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/ 15 June 2016

The Future of Theology

The Future of Theology at Yale Divinity School

I have just been in on a series of fascinating discussions on the future of theology in Yale Divinity School in the USA. The premise we were there to discuss was that theology needs to re-think itself as the ‘secular’ world no longer listened to theologians (they don’t produce anything useful, scientifically verifiable or economically profitable) and church didn’t much either (churches being more interested in pragmatic leadership training and no longer read theological books). As a result, theology has tended to drift into the descriptive mode of ‘religious studies’ and lost interest in God. The suggestion was that theology should ultimately be about ‘articulating visions of human flourishing’.

It was a fascinating 24 hours. Broadly speaking the thesis held up. Guilty as charged, the theological guild does often come over as talking to itself in ever-smaller circles about ever more abstruse subjects, and did need a new vision of itself and its purpose. The idea that we live in a secular world, however, was roundly challenged. We are no longer so much a secular world but a plural one, where religion is reviving around the world, with the odd exception of Europe, but even there and in the west generally, the real divide is not between secular and religious views of the world but between transcendental ones (including but not uniquely religious) and ‘closed systems’ which saw the world in reductionist mechanistic terms.

Update November 2016: video of the event now available:

My own observations were firstly to suggest that the proposal needed a broader horizon than just human flourishing. Our fortunes depend on the fortunes of the whole natural order, so theology needs to concern itself with the flourishing, not just of humanity, but of the whole creation, not least because without clean air, a healthy environment and food to eat, well, we just die. Perhaps more importantly, we are integrally linked to the creation – according to Genesis 2.15, our central calling is to nurture and care for the rest of the natural world, so that any account of human flourishing must involve the flourishing of the whole created order as well.

Secondly it was to suggest that the thesis needed a stronger account of sin. There is something in us that perversely resists the flourishing of others, the flourishing of creation, and even, in cases of self-harm, of ourselves. Any account of theology that paints a picture of the good life has to take into account our propensity to destroy life and resist goodness.

The most interesting question concerned whether the goal of the theological enterprise was God per se or the Kingdom of God – what life looks life when God is king. I found myself increasingly drawn to the latter suggestion. Jesus says: “Seek first (not God, but) the Kingdom of God. The end result of all our journeying will not just be the beatific vision, being enraptured with the vision of God, with the implication that creation falls out of view. It is not in some Platonic sense finally to escape the body and physicality to embrace a spiritual contemplation of the divine, but instead we hope for a new heavens and a new earth. The pictures the Bible gives us of the end are very material – a feast, a new city descending from the heavens, a resurrected body – they indicate a new order of being, a new set of social relations. It is created life finally reaching maturity, healed of sin, bathed in the love of God, saturated with grace, a renewed creation.

So perhaps the vocation of theology is not just to describe God – although it is that – and certainly not just to describe human experience of God – but to describe God as he relates to us, and us as we relate to God (or more strictly, creation as it relates to God). I found myself returning to the theological genius that is John Calvin:

“What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. It is more important for us to know of what sort he is, and what is consistent with his nature. What good is it to profess with Epicurus some sort of God who has cast aside the care of the world only to amuse himself in idleness? What help is it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do?”

For Calvin theology is not reflection on human experience, nor speculation on the inner being of God, but knowing God as he relates to us, as he has revealed himself to be in Creation and in Christ. Theology necessarily involves a vision of well-lived human life, or as he puts it a little later in that first section of the Institutes:

“God is not known where there is no religion or piety.”

Theology leads to piety, or to put it in more contemporary language: flourishing. In fact you can’t have theology without flourishing in the realities of this life, both now and in the eschaton.

There is a kind of theology which is conceptual clarification, a philosophical clearing of the ground, but constructive theology proper, theologia, involves the whole person in the quest. It does not just have God in view, but God as he relates to us – how life is to be lived under the rule of God. It requires the exercise of spiritual, theological imagination, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, to envision what life in the Kingdom, life at the wedding feast of the lamb, life in the new Jerusalem is and will be like. Theology describes a life lived in healthy, nurturing relation to others and under the dominion, protection and care of God: a flourishing life.

Yet theology does something more: it doesn’t just describe the flourishing life. Done properly it leads to the flourishing life, because it describes a God who invites us into closer relationship with him through Christ and in the Spirit. Getting involved in theology is dangerous – it might just get you drawn into encounter with the God you set out to study. It might get you converted.

About Graham Tomlin

The Rt Revd Graham Tomlin is Bishop of Kensington. He is the author of many books, most recently, The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God’s Way of Blessing the World (2015). Bishop Graham is also President of St Mellitus College.

Read more from Graham Tomlin

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