Friday, September 25, 2009

The role of research in theological colleges II

I sent my previous post on this topic to several colleagues in theological colleges asking for their perspective. Geoff Thompson sent me some very thoughtful comments, which I reproduce below (with his permission, stressing these are just his own private views). I found Geoff's perspective particularly helpful.
Theologians engaging in research commit themselves to certain protocols of argument which are often absent from the populist theological debates which occur in the church. Involvement in research is, at the very least, a commitment to the academy’s culture of debate where protocols such as the following would (hopefully) apply: the sifting and weighing up of evidence, a humility to see the weaknesses in one's own position and to be corrected by one's critics, care in the construction of arguments, a willingness to employ persuasion rather than dogmatism, and (therefore) a refusal to be dominated by the immediate. All in all, this ought to produce an expectation that if you have something to say, it needs to be well-grounded (in whatever sources/evidence happen to apply) and said both well and with conviction.

Obviously, that might reflect a rather romanticised view of the academy but at its best I think the academy still stands for some such values and practices.

Sometimes theological discussion in the churches is illuminating and inspiring. Generally, however, the culture of theological discussion in the churches has little patience with the kinds of protocols noted above. It is frequently reactive, often trapped in denominational and geographical parochialism, and seldom well-informed. It is often driven by the pragmatic and the contingent, and is thereby distanced from any patient quest for the truth which intentionally draws on a larger horizon of theological wisdom. All of this is intensified by the underlying theological and biblical illiteracy which characterises so much contemporary Christianity.

Of course, for an alternative model to be recognised and appreciated, it would be necessary to break through the prevailing culture. The work and witness of the research-oriented theologian might not of itself be sufficient to effect that break through. Nevertheless, a research-strong faculty might become something of a benchmark within the life of the church for more patient and theologically-richer discussions within the church at large.

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