Ivory Tower Pendant. Image by SelenaAnne via Flickr
This is the first in a series of posts exploring the role of analytical theology in ecumenism. It seems to me there is a problem and I aim to work out its exact nature as I write.
I remember, many years ago in 1981, I started the study year at the Urban Theology Unit. We were warned of the dangers of the type of theology studied by theologians in ivory towers. Urban theology is the theology done on the streets. Anyone can do it and indeed everyone has a theology.
Urban theology is not as chaotic as this might sound. Whilst everyone undoubtedly has a theology (irrespective of whether they know what it is), it does not follow they actively do theology. Doing theology requires discipline, possibly the most important of which is accountability. As we express our theology to others, as we share our stories, those stories and insights are validated through the Christian community. Academic theology sets certain standards but its purpose is best seen in the uses made of it by Christians engaged in living their lives on the streets, or wherever they are.
Central to urban theology (or more generally 'contextual theology') practice is the 'pastoral cycle'. I remember attending a conference, during the early nineties, where I found myself in a workshop with a group of male academics. The other members of the group were all women and the meeting was dominated by the academics. Indeed I was the only non-academic to speak. The theme had been introduced by James Fowler and we had been invited to discuss the pastoral cycle. It seems the academics were setting exam questions about the pastoral cycle! After about two thirds of the time I interrupted and suggested there is a problem. How, I asked, do you select the biblical passage to compare with your experience? I was shouted down for questioning the wisdom of James Fowler. In the dinner queue the women told me they understood my question but found the academics impossible to relate to (they had their backs to us!).
I wish I could say this behaviour is atypical of academic theologians but in my experience it is impossible to break into their world except by the route of study in academic theology, through first degrees and further degrees.
Before I finish this post, I want to make a point in recognition of the contribution analytical theology, a branch of academic theology, has made to ecumenism. I intend to be critical of this approach to theology and the way it dominates the ecumenical scene (in future posts in this sequence). However, I have written before of academic theologians' successes in ecumenism. They have contributed a great deal. Possibly, the best example of their contribution is to the recognition by mainstream churches of one another's validity as Christian traditions. Not so long ago, churches were prepared to go to war for their beliefs.
(I have added a couple of papers at the end of this post, making the case for academic theology. Not all academic theology is analytical. (I will define analytical theology later.) I have sat at the feet of some excellent academic theologians but I have not found analytical theology anywhere near as helpful as other branches of academic theology.)
However, it is time we recognise analytical theology has made its positive contribution to ecumenism because of pressure from local churches doing the spadework, building relationships despite the barriers erected by church hierarchies. Without this pressure I'm not convinced analytical theology would have made the progress it has. Indeed it is not unfair to note that it is academics, in service to church hierarchies, who consistently apply the brakes to relationships that would otherwise blossom without constraint.
What I want to do over this sequence of posts is to attempt to identify the problem the analytical theologians present to the ecumenical movements and the Christian faith as a whole.