The faiths of British academics
- Written by David Booth
Christian theology is “the laughing stock of the arts faculty” In English universities. This is said to be the result of institutional secularism, to which an answer would be the founding of church-run universities in the UK. Doubt has been expressed though that British universities are in themselves anti-Christian or against religion. For example, many subsidise Chaplaincies by providing physical facilities, even for different Christian denominations as well as for other faiths, theistic or not. There are no official restrictions on staff or students organising and advertising Christian activities that don't compete for resources with teaching or research.
On the contrary, this mockery of theologians in the common room is part and parcel of the tradition of universities since their founding in the highly christianised Europe of the Middle Ages, independent from the Church hierarchy and open to scholars and the scholarship of all faiths and none.
In part the mockery of those who study God by those who do not is no different from the way that, for example, academics in the humanities despise academics in the sciences, and vice versa. Snobbery of physical, biological and medical scientists about engineering scientists is almost as notorious. Ask the social scientists what they think of psychologists' laboratory research on people! Academics are human: this is the prejudice of an in-group against an out-group (hence it is mutual). Each academic discipline, and indeed service profession, is a clique of experts - and it has to be. That is why it is important that we also have leaders within each discipline who collaborate with other disciplines also relevant to an intellectual and/or practical issue, no differently from the multi-professional teams essential to services to individuals in need.
The antagonism to theologians from other academics goes deeper, however. It is a religious war of words. Those whose personal devotion is to ideas and institutions within human history must be expected to defend their faith against those who believe in a being or power beyond this world. Atheistic believers in Jesus of Nazareth can be quite aggressive to those who believe he showed us God. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the humanities in English universities were dominated by devout believers in one or other form of the Marxist faith. Disillusion is still far from total. If the theologians have academically sound arguments against the charge that they are addicted to the opium of theistic religion, then they should promulgate them. How else can they give a reason for the faith that is in them to their sceptical fellow historians, philosophers and literary scholars?
That though has been a rather private war. Academics across the whole university have been captured by two other faiths, one almost contemporaneously with the rise and fall of marxism. This is the religion of meritocracy. For a hundred years or so, the British university system was built on intellectual merit, of the academic staff and of the degree students. The universities in China are expanding fast in the faith of families across the nation in the examination system. Intriguingly this faith in intellectual merit has been called "Confucianism" a humanistic trust in a university education as the gateway to heaven on earth. In British universities though, the god of entry grades has been tumbled by the mission is to admit anyone who wants to study for a first degree.
The third faith has only recently taken over individual academics and their institutions. It is more profoundly anti-Christian than either marxism or meritocracy - a devilish cross-breed between them. The usual name for this religion is capitalism, but that term is misleading. This religion is marxist in its faith that the only reality is economic, or rather financial (cash flow). It is a dire corruption of meritocracy in assigning a citizen's value to her or his bank balance or lifetime earning potential. So university teachers in their own minds, by their colleagues and in their institution are valued for the income they generate by contact hours for student numbers. Research scholars are valued for the income they raise in external grants and studentships. Even scholarly books and journal papers are valued less for citations as such than for the track record that highly cited papers provide for successful research grant applications.
Do theology departments - or indeed individual Christian academics - attract the brightest young minds in history, literature and philosophy, or indeed the social sciences? Can they earn the student and research grant income to cover their costs? If not, they can expect to be thrown to the lions, as the academic crowd jeers. Yet the Christians to whom that happened literally had insisted on demonstrating to their neighbours their faith in the suffering servant King of all. Could theologians and other Christians show a better way to their colleagues and institutions? The service ethos of the monasteries from which the universities emerged has not been entirely lost. Indeed, it may be gaining strength.