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Blog // Thoughts
September 5, 2007

Kind Of Like A Manifesto For Theological Research

This is adapted from two documents I wrote in 2001. The first was a brief personal manifesto (yeah, how pretentious is that?!?) outlining my understanding of theology as a social practice whilst incorporating the idea of intellectual virtue. The second (built on the first) was a suggested values statement for the research centre I was […]

This is adapted from two documents I wrote in 2001. The first was a brief personal manifesto (yeah, how pretentious is that?!?) outlining my understanding of theology as a social practice whilst incorporating the idea of intellectual virtue. The second (built on the first) was a suggested values statement for the research centre I was involved with at the time.
What you’ll find here is an adaptation of the second document, reworded it in the spirit of the first as a personal manifesto, taking into account some things I’ve learnt and reconsidered in the past six years. It’s far from complete, so I would welcome any input, ideas, suggestions, ideological cocktails…

Religious and theological commitments have often been linked to the sources of major conflict and social disharmony. Moreover, it is not always obvious, in a modern pluralistic society, what the practical benefits of research into religion and theology might be. Therefore, responsible theological research must use its power and knowledge for positive social benefits, acting in accord with clear and transparent values in all its work.

Respect of Persons
Theology has, at times, been a source for oppression and exploitation. Moreover, enforced religious and doctrinal conformity always carries the potential for harm in both personal and intellectual terms. Theology as a competitive academic practice can easily marginalise the powerless and vulnerable. Therefore, theological research must be respectful of persons and their reputations, allowing space for differing convictions, identities, methodologies and approaches. The right to be identified with a work must always be respected. Moreover, the possibility of movement from one ideological commitment to another, from one doctrinal position to another, must always be allowed. Whilst the presence of diverse voices (in terms of gender, ethnicity, economic background and nationality) is not in itself a safeguard of truth, the absence of such diversity should always make us question if respect of persons is really present in a work and whether the truth claimed by such a work really is broad, deep or representative.

The Social Benefits of Religious and Theological commitments
Religious and theological commitments have not always carried consequent social benefits. However, the practise of theologising should include the commitment to both “bear fruit” and to be a “blessing unto others,” which we take to mean social benefits for all and not just those who hold to particular theological commitments. Therefore, theological research should commit itself to socially beneficent outcomes, in both local and global terms. This value can be measured by the extent to which the products of theological research identify practical problems and suggest viable solutions. Moreover, these theological products should act as intellectual capital for programmes and policy decisions that have direct and transformative real world implications. Communication, writing and discourse that simply aims to find fault in social and political agendas, to label and name-call, and to affirm existing prejudices may have some ironic, comic or therapeutic value but should not, in such a state, be considered “theology.”

Effective Dissemination of Knowledge
Religious and theological institutions frequently fail to communicate their research and ideas effectively or, for various reasons, choose not to effectively communicate their knowledge. This is counter-productive in that it has lead to an environment of religious misunderstanding and ignorance. Moreover, it has created the widespread condition in many western cultures where believers are inadequately resourced to understand and live out their commitments and intellectual capital in concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. Therefore theological research must seek to effectively and clearly articulate the knowledge it creates and uncovers. Doing this requires breaking out of patterns of writing and speech that alienate normally educated investigators and create unnecessarily high barriers to initial understanding, Moreover, it will mean utilising mainstream communication media and avoiding the tendency to lock away knowledge in specialist publications. Theological research should not content itself with being a specialist discourse but should actively seek to serve and support all who have a curiosity and interest in the subject matter.

Interrogating the difference between doctrine and practice
There is often a gulf between the claims of religious and theological groups and their actual practices. Moreover, this gulf breeds great anxiety, uncertainty and confusion, both for those who seek to live out such commitments and those who seek to understand and teach in those areas. Theological research must have sufficient sociological grounding to be able to examine and interrogate the actual realties of faith and practice within religious and theological groups and institutions. Theological research should aim to give a satisfying account of the disparities between what religious groups and discourses advocate and what they deliver in practice.

[tags] Theological Method [/tags]

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Tim Abbott 16 years ago

This really is very helpful and is, I believe, in itself deply theological.

The four aspects you have highlighted reflect the approach of Jesus. As a respecter of persons, he engaged sensitively with people of other theological persuasions (The woman at the Well) and included diverse voices among his followers (Jews, Romans, zealots). A significant portion of his teaching directed people to socially benificent behaviour (“Who was neighbour to the man attacked by robbers? Go and do likewise.”) He taught effectively, using narrative and every day examples that connected with his hearers, especially those outside of the theological hierarchy. And he practiced what he preached, or perhaps preached what he practiced – there was an integrity in the way he lived out his message.

Missional theology indeed. Thank you.

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