As part of my theological formation over quite a number of years, I learnt to respect the academic tradition of study and writing. For a piece of writing to be considered ‘academic’ it must be presented with rational arguments. Statements cannot be plucked out of the ether, but they must be backed up by argument or an appeal to the position of others who are considered authorities in the field. Each discipline of study has its own rules, but they all look ultimately to the scientific model to validate their worth. Science itself always looks for proper evidence, repeatable experimentation and other factual material. This overall method of testing and scrutiny is applied, as appropriate, to all disciplines across the board. Theological writing of course does not have to read like dry scientific study to justify its worth, but neither would it be able, in academic circles, to appeal to a Biblical ‘proof’ text to justify a truth claim. A proper method of seeing a text in its historical and theological context would have to be undertaken first. All theology has to be argued with clarity and rationality, drawing where necessary on other disciplines such as philosophy and history. Where there are in addition relevant archaeological or psychological insights to be noticed, these also should be considered.
While at my American conference last week, I came to an insight about the cavalier and confusing use of historical material by many extreme religious groups. History, when written by professional historians, is normally presented as an interpretation of events in the past. Historians can and do differ in the way that such events are interpreted but overall there is a consensus about the facts of historical events. If there are gaps in the records about a particular period, then the historian will be ready to admit to the limits of his knowledge. They will then proceed to a presentation of what can be reasonably surmised from the existing evidence. When I was at school and studied Roman history, I initially wondered why the syllabus stopped at 180 AD. The reason turned about to be that the 3rd century is lacking good contemporary historical writers so that we know comparatively little about this period.
Last week I was confronted by two distortions of history that are put out almost universally by extreme religious groups. The first one is the story of their origins. In many cases the facts of how a particular group came into being is a story of conflict or a massive falling out between individuals and groups. Michael Reid, whom I have mentioned on this blog before, was asked to leave one Christian group for his aggressive behaviour. He then went off and founded another group which grew into Peniel church. The ‘success’ of this in terms of numbers and finance cannot be disputed but the people who still attend after 30+ years have bought into a massive distortion of many historical facts about exactly what went on, in terms of lies told, corruption in money matters and sexual scandal. This church, even after Michael’s departure, is still suppressing the history of its past. The dispassionate scrutiny of good historical enquiry will never be applied to this church. How many other churches gloss over history to sanitise the story of their origins?
The second ‘lie’ that permeates almost every Christian cultic group, and many others for that matter, is the one that says; ‘Our teaching according to the Bible is the one that is completely true, and no other church reads the Bible in the faithful way that we do.’ When we consider this claim, which is being made up and down the country and across the world, it beggars belief that anyone can fall for it. How likely is it that God’s final correct revelation should end being correctly interpreted by an often poorly educated Pastor in a small out of the way place in, say, deepest Oklahoma? The only way that such a claim gets accepted is because of a chemistry between charisma on the part of the Pastor and need on the part of the congregation. I would want to say more on this but now is not the time.
Back in February the bishops of the Church of England put out a statement on their position on same-sex marriage. Within the statement they spoke about the way that church teaching on marriage issues and the law of the land had always been in harmony. Professor Linda Woodhead, a distinguished academic from Lancaster University, immediately emailed the Director of Communications, Arun Arora, to challenge this claim. The examples from history she gave of the church and state diverging in the teaching about marriage, are not important here, but what is important was the response that came out of the debate a week or two later when other academics had become involved. A disparaging email was sent to the Archbishops from Mr Arora describing the challenging of historical fact as taking a different ‘view’ and that it was being organised by ‘liberals’. In one sentence the ‘establishment’ of the Church of England seemed to be turning their backs of properly argued debate and suggesting that ‘academic’ equals ‘liberal’. The second word was being used in its political sense and there was the strong implication that the Bishops knew best and how dare anyone challenge them. If the Church of England ever does turn its back on the academic theological/historical contribution to church teaching in favour of subjective, arbitrary dogmatism, that will be a sad day. It is hard to see, in such a church, how there will even be the potential for the bishops to stand up the powerful forces of obscurantism and fundamentalism and help the victims of this theology. This blog, or at any rate its editor, recognises the need of good academic theology, to help fight for truth in the battle against abuse. Much of that abuse, as we have seen, comes from the bad theology preached in cultic churches.