Monday, May 14, 2018

What do you do with a theological education in a post-truth age?

The occasional address given at the Annual Graduation Ceremony of the Adelaide College of Divinity, May 7th 2018.


Firstly, I thank the Faculty for the honour of the invitation to give this address. Although there is a lot of interaction between the respective leaders of the various theological consortia and colleges, there are not so many opportunities for general faculty members to engage other colleges and their students in events like this. I am especially grateful for being able to do so.
My earliest memory of attending a graduation ceremony goes back to my oldest brother’s graduation in the late 1960s. There is a 14 year gap in age between him and me. As a 10 year old I had no choice but to tag along to what was a significant family occasion. As it happens, it too was a theology degree – a BD in the then Melbourne College of Divinity.

What I remember most clearly about that graduation ceremony is the event that happened mid-way through the speaker’s address.

Dressed in all their ecclesiastical and academic finery and seated behind the speaker at the lectern were the various church and academic leaders. I recall my mother nudging me at one stage to look at the then Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne. He had very conspicuously gone to sleep.  His head was nodding lower and lower as he fell ever more deeply asleep. Then with a sudden and dramatic jolt he woke up and sat up straight. In the process of doing so, however, he propelled all the books and papers that had been on his lap into fan-shaped arrangement at the feet of the guest speaker.

I suspect that the speaker knew at that very moment that it would not be his address that people were talking about afterwards – let alone 50 years later at another graduation ceremony at another college of divinity in another city.

I tell this story not simply to serve notice to the assembled dignitaries not to fall asleep! Instead, I prod all of us to think about what should be memorable about a graduation ceremony.

Certainly, I do hope I don’t send anyone to sleep. But at the same time I won’t be at all offended if this address is not what you most remember about tonight.

What I hope is the most remembered part of tonight is the sense of achievement that every one of you, the graduands, is entitled to feel tonight, and which you are entitled to share with your friends, families, and teachers: those who in some significant ways have made this achievement possible.

The completion of any tertiary award is a significant achievement.

Regardless of the different levels of ease with which you've reaced this point, everyone has had to apply themselves. Everyone has had to wrestle with issues which perhaps they would have preferred not to. Everyone has had to ask their friends and family to understand that they just had to finish that essay that night and couldn’t be interrupted. Everyone will have given up something – whether income foregone, social life restricted, or career opportunities surrendered.

I don’t say any of this lightly or simply as the formulaic congratulations expected of a graduation speaker.

In the 17 years I have been involved in teaching theology and ministry studies, I have been repeatedly struck and frequently inspired by the sacrifice that theological students make to undertake and complete their degrees.

So, to all of you, ‘Congratulations’. Soak up this moment for all that its worth and for all that it represents. Remember it and recall it for the rest of your lives.

OK, so what now?

What are you going to do with your theological education?

The question is often asked.

Often, it is asked from within the church, for the church has always had its healthy scepticism and suspicion about the value of academic theology. And it is important to affirm that there will always be a tension within the Christian faith between action and reflection, between pragmatics and contemplation. Theology must never be isolated from the matrix of the activities and practices that make up the life of faith.

But that tension aside, there has always been a particular role for theologically trained members and leaders helping the church develop an informed faith, or perhaps a self-critical faith, or perhaps a faith more thoroughly prepared to give a reason for the church’s hope.

Yes, a theological education can equip you to do all that.

You might sometimes be asked about your degree by those outside the church. And if there’s a measure of uncertainty from within the church about the value of a theology, that’s got nothing on the uncertainty you might encounter in the wider world.

“Theology? What’s that?” is a question I’m often asked on those occasions when I decide that I have energy to come out as a theologian and then deal with the mostly predictable conversations that so often follow.

One day I plan on putting together a collection of my own and others’ experiences of such moments of self-declaration.

Even just last week at the hairdresser I had another intriguing encounter around this issue. I took my seat in the barber’s chair and the conversation unfolded like this:

“What do you do” asks the hairdresser.
I teach theology in the Uniting Church
“Oh, so you are a specialist in rocks?”
No, theology, not geology.
“Oh, so you study theory.”
No, I study Christian ideas about God.
“Oh. So you’re Christian. I’m not. I find that Christians are very judgmental.”

[I’m happy to say that notwithstanding that rather unpromising beginning, we ended up having a constructive conversation about Christianity.]

But the most interesting such conversation was some years ago, at a supermarket check out.
Again, the conversation began with usual sequence: “What do you do?” “Oh, Theology. What’s that?”

 I tried to give a brief summary of the combination of languages, history, texts and ideas involved in studying theology. Somewhat surprisingly the young man’s eyes began widening in seemingly awe-struck anticipation until he burst out: “Oh, you mean like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. How cool!”

On this occasion I thought it would be quite wrong to dampen his enthusiasm.

But to ask the question, ‘What to do with a theological education?’, today is to ask it in what has been called the post-truth age.

This is an age in which the structured and critical enquiry characteristic of an intellectual discipline (and not just in academic institutions)  is being called into question.

Of course, there have always been philosophical sceptics. It is a position which has always been part of intellectual discussion in one way or another.

But the post-truth phenomenon is not simply an appeal to philosophical scepticism and its lineage of healthy doubters.

The post-truth phenomenon is a cultural and political phenomenon in which truth claims are not just doubted. They are mocked. They are ridiculed.  They are trivialised. And so too are the truth-tellers. The symptoms of this are well known.

The dismissal of journalism as Fake news.
The willingness to deny outright clear evidence.
The intent to malign expert knowledge because it is expert.
The normalisation of spin as a substitute for political debate .
And, of course, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. 

Indeed, it was the year in which Trump was elected to the White House that Oxford University Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year.

It was defined in these terms:

I’ll come back to that definition shortly. But let me quote two other short statements which offer snapshots into our culture’s tenuous relationship with truth, each of which highlights another edge to the problem

Lee McInyre is a philosopher at Boston University. In his recently published book, simply entitled ‘Post-truth’, McIntyre writes:

“One gets the sense that post-truth is not so much a claim that truth does not exist as that facts are subordinate to our political point of view(p.11).

He also says this:

“The question at hand [in this post-truth moment] is not whether we have a proper theory of truth, but how to make sense of the different ways that people subvert truth” (p.7).

His point: post-truth doesn’t signify a total denial of truth, but a political determination to subvert any claims to it.

My third snapshot quote comes from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writing, as it happens, some years before the language of post-truth gained currency. Williams claimed and lamented that the West had moved into a “ 'dark night’ for intelligence” in which “[W]e don’t quite know what knowing is for” and “we don’t’ quite know that we can know.”  

In many ways, the Archbishop’s comments suggest an even bleaker situation than described by Lee McIntrye or even than that implied in the Oxford Dictionaries' definition.

The Archbishop’s point: there is a fear at large that there might not be anything that we can know as truth.

If these seem rather abstract academic definitions, let me say that  it is the cultural mood or the cultural posture captured in them which makes it possible for the phenomena I noted above:  journalism being dismissed as fake news; clear evidence being dismissed outright; expert knowledge being maligned because it is expert; spin being normalised as a substitute for political debate.


It is a cultural mood, or posture, or moment where Christians need, I think, to ponder at some depth how they respond.

Allowing for all the nuances of Jewish and early Christian concepts of, and language for, truth, it is something which is not reducible to a theory of knowing. Rather, it is a way of living that holds together such notions of faithfulness, reliability, correspondence to God’s reality, straightforwardness, honesty – something that fundamentally God is long before we share in it.

It is part of being Christian to care about people, words, actions, doctrine and ethics being ‘true’ in this rich meaning of the concept.

We follow and worship the one who declares himself to be the way, the truth and the life. (See John 14:6)
We are told that the truth will set us free. (See John 8:32)
We are exhorted to think about ‘whatever if true and honourable and noble.’ (See Philippians 4:8)

In claiming to be people of the truth, we have an investment in, and a vocation to, resisting the posture and mood of the post-truth culture.

As Christians we share convictions that means it is not just a matter of emotion or personal belief when we declare that domestic violence is simply unacceptable; and when we challenge employers who might manipulate or exploit employees; and when we argue that reconciliation between first and second Australians is necessary.

For those of you who have been called to leadership in the church, you will want to know that it is not just a matter of emotion or personal belief  when you may need to challenge your community of faith and its members about how and where it invests its money; when you need to challenge a colleague in matters of their own conduct;  when you make a stand in a particular doctrinal dispute or challenge the misuse of scripture; when you advocate for the poor and marginalised in societies;when you speak truth to power – either within or beyond the church.

For all these scenarios we need operative accounts of truth.

But let me go back to the Oxford Dictionaries Definition. adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

As I’ve already hinted, there’s a need for Christians to tread carefully when responding to this. There can be a wrong kind of Christian response to it. There could be a Christian bravado that actually misses the real challenge that this definition poses.

You see, many of Christianity’s critics will readily argue that Christianity fits right into the post-truth world. It is not interested, so they say, in objective facts. Its only appeal is to emotion and personal opinion.

Most Christians would, I'm sure, want to resist the idea that Christianity can be reduced to the idea of emotion and personal belief, even if we will insist that there is a place for emotion in and personal commitments in our engagement with the truth.

At the same time, Christianity will not fit into the ‘truth world’ if fitting in depends on basing its truth claims on ‘objective facts’. After all, it is a theological insight common to Jews, Christians and Muslims that faith does not rest on ‘objective’ 'facts,' and that when it tries to do so it has probably taken a step towards idolatry.

So whilst resisting any attempt to locate Christianity amongst the post-truth realities, it would be a mistake for Christians to swing over completely to the definition of truth that many propose as the antidote to post-truth challenges.

Because we understand God revealed in Jesus Christ to be the truth, our truth claims will not fit easily into the categories of either truth as defined in modernity or post-truth as defined in our contemporary milieu.


As those who have been educated theologically, you have been taught to interpret texts; to analyse ideas; to understand doctrines; to reflect on the church’s practices of love and mercy; and to have an informed sense of the church’s historical and social location.

I suggest that in doing all that you learnt ways of navigating that space between the idea that truth lies only in objective facts and the idea that truth lies in emotion and personal belief.

To be theologically-trained for ministry is to be introduced to a way of thinking that is humble about the truth claims the church makes but confident in the convictions of which those claims consist.
It involves an understanding of truth which has certain virtues attached to it.

If we believed that objective facts alone were the basis of truth – the seed is sown for arrogance.

If we believe that emotion and personal belief is the basis of truth – the seed is sown for indifference.

But instead of between arrogance and indifference, the Christian operates between humility and conviction.

Helping the church navigate its way within this framework is one of the things that you can do with you theological education in this post-truth world.

In doing so, you might often surprise both those within and those beyond the church.

It seems to me that Christianity has been publicly pigeonholed by certain cultural assumptions, by its own sin, and by its own confusion about how to live in this context.

As the theologically-trained members and leaders of the church help the church negotiate this new context, you might also help cut through the strictures of those pigeonholes.

Remember the claim of Rowan Williams that our cultural context is one in which “we don’t know that we can know”. Perhaps it is part of the church’s vocation to offer a counter testimony to that situation to surprise ourselves and our world by what we believe to be true; a counter testimony that reality can be known, that God can be known.


So let me conclude by drawing your attention to the passage read earlier from the book of Acts (17: 16-21).

After Paul had discussed the good news about Jesus with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens they were sufficiently engaged to take him to the Areopagus where they asked him:

 “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

And after he had spoken some more some of them declared: “We will hear you again about this.”
Paul’s message about Jesus Christ created curiosity – it cut through the structures and categories of thought that prevailed in first-century Athens.

As you leave here tonight with your freshly-minted degrees from the Adelaide College of Divinity, I encourage you to use your theological education to cut through the categories of thought that prevail in twenty-first century Australia. Undo many of the expectations that people have of you and the Christian faith. Break open the pigeonholes of cultural assumptions.

Follow Paul’s example and the exhortation he gives in his letter to the Philippians which I alluded to earlier.  
...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things..

And, if I can add, be strong in your convictions and humble in how you articulate and embody them. Do that and you will putting your theological education to good work.

1 comment:

spirit2go team said...

Great address Geoff. Funny, real, and lovely landing in Scripture - Steve Taylor