Though I have a theological degree, but have not love, I am nothing

Address given at Trinity College Bristol degree ceremony sometime in the late 1990s

Do not assume that mere
Reading will suffice without fervor,
Speculation without devotion,
Investigation without admiration,
Observation without exaltation,
Industry without piety,
Knowledge without love,
Understanding without humility,
Study without divine grace.

St. Bonaventure (1221–1274)

Except for two good years, when the Royal Air Force unwittingly educated me in Cyprus and Iraq, I have spent all my adult life in Universities, most of it engaged in what is labelled theology. I say ‘labelled’ because what can be done within the limits of academic institutions and practice may not be what theology is required to be if it is to do justice to its subject matter. Every academic subject as offered in universities and colleges is a compromise between what will be paid for, what students and teachers can achieve with their merely human capabilities, and what the subject inspires and demands. The stress in academic life can never be eliminated, because it is generated from these competing components. Above all, what we study and teach does not allow us peace – it gets the adrenaline flowing and it can wake us up in the middle of the night with excitement. Academics overwork monstrously, in part because they are under-resourced – but also because they are over-stimulated by their subject, whatever it may be. 

Certainly, that is so for me with theology. Karl Barth wrote of wonder as the beginning of the theologian’s existence: wonder is ‘astonished but receptive and desirous to learn. It has justly been said that this Socratic amazement is the root of all true science.’ 

The subject matter of theology is God – the source and Lord of all things and therefore the Mystery into which is gathered all truth and all questions, in some form. 

The task of theology is to find words which fit God. Sometimes we try to do that by describing and defining God, but there are limits to what we can achieve by that route. God escapes and invalidates our definitions. G K Chesterton denied that his funny story, The Man who was Thursday, was any kind of theological parable, but I have allowed it to teach me some theology all the same. I took it to suggest that in the struggle between anarchy and order in the world, when most of us settle for order, God will prove to be the last, incorrigible anarchist, uproariously escaping all our tidiness, our wanting to have things neatly tied down. And of course, definitions are a primary means by which we tie things down by fixing the meanings of words. But savingly, words themselves are often little anarchists, surprising us by their behaviour. Theology should never be ashamed of working with words – they have life and novelty in them….

Theology finds words fitting for God not so much through definitions, which pin God down, but rather by playing with words which open up human being in the world to doing God’s will and to living in God’s light. Words do not tell us what God is, as though God is a specimen to be examined and described; words in theology enable us to listen for God; they give us eyes to see God; they open up space in the human world where God can be and where God can speak. They take us into that space. That is essential – it is not the business of theology to violate God, to bring the free Lord under human control; it is the task to open up our being for the presence and service of God. 

Since we are thinking, talking beings, opening human being to God is, to a significant degree, an intellectual and verbal task. It is theological work. 

Giving God space to be God is not adequately achieved by creating an emotional sense of openness and waiting, through music, or silence, or other means. 

Furthermore, we are world-beings, beings who by virtue of our capacity for thought and for many different kinds of language, mathematical as well as verbal, are able to name, to organise, to develop and to destroy our world. 

And so if our humanity is to be opened up for the service and enjoyment of God, the words to do it will be words about the world and about human being as worldly being. Theology does not therefore restrict itself to words that are drawn from religion in its narrowest, inward and individualist forms. Theology is concerned about how the world is seen and organised. It will therefore draw upon and converse with all the sciences, natural and social, and all the arts which are found in the University – not to tell them how to do their work, but to see more fully and practically what it means for human being to be open to God, and for human words to fit God.

There are then positive theological reasons why theology needs to be within the range of the University and in all the conversations which make up the life of our secular world. Sometimes universities have practised a secularity which excludes theology, fearful of irrational perversions and sectarian troubles it might bring; and then theology has to do its best to survive outside them. But the University is more true to its calling when it is pluralist and confidently open, so that even theology can be a partner in its conversations and explorations. This does not mean that theology should not be done in Colleges with distinctive identities, independent of Universities – what is needed can be institutionalised in many different ways. 

Now let me come a little closer to my title, this irritating adaptation of the words of St Paul. If I have a theology degree, but have not love, I gain nothing – that is not an inaccurate paraphrase, but is it appropriate for today’s joyful congratulatory occasion? It seems to despise human accomplishment, skill and power. But that I think is a mistaken reading. Paul is like a good quality assessor, seeking to know what makes any activity genuinely good. And the answer is: the love that is in it – not the love that might be put in its place. 

It is with the help of Augustine that I read this text – for he analysed every human activity and way of living as enacting the love of one thing or another. Human acts are directed towards goals – and to work towards that goal, to care about realising it, is to love. Love is not a feeling but is devotion and service to a purpose, a value or a person. Augustine saw world history as being the conflict of two loves, which in the last analysis all human activity served: there is the love of self in despite of God, or the love of God in despite of self. These two loves are embodied and worked out in two different ways of life and make up two communities which are mixed up in human history but are distinct in the knowledge and judgement of God: there is the earthly city which is built out of all the actions in which self is loved in preference to God and the city of God built of all the actions and the persons where God is preferred to self. 

Now I do not want to impose Augustine on Paul – that would be foolish. But Augustine does help me to see that the love which Paul says is indispensable should be looked for in the theology itself. Paul is not asking that we add love to theology, as though theology is a quite unloving expertise and love is utterly different – as would be the case if you went into the greengrocers and bought one cabbage and a box of dates, two distinct items. No: it is like buying oranges – when you do that, you don’t say to the assistant, Oh and I’ll have some orange juice with them as well. If you find they have no juice, you think these are not very good oranges and take them back. 

You gain nothing if you have a theology degree without love, because love is the juice in the orange. 

Of course it is possible to get a first class degree in theology and miss the love – examiners rightly do not presume to assess the love in your examination papers, though sometimes they sense its presence and sometimes they miss it. This question of Paul’s cannot be turned into a criterion for assessment or litigation – it is a question for self-examination and for public discussion. The point is that the love that is indispensable to profitable theology is there in the theology itself, and is not some alien element tacked on to it. It does not mean we should take any comfort if someone’s theology is rotten but he is a nice person – the theology remains rotten. 

How can love be present in theology? It is there by virtue of the subject matter. I do not know a more succinct statement of this point than I John gives: God is love and God demonstrates love in that he sent his Son to give his life for us. If that is so, then it follows, as I John makes clear, that ‘he who does not love does not know God’. 

It is possible to work at the issues of theology in contradiction or indifference to the love of God. It is possible to refuse the invitation inherent in the central subject of theology – God. 

Theology requires us to find words fitting for God – but we can only find the words we have the imagination and spirit for. If we are not loving, we will find it difficult to develop theology which is consistently and convincingly appropriate to God who is love. When people have what one historian has called the persecutory imagination, they will find it hard to produce a theology of love. When theology is done in defence of one church against others, or in the service of one nation in conflict with others, theology will be without love. When theologians are anxious to belong to an intellectual elite, to be intellectually respectable, theology will lack love for the less educated. If we had time, all these failures of theology to find words fitting for God could be illustrated historically. 

Sometimes one hears mountaineers talking about the significance of their occupation: one learns a lot about oneself on the mountain, they say. Theology, as I understand it, tests us and reveals us to ourselves in a similar way – we discover who we are in what we want and are able to say about God and for God. But when you are in a theology department, it is easier to evade this personal test than when you are on the mountain side, or in the belly of the great fish like Jonah, or on the Damascus Road, or fascinated by the burning bush, or feeding the pigs in a far country. One reason why Bonhoeffer is significant for me is that he was a twentieth century theologian who gave up the escape of being merely an academic theologian and became, as he said, a Christian – and thereby even more of a theologian. Not surprisingly in one of his last writings, Bonhoeffer asked ‘What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we really stake our lives on it?’ We must be honest with ourselves. Staking our lives on what we really believe is mostly not a question of what we would do if we faced the choice, Renounce faith or be killed. It is rather a matter of what claims and inspires our living day to day, year after year. 

Finding words fit for God reveals who we are. When we are invited to represent and speak for God who is love, we may well encounter internal resistance. The spirit within us may not be free to go along with God’s spirit. But the distinction between internal and external, private and public is deceptive and misleading. When we feel unwilling or unable to speak for the loving God, it may be because we are embedded in societies and a world that do not work lovingly. We shy away from the vision of love because we have taken so much of the wisdom of the world into ourselves – and we tend to think the wisdom of the world is needed if we are to make our way in the world – so the way of love has for us all the foolishness of the Cross, the very weakness of God in the world. 

The call to be theologians of love is no comfortable or easy option. That God is love does not imply that there is a harmonious world order. The gospel of the God of love propels us into conflict, where there may be hate, violence and destruction and therefore into another set of theological, ethical and tactical questions I cannot discuss here. 

Except to make one final point. 

There is pressure now for degrees to be vocationally useful, relevant to the real world, the world of employment. Your degrees here pass that test admirably. I teach theology without having any responsibility to prepare students for ordination or any specific employment. But I have never been in an ivory tower – I have always wanted to teach theology in a way that is relevant to the world and its salvation which is another way of saying, teach theology in a way that is relevant to God and his will. Doing theology with love means caring about the relevance of one’s talking to real human needs and opportunities. Love is another name for relevance. 

So I am not hostile to the demand that higher education show itself useful in the world or even that a degree should commend a student to a prospective employer. But I question some of the ways in which this linking between education and employment works out and is understood at present. 

I John denounces those who say they love God whom they do not see when they do not love those whom they do see. ‘If anyone has the world’s goods (eg a job because you have a degree) and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.’ 

Doing theology with love will be socially critical theology. It will be theology that says, for the sake of the God of love, make sure your degree in theology is with love and therefore has an open heart to those in need, and thinks and speaks for them. 

And when you get a job with the help of your degree, don’t let the love fade away. Can that be avoided? Do we not have to live under the imperatives of the national need to have a trained workforce in order to maintain our prosperity in a competitive world, and to be able to defend our position? Getting a job, like recovering national or European employment opportunities requires us to defend what we have against those who have less. It implicates us in maintaining a world order where millions are in dire poverty, where a third of people are unemployed, where the poorest pay to the rich more interest on their loans than they get in aid and trade. Getting a job with love is as necessary as doing theology with love – they are parts of the same struggle the God of love propels us into. 

It is this struggle that makes theology so hard – theology seems to make us fly in the face of reality – it calls us to be faithful to God in the hour of his weakness. 

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