St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Introductory Issues:
Ethics and Doing Theology Today

Resource Paper Extracted

This is a contemporary theology course based on voluntary adult education principles, in which participants bring their own experience and reflections. The course charts the development of contemporary theology and looks at issues raised. Each session stands alone, but makes up part of a whole; and each session consists of a resource paper, a response, a (usually talking) task and open discussion. This then is about theology after Darwin's natural history treatise, The Origin of Species, and yet a book which caused a paradigm shift in general thought that underlined the ongoing development of human reason and the emergence of specialist academic subjects. The trickle down effect of academic thought, as well as the practicality of handling technology, has come to how everyone thinks in ordinary life. We are embedded in the solving of daily problems in this world, with this-worldly thinking to match.
When Economists talk of the invisible hand they do not - as indeed no academic subject other than Theology does - refer to God. In this case the invisible hand refers to the workings of the market. Rationally grounded and sophisticated institutions generate forms of thinking that cause behaviour to maintain the institutions, and thought can also act upon these institutions as an agent of change. It seems that God is marginalised as part of any process of maintenance and change. Such is the contemporary situation.
Yet God-thinking and can still reflect on all of this shift to a this-worldly outlook. Furthermore, God talk, if made, can still be an independent agent of change upon institutions, should God-talk motivate some human behaviour. Theology asks several questions offering many challenges. There is the change in theology and how Christianity itself is adapting to the complete ending of Christendom. Here is a question of what Christianity can make of such secularisation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it 'Man come of age'. The course looks at a very broad range of constructions of theology as responses to the modern world: in terms of secularisation, political economy, social structures, the environment and feminism, postmodernism and theology as a communicative form of thought.
There is a bias towards England and a bias towards Anglicanism that is resourced for the doing of much theology in England. However, it should be said that the United States and Germany dominates the general theological enterprise, including for much Roman Catholic output, and that England is seen as something of a parochial and self-concerned backwater. So this course goes on to the world stage too. The purpose of this is so that we can use these expressions as a means to develop our own personal and group theologies. As an opener now we can look at some ethical core matters and how theology can rush in to help supply ethical reflections.
ETHICAL reflection begins with the personal. Ethical reflection can focus on our own sense of self-worth and self-understanding, and such reflection inevitably leads to consideration of behaviour and the inner mental states of others. So we go right back, each one of us, to the very me of me, of our very existences of mind, consciousness and body - and from there having a perception of other mes and their very existences. Then as we get to others, we get to the collective organisation of the I and others. Our collective institutions themselves demand ethical commentary. We are human in part because we communicate in a highly sophisticated precise and imprecise forms. From these patterns of symbolic manipulations form cultures and societies, and within them subcultures. Institutions follow such cultures that exist in the form of rules and expectations and taboos. Again ethical reflection is called for, hopefully as an agent of change where required.
THEOLOGY can rush in where ethical reflection is demanded. Now, ethics and philosophy can cover the field by its own secular resources, but theology offers a resource of tradition, and reasoning, and claimed revelation, that can give substance to ethical reflection. So much is covered by a basic I thou relationship that is ethical and theological.
Jürgen Habermas is a contemporary thinker and something of a revisionist of the once radical Frankfurt School of sociologists and political thinkers. He used to be very anti-tradition. His view was that, free of economic and social interests, and of the dead-weight of tradition, pure thought in conversation and debate would move towards pure Truth. The truth is always ethical. Habermas is said to be one of the last of the Enlightenment thinkers, still looking for that route of reason towards the singular truth – the beauty of truth through reason. He calls it Communicative Reason. Not so many agree with him, and not just because economic and social institutions provide and skew thought, but because even in a pure world thought could be plural. Isaiah Berlin wrote of the clash of values and beliefs, all with their own objectivity. Ethics can clash too - a plural conundrum of who is right. Ethics become situational, even relative - and ethics are never neutral.
Yet, as he gets older, Jürgen Habermas has conceded that tradition, something that was once irrelevant, can provide a resource for ethical reflection - then put into reasoning. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is one such combined resource, that is Judaism and Christianity as resources, and so are those of many world faiths, particularly Islam and Buddhism with strong ethical messages connected into their ways of salvation. So we come to resources for ethical reflection and indeed resources in their own right as ways of salvation, and, for us, Christian theology. Immediately, though, we realise that no great world faith provides one ethical resource, but many ethical resources, and that they have many theologies each.
In narrow definition, theology is God-talk, though what kind of God, if God, is part of the God-talk. In terms of its content, Christian theology draws from and contributes to several key documents and resources.
The Bible is one source of theological reflection among others. It was constructed by various belief communities and self-identifying groups, arranged for belief and group-identification, and used to this day for belief and group-identification. It is a source of ethical reflection too, both positively and negatively - one sacred route towards ethical answers.
Christian theology has a number of homes, that is Churches and traditions:

  • Reformed tradition promotes the faith and gift of the Gospel in Scripture
  • Lutherans add a further emphasis on dogma as debated
  • Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy would both stress continuity and tradition in which Scripture is exemplary
  • Anglican theologies emphasise culture, reasoning, the examination of texts for underlying meanings and the dependence of some dogmas on culture and reasoning
Theologies vary in sources and tasks:

  • Relate to dogmas in documents of agreement as truth representations (such as Church Councils, but also Platonic)
  • Draw meaning from a story or dramatic encounter (often Biblical theologies)
  • Based on doing and activity - or praxis (such as liberation, feminism)
  • Philosophical and systematic (relating to identity of God, humankind and creation)
  • Relate to social science and historical change (where theology meets sociology of religion)
  • Relate to anthropology and cultures (where theology discusses collective meaning and what binds people together)
  • About the process of writing (particularly the postmodern and nihilist)
  • Internal to the Church (and included here is the drive towards ecumenism)
  • Combinations of these
The big focus of historical change is secularisation and theological development. In this contemporary situation: do some people ask experience-based, dogma-free, existential questions, or are we too busy for even that, as modern, urban, practical people? Here is a division of approach that can be tracked in some of the theological controversies of recent decades.
Secularisation with pluralism is also about how we can have identity and vision in the world - that may or may not be Christian. What now are the marks of Christian identity and what does that identity provide for us as self-conscious, mind-body beings of a limited biological life-span? And what about theology and culture: when culture is other than the theology, does culture end up subsuming theology and how can theology remain distinct?

Main Points Summary:

  • We focus on contemporary expressions of theology
  • Much theology is American and German, even if we give focus to English and Anglican
  • We can use theology for self and group reflection
  • Ethical reflection runs from the self as self-known to the other and to the institutional
  • Theology is a resource, with many branches and home bases - from different Churches to the different jobs theology does

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Adrian Worsfold