Value and Characteristics of Theological Research
‘A theologian is one whose prayer is true. If you truly pray, you are a theologian.’ This is the often-quoted saying from Evagrius of Pontus who, in the fourth century was made a deacon by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Evagrius was a well-known preacher who went into the Egyptian desert in 382 where he spent rest of his life. Evagrius occupies a central place in the history of Christian spirituality and he deeply influenced, among others, John Cassian. He was somebody who engaged with the world, but his engagement was shaped by his membership of a Christian community. I will return to this in my last point.
I will use the terms value and characteristics. Some of what is valuable about theological research is similar to all kinds of research, but characteristics suggest there is a distinctiveness about theological research. I will highlight five points.
1. Human beings thrive in the depths, discovering deeper levels of humanity, whereas part of our humanity dies if we only spend time in the shallows. Of course, there are dangers in the depths. We might meet nasties that we don’t expect. We could get stung or even eaten, that is the risk we take and risk, of course is also essential for life, but unless we are willing to dive deep, our humanity does not grow. As clergy and theologians engage in theological research, their delving into topics and subjects have an impact on themselves as researchers, it has an impact on the very essence of their being and belief. Researchers are in the business of deepening their humanity. The very nature of any research is that we enter the topic with an open mind, ready to be surprised, challenged and transformed and this is particularly true of theological research. As well as being a researcher myself, I have been involved in marking and assessing across the academic spectrum and one question that is important to have in the back of one’s mind is how far has the writer been changed and challenged as a result of what he or she has been researching. As one probes more deeply into a topic of research, one probes more deeply into one’s own mind, heart and soul. Closing oneself to this reduces the value of the research. Research is a risky enterprise.
2.Theological research is a radical act at a time when education, even university education, is being increasingly viewed from a utilitarian perspective. We are living in a society which demands that everything be measured, often from a narrow gauge. This has meant that educational courses are regarded from the point of view of the direct application of a particular skill which is expected to be gained from the topic. Of course, it is important to learn skills and to apply knowledge in very practical ways. Nobody can be exempted from this requirement. But if that is the only understanding of education, then there is no space for human creativity and ingenuity which may interrogate and ask uncomfortable questions about the status-quo. This is the radical edge to education which should be a particular characteristic of theological research. It is all the more important to hold on to this in theological research as the tyranny of measurement is becoming more significant in church, particularly with the advent of ‘Terms and Conditions of Service.’ We all need to be accountable for our ministries, but we need to be careful that some of the systems that are coming into the Church for the purpose of helping and supporting ministries do not become rods to beat and control those who are ministering. One of the characteristics of theological research is that it is not afraid to ask radical questions.
3.Theological research needs to be undertaken taking account of the Christian community, wider society and the academy. All these need to be part of the researcher’s network of relationships. Jean-Marc Ela, a Roman Catholic theologian from the Cameroon, states, ‘A theologian must stay within earshot of what is happening within the community so that community life can become the subject of meditation and prayer.’ I will return to prayer in a few minutes, but I want to focus on the importance of community.
A Christian is a Christian because he or she is a person in relationship with a Christian community. It is impossible to be a Christian without reference to a community. It must follow, therefore, that a theologian needs to be a person in relationship with community because theology in its very definition is about involvement with God and the theologian’s involvement with God is through prayer and worship. It is possible for non-christians to study theology and to raise significant questions from theological study, but I would argue the need to have some kind of relationship with God – and I would not want to be definitive about the nature of that relationship – as God is intrinsic even to the word theology, let alone the discipline of theology.
While acknowledging a relationship to a Christian community, it is also important for the theological researcher to be in relationship with wider society. Now, of course, all of us are in some relationship with wider society; it cannot be avoided. But it is important to be clear about the nature of that relationship. Do we see God at work within society regardless of an overt Christian presence, or do we believe God can only be at work through proclamation? Do we view the world as intrinsically good with fallen parts or do we view the world as intrinsically fallen with good parts? Wherever we stand, it is important to be clear and honest because it is from society and the church community that the questions for theological research are to be found. It is also society and the church community which provide the hermeneutical tools for the undertaking of theological research. I was recently reading an excellent piece of research by one of our clergy which had been inspired by the clergyman’s passion for photography. Photography and Theology is the title and it deserves to be published. In the research, he uses the art of photography as the hermeneutical or interpretive tool to reach some profound theological insights.
The final part of this trinity of relationships is the academy/university. It is there that the learning is examined and probed to ensure that it can dialogue with other disciplines outside of theology.
4.There needs to be no restriction to the subject of theological research. It may be research on a topic of particular relevance to the church – and I know that many of the topics from your papers are in that category. The Church will gain enormously from a deeper and fuller critical exploration of all that you are doing. At the same time, theological research can spring from a non-ecclesial topic and teach us much about God and God’s world. I have already mentioned the research which sprang from one person’s passion for photography. There are fine pieces of theological research on art, rock music (not just Christian rock music), economics, literature, film. Researchers should be free to research on areas which make their hearts leap at the possibility rather than areas which make their hearts sink. Indeed, the latter will probably not be good research. The key link between the area of research and theology is in the person of the researcher. Research is a challenge enough and so it is important that the topic energises the researcher.
5.In my final point, I want to return to quotation with which I began. ‘A theologian is one whose prayer is true. If you truly pray, you are a theologian.’ There can be, I think, a relationship between theological research and prayer. If the researcher does pray regularly, there must be such a relationship, because as the researcher is challenged/changed/transformed intellectually by the research, then this has to influence prayer-life because prayer-life is part of who we are. But so too, our prayer life can impact and aid our researching. Our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, reflected in our prayer, positions us in relation to the worlds in which we live and spend our time. I referred earlier to research being in the business of deepening our humanity. Christ himself is acclaimed as being fully human and we are being called to be fully human, to become the person God has called us to be, which means being recreated in the image of the humanity of Jesus Christ. Our prayer life, needs to involve a constant re-assessing, in God’s presence, of what is important and what is not important in this life. We need to be able to put into perspective the siren calls and shouts of society and discover those opportunities that are of God. We need to be able to live a relationship with society which can be ‘dispassionate’, meaning that we are not in the grip of each passing fad but are able to ask what is of God and what is not of God.....and all of this means grappling within ourselves. We need to resist using prayer in a simplistic way. For example, we will face major challenges if we claim a particular direction or understanding to be right because God has told us it is. Having said that, our relationship with God in prayer, can be an invaluable research tool.