbol, the angel (The National Library of the Netherlands)

I found the link to this story which appeared a couple of years ago in The Atlantic on the ACT website. Entitled “Study Theology Even if You Don’t Believe in God,” it argues that theology is still the “Queen of the Humanities” because “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.”

To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy. If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the “outside,” the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events “from within”: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.

I do not agree that one can study theology well without faith. Without faith, I think theology devolves to religious studies rather than theology. But here I am showing my bias. Her central point, I think, still stands, all the more in a world where the humanities are marginalised in favour of other more robust and ever-so-practical disciplines, such as business, law, and the sciences. I am all for business, law and the sciences, but I fear the loss of the humanities threatens us with the loss of our humanity. While instrumental reason can effect vast changes in our understanding and utilisation of the world and its resources, it may do so at the expense of those very factors which constitute us as truly human. According to businessdictionary.com, instrumental rationality is the dominant mode of thought in the industrialised world, and works by reducing all factors in any situation to “variables to be controlled.” Such reductionism sounds somewhat like the unjust judge of Jesus’ parable: “I fear not God nor respect man.”

Theology protests such reductionism by insisting that humanity is created in the image of God, to serve as a steward in God’s creation, ordering all things to God’s good purposes. Theology reflects upon the nature, origin and destiny of humanity and the human community within the orders of creation and redemption. Such reflections serve to limit human greed and hubris, and so the uses toward which instrumental reason may be devoted. The study of theology can serve as a bulwark against the dehumanising features of modern technological society, helping us retain a vision of what it means to be human, instead of seeking to be gods.

“We Are All Bohemians Now”

High Tide And Green GrassThe heroes of my adolescence were in town and on the news all last week. I was introduced to the Stones when I was about eight or nine years old and my elder brother came home with “Top of the Pops 1969.” Tracks I remember include the Beatles Ob-La-Di, CCR Green River, Elvis In the Ghetto, Thunderclap Newman Something in the Air, Peter Sarstedt Where Do You Go To My Lovely? and The Archies Sugar, Sugar. My favourite track was probably Elvis in those days, but I was intrigued by the cowbell at the start of Honky Tonk Women. Soon after my brother bought High Tide and Green Grass and I was hooked—on the music, not the grass—I always wondered, in those days, what on earth the title meant. Nevertheless, Little Red Rooster, Satisfaction, Get Off of My CloudAs Tears Go By, Paint it Black…somehow the music worked its way into my soul. As did the band.

This week, of course, has been tragic for them, for Mick Jagger particularly. The death of his long time partner L’Wren Scott has rocked his world, not in the usual sense. I have read a fair bit of the coverage and came across a quote which led me to an old New York Times Magazine article. Speaking, at that time, about his relationship with L’Wren, Mick said, “I don’t really subscribe to a completely normal view of what relationships should be,” he says. “I have a bit more of a bohemian view.”[1] We probably all know what he means.

But I was interested. Recently, in our Christian Worldview class, we watched a short segment on early English Bohemians from Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety.[2] He toured Charleston, the home of the “Bloomsbury Group” in the 1920 and 30s who experimented with new forms of lifestyle. It was the home of author and artist Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf. De Botton describes Bohemia as “a way of looking at the world; Bohemia is not a place, it is a state of mind. And what that state of mind boils down to is a sense of independence and freedom, a commitment to live by your own values.” He suggests that it was a “secular replacement for Christianity in a time when Christianity was waning.” It provided a spiritual rather than material way of evaluating ourselves.

De Botton’s explanation is both helpful and unhelpful. He is helpful when describing the Bohemian state of mind, and correct in identifying it as “secular.” He is less than helpful in describing Bohemia as “spiritual.” He uses the term in contrast to material or external modes of thought, and thereby emphasises the internal motivations and disposition of those who practice a Bohemian lifestyle. We should note that this kind of interiority has nothing to do with biblical forms of spirituality. When Paul speaks of those who are “spiritual” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:15), he invariably means those whose lives are under the influence and direction of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is utterly distinct from a self-generated sense of independence and freedom, or a commitment to live by one’s own values.

De Botton interviewed Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson, who said that the Bloomsbury Group “believed in truth, true living and true loving. They rejected the bourgeois values of the age, and everything the bourgeoisie stood for. … Experimentation was of the essence here. It was about breaking the rules and giving themselves a sense of validation by doing that.” She suggested we should be grateful for the way in which her forebears broke through stultifying traditions so that we enjoy the kinds of social freedoms we take for granted today. “In a curious way,” she said, “We are all bohemians now.”

What do you think: Are we all Bohemians now?

In many ways Virginia Nicholson is right: we are all bohemians now, those of us, at least, who live in western liberal democracies. Perhaps not to the extent of the Bloomsbury Group or Mick Jagger, but bohemian nonetheless. Bohemian values have gone mainstream, so that our culture too, believes in truth, true living and true loving, so long as this is understood as being true to oneself. The sexual and interpersonal experimentation that lay close to the centre of the Bloomsbury experiment is widespread and accepted today, encouraged as a means of personal fulfilment and discovery. The self has become the centre of value.

Sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell
Sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

Perhaps Nicholson’s most telling phrase is “giving themselves a sense of validation.” Bohemia was indeed a secular replacement for Christianity, though not in the way De Botton thinks. At the heart of Christian faith is justification, freely offered on the basis of the saving death of Jesus. This is divine validation given by God to those who turn to God through Jesus Christ in humble and repentant faith. To be justified is to be forgiven, accepted by and restored to God, and granted a new status before God and all creation. Justification addresses the deepest and most fundamental of human needs: right relationship with God, and then consequently, with self and with others. That Bohemians would seek to validate themselves is indicative of the depth of this sense of need in the human psyche.

The bourgeoisie and the Bohemians both sought validation, the bourgeoisie through their respectability, the Bohemians through their defiance of respectability.  In both cases their sense of validation was self-grounded and culturally supported. In many ways their choice of life was a variation on the same theme: the all-too-human attempt to justify ourselves and so to free ourselves from God.

Christians too, can fall into this trap, substituting some kind of self-validation for the validation that comes only from God. They might align with the bourgeoisie and seek their validation in respectability, or perhaps they reject the values of the bourgeois culture and practice a form of life they hope will bring the divine tick of approval. Both approaches will ultimately fail; our only hope of genuine freedom and authenticity is seek our justification in Christ alone.

Yet whatever gain I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
(Philippians 3:7-9)


[1] Heller, Zoe, “Mick Without Moss” New York Times Magazine, December 3, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/t-magazine/5well-mick-dek.html?pagewanted=all  [Accessed: March 21, 2014]

[2] Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety, ABC DVD 2004. The segment begins at 14:32 in episode 3. Start earlier if you want to watch his interviews at a nudist colony. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Heated Rhetoric

AP Summer 2013AP ramped up the rhetoric for the cover of a recent edition of their magazine. “New Battle for the Bible” and “Hymn Wars” were advertised as two of the feature articles in the issue. The byline for the main article was even more dramatic: “Battle for the Bible: Christians Must Defend Inerrancy or Watch the Church Die.”

This kind of language is a call to arms, a rallying cry to gather the faithful remnant in the face of an apparently devastating threat. It plays to the anxieties and insecurities of the target audience, and also suggests the anxieties and insecurity of those making the call. Its aggression issues perhaps from the dictum that the best form of defence is attack. But it goes on the attack by simplifying and polarising the issue and the communities involved in it. One is either on our side or they are an enemy. One either agrees with our analysis of the situation or they are enemies of Christ.

I am troubled that our politicians so readily use this kind of argument; more troubling yet is that it is fostered in the church. While it may “work” in the short term, I doubt the long term fruitfulness of such an approach. When one has an argument to make, inflated rhetoric becomes unnecessary. Gordon Coleman’s article in the magazine is a case in point. Entitled “Out of Tune: Why a Debate Over a Hymn Proves Central to Christianity,” his essay is calm and measured, firmly presenting his case with clarity and good grace. The rhetorical inflation on the cover to “Hymn Wars” was simply unnecessary and inflammatory.

I think we can do better than this.