Theology in the Public Square by Gavin D’Costa

Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation

Author: Gavin D’Costa
Blackwell Publishing (“Challenges in Contemporary Theology” series)
247 pages
ISBN: 1-4051-3510-7

Review by Richard Gunton

Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation argues that a Christian university in the UK would benefit the church, academia and society at large by saving academic theology from the grave to which it is being shepherded in contemporary universities. Gavin D’Costa’s vision of theology’s place in the university is expounded by careful argument and example: a story of cohabitation, then separation, but with hope for a future marriage. Another analogy comes from the exile of ancient Israel in Babylon: theology has been taken captive by secularism in the modern university, but there is hope of a release from oppression just as Cyrus eventually gave permission for the rebuilding of the temple in occupied Jerusalem. I find the book a broad-minded survey of this intriguing vision.

The idea of a Christian university can be controversial. To some it sounds like the antithesis of the modern research university; to others it may evoke a theological training school. D’Costa’s book begins with a historical study showing the theological origins of the Renaissance university, and finishes with an argument that the church’s commission requires Christian research universities where theology is the “servant queen” of a full range of disciplines. There is no suggestion of Christians withdrawing from the world; rather it is argued that the diversity so much espoused by secular society could be more fully realised by having academic institutions founded on religious worldviews, breaking up the ideological monopoly of secular universities.

A brief look at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England and the Ivy League institutions in the United States reveals an original confessing ethos that has faded, along with the fall of theology “from queen of the sciences to the laughing stock of the arts faculty.” A fascinating account showing how the seeds of this were already sown in the medieval concept of the university leads to a brief review of functionally Christian universities in the United States and finally to the rather bleak British situation. Even since the book was written, Roehampton College has become the University of Roehampton and no longer the Christian foundation of the three church colleges from which it was formed, while the University of Gloucestershire’s acknowledgment of being “founded on Christian traditions” seems watered down from what its web site said in 2003.

This survey hints that we are looking for a new model and not simply British copies of what exists in North America. Precisely because Britain lacks any overtly Christian universities, there is the possibility of forming something new and better on this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, D’Costa is not shooting in the dark. As a Roman Catholic theologian, he draws on papal encyclicals and other writings expounding the Catholic vision of a university. At the same time, his employment in a secular British university, witnessing the increasingly marginal role of theology departments and their conversion to religious studies lends an authentic sharpness to his thesis. While acknowledging that his own department granted him study leave to write this book, D’Costa argues that in abandoning the authority of revelation and the Church, theology departments accept a secular agenda that suppresses genuine diversity.

Granted that theology is generally stifled and misunderstood in secular universities, why shouldn’t theologians simply move out into theological colleges and seminaries? Some confessing theologians already do this, but their departure should be seen as a loss to the academy’s pursuit of knowledge and also to the Church’s mission. Theology makes sense of the world as well as inquiring of its Creator, and the Church’s call to incarnate God’s kingdom in the world requires that it engage with every aspect of that world. This view is distinctively Roman Catholic: the Church should be at the heart of the Christian university.

What would a Catholic university look like? First of all, its theologians must pray. True Christian theology is pursued by Christians who truly devote themselves to God, and leaving practical devotion behind in the church has been a great loss to academic theology from its inception. But the members of other faculties need not, apparently, be Christians; Christianity is seen as a kind of Kuhnian paradigm for the theologian, and his praying rather as the geologist’s fieldwork. Indeed, the Thomist understanding of natural reason implies that the other sciences tend towards truth regardless of the religious commitments of their scholars and are only subject to errors through lapses of adherence to right reason. Thus theology is called to offer substantive critique of other disciplines, and at the same time may draw diverse insights from them for its own edification, lending a unity to the whole academy that has long been lost from secular institutions. This would be aided by requiring that theologians cultivate some understanding of the social, human and natural sciences, and conversely that specialists of the latter study some theology – and some philosophy. Why philosophy? Theology is said to have God as its object, and therefore to require a mediating discipline to aid its relationship with the others. Thus a Catholic university should always have a chair of philosophy as well as one of theology. At this point I can’t help wondering whether such a central place for philosophy mightn’t lead it to usurp the place of theology as queen of the sciences (more of that below). Perhaps this is an ill-founded concern since (in my understanding) Aquinas established Catholic scholarship on a corpus that unites theology and philosophy – yet the distinctness of theology and philosophy departments is not called into question here.

A discipline that can easily be “theologised” is religious studies, and a fascinating chapter explores what this might look like with short studies on controversies concerning two religious women: the recognition of Roop Kanwar as a Hindu devi and that of Edith Stein as a Catholic saint. But as an academic ecologist, I’m especially interested to see how the relationship between theology and scientific disciplines is to work out, as addressed in the final chapter. The Thomist model is developed, following John Paul II, into one where theology and the sciences describe different aspects of the same reality. When conflict arises, careful assessment of conflicting claims is called for, with the possibility of either or both sides re-examining their positions. The Church’s eventual admission that it erred in rejecting Galileo’s theory reveals a case where theologians needed to reassess, whereas the atheistic claims of some modern scientists must be refused – but in neither case does the mistaken party admit its error at the time, and I am confirmed in my Reformed suspicion of both church authority and natural reason! The Catholic view, however gently phrased, in fact suggests that theology must have priority (as is clear in the case of scientific atheists). I’m glad to have had some personal opportunities for philosophical and theological study and wouldn’t eschew more, but I wonder how I or my non-Christian colleagues would engage with a theology department that expected to guide our interests – and how academic life would function if philosophers were called upon as intermediaries too.

Having said this, the Catholic vision deserves careful consideration in our secular context. A Christian university seeking public funds in the UK would need to muster all the arguments it could, so alongside the emphasis on the common good (so neglected by Protestants) and the argument for authentic diversity, perhaps the more space made for non-Christian faculty membership the better. However, for economic as well as religious reasons, D’Costa recognises that a Catholic university is unlikely to be viable in the UK in the foreseeable future. The proposal for a broadly Christian university therefore needs further discussion, and I hope this book will stimulate it.

This work appears at a time of increasing interest in Christian higher education in the UK. Well referenced (via footnotes) and comprehensively indexed, it deserves careful reading by a wide readership. I am sure it will be enormously helpful to theologians who are concerned about the history and future of their discipline, and thought-provoking for Christian academics of all disciplines. It should also be read by church authorities and political scientists, who stand to be challenged and inspired by this compelling account of theology at the heart of the university, bringing blessing in the public square.