St Mary's Theology Course
A Drop-in Course as an Aid to Theological Discussion

[Pages 140 to 149]

Early Closing: the Broadest Theology

Over the sessions we have looked at a number of theological issues, and no doubt the bias of them has been the effect upon religious institutions, Christian and Anglican in particular.
Who and what is theology for, and what is its root? Does theology have to be Christian, as source, and Christian, as destination? The obvious answer for the destination focus of theology is no, as theology can be directed at all of humanity and indeed all of life and the evolved. But it is not so clear regarding source: whether theology must be Christian. The consensus is probably yes, which is why many a secular university has switched its focus from Theology as a department to Religious Studies or Humanities. Theology in those places still runs with Christian arguments if across a very wide definition, and then you are not expected to be agreeable to any argument at all. Perhaps it is very difficult to do a humanist theology, or it is just undeveloped, or it is regarded as a contradiction in terms, given that 'theos' means God, but then it does make sense to have a Buddhist theology, and Buddhism does not believe in a supreme being.
The suggestion here will be that it is possible to have a broad source theology based on the dominant paradigms of this time, after the intellectual revolutions we have undergone.
So much theology is really institutional, the sort that starts in a seminary and relates to that which the seminary serves, even if the seminarians go out and talk about the world. So the controversies of theology tend not to involve the mass of the population, even among those who can understand any of it, but relates to those who have an interest in the subject from a worshipping point of view. They do further tend to be the trained and the professional. So the controversies are between them, people who have a different outlook but are within the same religion, even within the same institution. This is despite the apparent intended universality of the language: the notion that salvation is for everyone who either seeks the deity or is sought out by the deity; yet the language is, in fact, almost private to the institution.
It matters that the language is not shared. Now at one time the claim could be made that at some level the language was shared. People started learning it at Sunday School, entered into the choir or other body, and were confirmed, and even if they were confirmed in the sense that they received a church leaving certificate, there was still some grounding that formed, later, a residual shared language of faith. Plus there were schools that did this. Now we have a much more mixed situation, and many schools give a minimal introduction to the Christian faith, as well as a minority of schools indoctrinating a rather a heavy introduction to the Christian faith that might equate with a very narrow theology.
Some will say, "So what? What matters is whether it is true or not."
The problem then becomes what is truth and how is it applied. We live by truths and what we think is true: it is our picture of the universe. At one time, the picture was highly mythical and magical, full of enchantment and both wonder and fear. There was the sun and the moon, both thought to give life, and the stars, and below the forest and the hills and, further afield, the grasslands and deserts, the life-giving and destructive water, the capacity for fire - probably like the sun, and the air we breathed. Out of that came the personalities of ourselves and monsters made mythical, and deities. And an important aspect of religion in all this, which wasn't separate as 'religion', was the human tribe - always our tribe and not their tribe. In time the tribe and its achievements were important, moving from polytheism to theism, and in some cases an abstract theism or non-theism, with either a linear view or history or a circulatory view.
Only language bearing, memory making and therefore story telling humans can come up with this: we know that higher animals socialise and use symbolic communication, but we use it much the greater, and more refined, and crucially we store it. Thus we have culture well above behaviour. We are very similar to the animals that are our cousins, but we are also crucially different by the extent and refinement of speaking and especially of storing speech. Our speech and our refinement of the most complex tools go hand in hand.
So it could be said that, therefore, ultimately, theology has deep roots in anthropology. Indeed it can be insisted that theology has actual roots in anthropology, because animal and our anthropology includes reciprocal binding behaviour and animals and we ritualise binding behaviour. We ritualise it further than any animal: indeed we ritualise, contemplate and reflect. We can know, although we do not have to know, that some of these exchange rituals bind us together. We know that out of sex we have love, that out of speech we have conversation, that out of money and economic exchange we have added value product. We attach symbols and rituals to all of these, and we reflect on them even more, and we can reflect on the reflecting, as does the best religion. And religion can ask: 'How can we be free of what binds us?' or alternatively, 'How can be be fulfilled through the binding of one with the other?' Religion can further ask, 'What can this all mean when can do these things no more?'
At one point, rather than just doing this anthropology throughout the ages, we began to see the anthropology for what it was; instead of just casually making collective stories, we began see the rules for history; indeed, instead of just doing religion, we started refining it in theology. A lot happened in fits and starts and was lost again, but we made progress. Once we were settled agriculturally and lived in towns, we began to refine. But it took a very long time to put so much into subject areas and consider the proper rules of procedure. And all the time we were asking, as we refined, 'Where is the truth of it all?'
Plato said everything there is must have a perfect counterpart, in a perfect setting - the heavens - and that perfection is truth. That's pure spirit, and pure is true. Aristotle said deep in what we do there must be the actuality, and truth is there. Later, from Plato, came revelation and the God above; later, from Aristotle, came people experimenting.
It is the religion and science divide, but not totally, so that the idea at least of incarnate religion is in the world, as is Jewish religion being about a people and what they do. But once you experiment, your explanations become contingent, and that weakness is also a strength. The Enlightenment was a shift in approach, towards experiment, study and philosophising about it all, without the presumption of the divine being involved in a deist sense. But it was in the nineteenth century that the rules developed sufficiently in the new disciplines, rules that started opening up problems for the claims for theology.
The reason is this: theology involves the historical, the material, the cosmic-creative, the group dynamics: it makes claims that are challenged by experiment and by the rules of academic subjects as developed.
For example, in science, evolution is a local system, that's to say a mutation or outcome of difference exerts its advantage according to the environment it is in. Change improves and improves but in each situation; change the situation and the advantages become disadvantages and the development of life is different. There is no grand plan in this.
To say that life was deliberately created, and that humans were begun, by a pre-existing intelligence, is to contradict the science of origins from simplicity to complexity.
In economics the invisible hand is the market mechanisms that connect the consumer and the producer, and again these are all specific to the situation we are in. The market distorts through institutions, and the imperfections result in cycles that seem to generate themselves, rising and falling, sometimes collapsing.
History has rules of evidence. There are different schools of history, such that the level of narrative produced or importance of social causality varies, but all schools of history agree on the importance of documentary evidence, whatever one then makes of it.
One of the biggest impacts regarding Christianity was the ambiguity of documents regarding the early Churches - what can be said and what can't from them, that the primary documents are of the early Churches and even then we don't seem to have them. An attempt to get back to the historical Jesus seemed an impossibility. Some suggest we can get back to his sayings as the earliest material, as in Q and parts of the Gospel of Thomas, but then the dynamic is the biography-like material that is also deemed to be closest historically, in the four gospels. Yet the point is that the material is history-like, not history, and biography-like, not biography. The Pauline materials colour these throughout, and some of these are Paul and some are not. Whatever, the evidence as far as it goes points to a rapidly escalating early Christianity in terms of the titles given to Jesus, that the Jewish primitive eschatology gives way to a Gentile eschatology and then comparative loss of eschatology, in a move towards traditions and of much diversity before the centres of authority start to close down the edges and the differences until, in some hundreds of years, a general faith is established at least going West.
Yet these are themselves explainable sociologically as religious changes from charisma to tradition, and so here we are dealing with what can be understood on a human level, just like an anthropologist could if we could go back in time. They were strange people of supernatural beliefs back then, but precisely what and how is debatable.
The historical issue applied to the biblical texts is what drove the liberal movement in the nineteenth century, and what generated the reactions. The Oxford liberals who wrote Essays and Reviews (1860) were paralleled by the Oxford inventing traditionalists who reproduced a Church to resist the State, and the evangelicals also grew in reaction. It is these strands that institutionalise and politicise theology, although they are complicated by actual events and denominations. Obviously we are most familiar with the Anglican, and there is the Unitarian which connected to the liberal Anglicans, those Congregationalists who drifted, the General Baptists, the Quakers, and some Methodists. They are in fact all connected, despite institutional politics and boundary drawing that likes to see ecumenical connections in some places and no connections in others.
The complication also arises in the Reformation. The Reformation affected everything, including the Catholic side of things. It cleaned Catholicism up, for one thing, at least in terms of political and financial corruption connecting to own claims regarding salvation. But it helped produce the evangelical and indeed the liberal. The evangelical was the combination of Bible as read by everyone and Reformed Church, The liberal in the Reformation was at first the ordinary comprehension of the individual reader, and the light touch Church beyond that reading, and only later biblical criticism. The Catholic carried on, as tradition, or was remade, but also there was also a worldly outlook sacramentalism that had its own liberal overtones, in a sort of let-the-people-be while the Church does ritual things according to propriety. Such Catholicism holds to tradition, form and content, and doctrines, while the people can think what they like - it remains highly clericalised.
We make a mistake if we forget just how close to the State Churches were: the Catholic Church - in the end formed its own State after its Holy Roman Empire - and the Protestant Churches that broke away did so with State power. That some of English Protestantism, and Anglo-Catholicism, was a battle against the State, was different: nevertheless, in that institutional pluralism was a middle class battle that assisted political pluralism and liberty. Puritans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, all fought for the right to worship with liberty, and then for the right for full political participation, the agitation fought with some economic clout, and located in the new urban centres. In the United States religion had parishes - Congregationalists for example - but the independent State withdrew from religion and Christianity took on the competitive nature and plural nature of the rest of society.
It is interesting nevertheless that not a lot of theology focuses on the State in an upholding sense. But the State has been influential in generating theology: so many dispersed German states had competitive universities which directly led to the importance of German theology, and the plurality of American institutions with the cultural importance of identity in religion produced many funded seminaries and universities for generating theology. Thus Germany and the United States became the key places for generating theology. In America it mainly meant the production of Protestant theology; in Germany a Protestant and Catholic crossroads meant both.
So from these we have had different theological tendencies, and surely in terms of contemporary culture the various traditionalists are defensive, the evangelicals are attacking, and the liberals start with negotiating and move to accommodation. But this is an institutional perspective.
We are looking at some central questions. If we get rid of any sense of a God of the gaps, so that we allow science to explain all that is scientific, and if we obey the rules of doing history, so history is more reliable, and follow the rules of doing social science, so that we understand people in collectivities, then we might ask questions like in what sense can God still exist, in what sense does the Bible stay normative, and in what sense does Jesus remain unique to be either the object of worship of the path through which to direct worship?
On the question of God, if objectivity for old style theology cannot be found in the world, then there has to be some logical outcomes. One is to make the God high and dry, invisible, of revelation from the heavens downwards only. This was Karl Barth's solution to the modern situation. God is encountered in the Biblical narrative and the Church apparently latched on to key revealed understandings, but culture and religion never produces anything authentic. Barth was a Platonist not an Aristotelian! It still leaves a problem for him of how do you know, being only one of the cultured humans, and whether dialectic (that is, facing opposites against each other) is a credible means by which Karl Barth escaped his own culture-human cage. But others have used the implications of this approach to use non-objectivity replacing truth by dramatics: so that the Biblical text becomes a drama, that identifies the community that follows the text, or following ecumenical doctrines identifies a community, this being one form of postliberalism, to having a Church that is its own truth in terms of the postmodern world - as in Radical Orthodoxy. More simply is having a kind of Christian communal service within the busy secular city. The 1950s and 1960s Death of God movement pushed the view of the invisible God to the extreme.
Set against all that is theology that says we ask questions, though arguably Tillich produced a systematic theology that just produced the same structure of answers, just in a more existential language. Then we have the moderate Anglican synthesising approach, who took both the secular city and the questioning existentialist, and also the past biblical text as a mythic if insightful construct, and made an intended mishmash of it all. That was Bishop John A. T. Robinson in Honest to God (1963) and you can either regard him still as a lost pioneer in synthesising these approaches or a rather bad theologian who didn't understand what he was doing, even if he could communicate to the people of the time.
Robinson would always insist, without reason, even when 'coming at it from the other side', that you had to hold to the incarnate Christ. Why? Indeed he said this requirement was a challenge for the Church. Well, it was a challenge for his theology, perhaps. His theology, actually, a lot of it, was a combination of biblical narrative and personalist God, one not of power but of service and sacrifice, and he rejected the systematic like Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps he should have rejected Paul Tillich too, whose answers were set out systematically despite having the appearance of questions.
Crucially history had said there is little we can actually know about Jesus. There just is not the data. We cannot say he was ethically or morally superior to anyone else, because we don't know. What we have is people afterwards of supernaturalist beliefs about how the world then worked, who made claims about this man in supernatural terms. He too will have had beliefs we regard as strange, and very likely end-time in nature. In general people do not think, in any scientific or historical sense, that a God is going to bring the universe to a rapid close and act to bring judgement - but think that the universe is expanding and that everything in it will just, well fade into lifelessness via a whole series of destructive and creative cosmic events. The scientific and historical outlook does not consider that a God created a particular man who was also cosmic from eternity, placed into a violent era to put right what went wrong with an original pair of humans: not when we think that ourselves and apes had a common ancestor, and that there have been several species of human of which we are the only one now remaining. In such a situation, why should any one man be unique at all? In the end, isn't the issue about ethics and morality, and that these are relative to the situation?
As indicated, there are certain strategies Christians use to try and retain the focus on this one man, such as upholding tradition, such as retaining the biblical text as central, and of course there remains just dogged belief. And there are still institutions and interests and people in church positions - many paid - to create a demand to keep the old show on the road.
This all leaves theology becoming more sectarian, institutional and arguably lost. Think what the alternative could be. Surely one thing that is emerging now in all these disciplines is the importance of chaos theory.
Chaos does not mean unpredictability. It means that the slightest variation in a starting position can have an enormously different outcome and only so many stages down the line. You can never measure precisely enough to forecast the outcome.
Evolution is chaotic. The reason is that it remains locally environmental and specific. You can see where you have come from, but you cannot predict. Economics we now know is chaotic, because we can never tell the tipping point between one boom and the fall to a different equilibrium in a slump at a different level of economic activity. We used to think in terms of long term fifty year Kondratieff curves and the like, but really the economy is fa more unpredictable. Climate we know has moved from cold periods to hot periods and back again; our worries about climate change are nothing compared with history: we know that solar activity is important. There is a danger of group-think around the causes of climate change, but climate does change. We might even be due for an ice age. But whatever we might or might not get, or how, the system is a chaotic one that suddenly jumps to a different equilibrium - hotter or colder. Also if you look at international political relations, they run between periods of stability and levels of breakdown; we have been stable recently but one wonders about politicians and behaviour when the difficulties faced get too complicated.
If we once thought that science means steady, predictable progress, now we think of the importance of rapid periods of instability, or unpredictable outcomes. However, this is where chaos gets interesting. If we talk about chaos, we also must talk about patterns and systems.
Very recently it was thought that the eye had evolved about 40 times. The environment is so similar around and about this earth that such an evolution, that is chaotic, nevertheless had similar outcomes for something that is so advantageous. The reasoning there is sound. However, we now know from genetic switches found in all eyes from the simplest light responsive cells, that the eye has evolved only once. It becomes a proof that we all come from the same tree of life.
The outcome of a tree of life is not predictable, but it too has systemic properties, such as hierarchical qualities of interactive complexity where the earth acquires a regulator. Think of it, too many predators and the food supply dries up, and the predators die off, but then the food supply is able to reproduce better and the predators start to do well.
Here is an interesting if perhaps trivial example. We know that escalators from one floor to another bunch people at the top. It is because the capacity to move people after the escalator reduces. We also have the phenomenon on motorways of traffic that can come to a halt and then set off in a wave systemic pattern for no other reason than at capacity cars create a wave system of braking and acceleration that, further back, can become stop-start. Thinking of the escalator, some motorways end by having a long single lane section simply to let the traffic adjust and not be forced into bunching, with consequences back down the motorway. Other motorways force a lower speed limit that prevents the braking and accelerating turning into a traffic jam. Here is some theology: the system says, you individual drivers, sacrifice your individuality for the collective good, by slowing down, by having one lane only, and look there is a collective benefit. Self-sacrifice for a better outcome.
In other words, individual decisions, in an environment, produce systemic outcomes.
Is it not possible that, instead of being sectarian and institutionalised, and worried about dogma, that we cannot instead theologise about chaos, and patterns and regulative systems. Is it not fantastic that what amounts to the simplest iterative maths can produce wonderful chaotic shapes and forms that we do indeed find in nature - visible as patterns thanks to computers? This is far more immediate than the uniqueness of one man or the existence or otherwise of a God. But to look at such patterns, patterns everywhere, can suggest, can it not, that simplicity and complexity have a kind of transcendent quality, and that the consciousness of humans is something magnificent, to be able to view all of this and reflect upon it.
Against this is there any mileage in reaction theology, like among evangelicals or traditionalist Catholics? Is there actually any real interest in the middle way Christianity that tries to negotiate between its concepts and the way we understand the world?
There are a number of theologies this course has not yet covered. The remainder was:
  • Comprehensive: Hans Kung
  • After the Shoah and a Theology of Suffering: Jürgen Moltmann
  • Theologies of Liberation with Politics and Radical Education
  • Eco-Feminist theology: Sallie McFague and Rosemary Radford Ruether
  • Classics and Conversation: David Tracy
  • Faiths: John Hick and Exclusivists, Inclusivists, Pluralists and Universalists
  • Real Absence and Back to Transcendence: Raw, Cold Theology and the Poet
  • Postmodern Theology: Nihilist Textualism and Radical Orthodoxy
One missing from there is Animal Theology and it should be added for future consideration. This has come to our attention recently in Barton-on-Humber with our curate and some offshore questions like whether a dog can receive holy communion. But, as already indicated, the approach here outlined would actually look at higher animal social behaviour and some inbuilt evolutionary traits. One crucial theological concern is altruism as a producer of greater evolutionary success. We know that groups which look after themselves have better outcomes than simple, individual, competitive animals working against each other, and so groups will survive and prosper, whether they be termites, chimps or humans, and therefore altruistic traits will be successful in breeding. But social behaviour is complex, devious, even brutal, as well as altruistic, and also we know that redundancy - a group preserving useless features and nurturing the weakest - is a successful evolutionary strategy. Why? Because if the environment undergoes a sudden change, the weakest might suddenly become the strongest, and then the group will survive. Sometimes the ethical really is the best strategy.
We humans share and build upon the deviousness of other social animals, and so instead of regarding sin as uniquely human, and considering animals have no sin, and therefore no need to preach to animals, or no need for them to receive the grace of sacraments, and all that kind of churchy stuff, we might instead consider ourselves to be less 'sinful' and animals a little bit more naughty as well as either good or just amoral. After all, these animals have some consciousness and some planning, and a number even make tools, and can therefore plan ahead. Is this, again, not a better way to do theology than be caught up in mythic matters like original sin?
Truths exist in paradigms and we know paradigms can change. Whilst nihilist textualism is an important theology in terms of religion as art, with examples of Mark C. Taylor in the United States, Don Cupitt in the UK and Lloyd Geering in New Zealand, and therefore religion as a literacy and cultural narrative, there is a stress here instead on the importance of research, whether scientific, social scientific or historical.
It's not simply a case of wanting objectivity, but rather an understanding of the relative differences regarding truths. Religion and the arts are the most flexible of truths, and mathematics the least flexible. But even within these there are variations. Take science: whereas evolution is becoming ever more robust, in that answers to what Darwin did not know underlines the Darwinian scheme, it is getting clearer in astrophysics that the need to introduce dark energy and dark matter is showing that physics is in some trouble - either it will discover these things and the current schemes will survive, or there is going to have to be a huge revision in physics at both the very large and of the very small. There are lots and lots of actual discoveries going on: the problem is in generating the 'big picture' and bringing all the forces together - the weakness of gravity, for example, the most problematic of the elemental forces, when a tiny magnet can resist the effect of a whole planet pulling downwards. In such context, theology is then about the transience of truth, the limitations of understanding, and coming to terms with variation and difference and final moments, about collapses and new beginnings, and about systems and what we take as knowledge. The textual nihilists are good at this regarding transience and the language employed, but research gives this some backbone.
For example, what do we make of the evidential ability of a human child to learn an actual language faster than any copying of its parents and its peers? There must be some hard wiring pre-language language within the brain the serves the ability to rapidly communicate in a means that will also be expressed and stored. This is where biology meets culture, so we have the theology of the body and the theology of culture overlapping.
This is all about rescuing theology from an institutional backwater. The suggestion is that the evolved universe, that the chaotic systems we inhabit and produce, are fascinating in themselves and worthy of their own theologising. What is it to grant these conscious reflection, awe and wonder?
The imagination is important. Imagine a goldilocks planet somewhere else. There must be millions of them. Imagine an eight legged spider-like being that has collective traits and brains facilitating symbol manipulation. It organises itself with others, and against others. It not only communicates, but records. Then then what of altruism, of self-sacrifice, of being devious, of being clever, of using violence and so on. What of the fundamental of pain and the avoidance of pain, identifying the good and the pursuit of a more durable good? Such a thought experiment leads us on to consider fundamentals of life. Such imaginary creatures in an imaginary world can also reflect and ritualise upon all the ritualised behaviours, some biological in origin and some culturally developed.
What would worship be in this situation? It is taking in the whole vision of life, to celebrate life, and to reflect upon its pains as well as its pleasures. It is to re-enact that which bonds us together. It draws in the arts, as flexible enrichers of reflection. It also calms us, suggests a cool detachment from what worries us, it reconciles us to impermanence - presents a view that contentment is a form of salvation. Like the Buddhists say: stop clinging to permanence.
In the end, from this perspective, surely there something that can be drawn from the philosophies, arts and religions that can assist in the awe and wonder and the quiet contemplation of all there is. But the religions have to be a little more generous in their resource giving and a little less worried about their totalities as packages.

Main Points

  • Theology tends to institutionalise but the institutions are narrow and disconnected from contemporary paradigms of understanding.
  • Theology can draw on the academic disciplines and their paradigms.
  • Theology can be broad in its reflective sources, asking questions about the actuality of individual and collective life, and the chaotic systems we live within.


  1. How would any institutions work with a broader theology?
  2. Surely religious concepts are inherited and ancient, and a broader theology is held back?
  3. Isn't broader theology just scientific, social scientific, ethical, philosophical questions?


Beeson, T. (1999), 'Karl Barth (1886-1968)', Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, London: SCM Press, 51-52.

Retained notes on 'Narrative theology' from Dearey, P. (1996/ 97), MA Course: Theological Understanding of Contemporary Society, Department of Theology, University of Hull.

Goodwin, C. W., Jowett, B., Pattison, M., Powell, B., Temple, F., Williams, R., Wilson, H. B. (1861, first published 1860), Essays and Reviews, 8th edition, London : J. W. Parker.

McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Barth, Karl', Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge, 58-67.

Robinson, J. A. T. (1963, 1994 imprint), Honest to God, London: SCM Press.

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Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful