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Peter Sellick



The common method of theological and natural science.

In a conversation with an acquaintance with a medical background I happened to mention that I had been asked to do a series of lectures in theology. As the conversation proceeded I began to realize that there was no way he could understand what such an undertaking involved and indeed no way that I could tell him. Any conversation about a subject must presume some prior knowledge about that subject or, at its minimalist, the recognition that such a subject existed. After some joking about animal sacrifice and my blathering something about the science of God I realized that we did not even share the understanding that such a subject could even exist.

That a well educated person could live in ignorance of a discipline that used to be at the centre of intellectual Endeavour in the West for more than a millennium is surprising given its pedigree, but not surprising when we realize its almost complete absence in our education system. This is especially true in Australia in contrast to the great universities of Europe and America all who have vigorous departments that deal with such things.

The often antagonistic attitude of Australian universities to include theological studies in their curriculum is long standing and reflects an antagonism found especially in staff associated with the disciplines of natural science. In other words, our university practice in this regard is a reflection of the controversy between science and religion in the late Enlightenment. Secularization of university studies is the result of a turf war between academics who vie for the right to say what is truth and what is not. The separation between church and state is used as an excuse for the exclusion of the study of the intellectual tradition that has been at the centre of the intellectual life of the West. In a time in which all cultures are studied the most important culture as far as the West is concerned is neglected.

This trend increases as humanities departments are dwarfed by the natural sciences and technology and their exclusive claim to be guardians of the truth via the empirical method goes unchallenged. The argument against theology is most often based on the understanding that it deals with the 'spiritual' defined as something akin to the 'spirit world' of the seance and of spiritualism. Thus the word 'spirit' is associated with the souls of the dead, the otherworld, the spooky and the superstitious. Talk to any atheist scientist and this will be confirmed. Unfortunately if you talk to many church members  the same result will be in evidence.

A little basic philology may help us here. The word that is translated 'spirit' in the Greek New Testament is 'psyche'. Arguments from word usage are often problematic simply because usage changes in time. However, the point I want to make is that when the writers of the New Testament wrote 'psyche' they simply referred to mental processes. The spiritual is not about the occult, it is about us, indeed the whole of culture. It is the sphere apart from that of nature. The propaganda of the secularizers is just that, propaganda based on the worst excesses of medieval thought and practice and contemporary superstitious religiosity.  The absence of informed theological debate at any level of our society ensures that this mistake, that has alienated us from our roots, is perpetuated.

The consequences of this vacuum in education is that students at university are prayed upon by fundamentalist Christians who exploit the idealism and fragility of youth to market their particular brand of ghetto Christianity. They have a free hand because there are no informed staff to guide them and no informed students to raise questions about quite obvious theological mistakes. The problem is that this marketing of a cheap and emotionally charged product has fragile intellectual roots that in most cases fails to nurture the newly found faith.

The question arises as to the benefits of theological education for people who do not pursue a career as an ordained member of the church. While liberal arts education is thought to broaden the intellectual horizons an education that includes church history, philosophy, New and Old Testament studies and theology is thought to be too sectarian to be included in public education. The advantages of the latter is that all of these disciplines are intimately related to each other and inform the student about a wide range of life issues from the nature of politics to ethics, history and the destiny of nations. It is a great pity that students are robbed of this opportunity because of the bias against a tradition which, as I have said, has formed us into the society that we are today.