Tales from the Theological Coal Face

A friend of mine tutors theology and divinity students at the university. He teaches on the introduction to the bible and introduction to church history courses. And tends to be pretty scathing about the standards of students he sees. Part of this is the problem in the UK, where we specialise our students at 16 into three subjects, often they don’t match directly with university courses. So most students can’t do theology A level (they may do Religious Studies, which is somewhat different, but still isn’t available at lots of high-schools), so you can’t assume a theology undergraduate has even basic knowledge of the subject matter.

Still, even accounting for that, there are some really dense folks out there.

This week he reported a conversation with a student that went something like this:

Rev Dr (to seminar group): so can anyone give me an example of a character from history? [yes, really that basic].

Student: erm. Hitler?

Rev Dr: Yes, good. Hitler, so when did Hitler live?

Student: erm, sometime in the 17th or 18th century?

And in case you think that is about as low as you can go, he also tells the story of a student who shuffled up after a session and said “can I ask a question?”, “Certainly” says Rev Dr. “This third century business you keep talking about, what is that?”.

How do you start? Maybe with a big wallchart timeline from Jesus to the present day.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Tales from the Theological Coal Face

  1. Does it matter? If our densest students are being channelled away from important things like science towards classes in pixie appreciation, surely that’s a good thing, no?
    😉

  2. I think Avalos would agree with Shane’s question. For most people, who study this stuff, if they have had a few pints they may be honest enough to answer, “Well, hell, it matters because I love this stuff and have studied it. So I want others to do the same.”

    I am highly invested in religion. And it doesn’t bother me at all that others don’t get it.

    I think Steve Wiggins (a commentor here) is also disturbed by religious illiteracy, but but over the last 2 years he has had a few pints and is now willing to confess his self-interests!

  3. Ian

    But this isn’t *religious* illiteracy, is it? That Hitler lived in the twentieth century, and the very concept of a century is beyond religion. I’d say that’s part of the basic understanding anyone who graduates high school should have, let alone those they let into a university!

  4. Oooops, right, forgot about that clear lack of general history. You are right.

  5. I think this illustrates a pretty damn major problem; punters like us *are* interested in religion, but speaking just for myself, there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance that I would want to waste time in theological academia. Perhaps it is that theological institutions are so desperate for students that they take any old crap that stumbles out of a school, clutching a bible in one hand and dragging the knuckles of the other along the gravel up to the door.

    Now don’t get me wrong – Christians are not all like that; even *most* of them! But there is an appalling tolerance for some really wacky views (like creationism) or bigoted fundamentalism, in the strange notion that these crackpot weirdos are “brothers in Christ” – as if Jesus is willing and able to forgive the likes of Ken Ham or Jerry Falwell, but not honest and curious seekers after the truth are to be discarded into the lake of fire. I guess I am reassured somewhat that not everyone who cries “Lord, Lord!” is going to get the jelly-babies.

    Either way around, the sceptics win. Suck on that, Pascal!

  6. Ian

    Perhaps it is that theological institutions are so desperate for students that they take any old crap that stumbles out of a school, clutching a bible in one hand and dragging the knuckles of the other along the gravel up to the door

    Students like me, for example (okay, 20 years ago, but still).

  7. I was brighter than you! I converted at 17 years-old but got out in the middle of Bible College. And it wasn’t a heathen girlfriend that dragged me out either!

    I am almost embarrassed about how much religious stuff I know.

  8. Ian, they let *some* clever people in too, just to make up the numbers 😉

  9. there seems to be a general lack of historical knowledge in American culture and the theological settings aren’t immune. in this instance i was happy to have my 12 years of catholic schooling, so i knew the history when those classes came up. i was appalled at some of my fellow students knowledge (or lack there of). theology is very hard and most don’t want to ask the hard questions. nor could most hang out in atheist circles and not come away shaken. i love you guys and your insights, y’all give me something new everyday. yet here we agree; we have both a religious and historical illiteracy problem. and while one may only matter to me, they both affect us all.

  10. Going further, I was amazed at how I learned next to no history of Asia, Africa or South American. And no Asian philosophy was ever pointed out as significant. No technology or science discoveries other than Western were ever taught either.

    I think a common theme here is that we should school children with knowledge to transcend the natural parochial perspective, but we merely reinforce it!

  11. Ian

    Zero1, I agree that theology is difficult for some Christians. I guess it depends on the way in which your doctrines have been taught – whether they are taught as necessarily and obviously correct (which clashes with the fact that they are contingent and the result of social processes), or whether you are prepared to see them as less absolute. Certainly if you look at theology undergrads, most of the theology intake are from more evangelical churches, and they fare less well with their faith compared to the fewer Catholic or dissenting students. I always wonder about the divinity students. There is attrition, obviously, but theology students lose their faith all the time, and divinity students less so: I wonder if they really have a stronger faith. I worry that they are losing it too, but because of the vocational nature of their course, they are carried by inertia into the ministry and feel compelled to keep their doubts secret. Certainly I’ve met many professional ministers who’ve lost their faith, but have no way out (because their churches provide their house, pension, healthcare, etc).

    I think theological illiteracy is a serious issue too. It allows people who want to tack on their politics to their religion (like the religious right in the US, or Islamists in other parts of the world) to gain power.

    And to pat your back too, I like nothing more than having theological debates with folks who disagree with me, but actually have thought about the issues. You’re definitely one of those, and I’m so fortunate on this blog to have attracted a handful of others.

  12. Ian

    Sabio, you had me up to:

    No technology or science discoveries other than Western were ever taught either.

    Can you give some examples? I’m so poorly educated in non-Western science and technology that I couldn’t immediately think of what you would be referring to.

    I think a common theme here is that we should school children with knowledge to transcend the natural parochial perspective, but we merely reinforce it!

    Amen. But education has to equip people to function in their society too, and that means some bias is inevitable, I think.

  13. There are a few things even those Asian barbarians understood:

    China: compass, gunpowder, papermaking, printing, herbal medicine (used to create “modern” medicines). And more.

    India: Zero (and more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Indian_science_and_technology)

  14. Ian

    Doh, sorry, I read your comment and was thinking about modern stuff. Which probably also shows my bias.

    Printing and papermaking? Didn’t know that.

  15. A minor point perhaps, but herbal medicines are not an “Eastern” invention – herbal medicine has been practiced in every culture ever to arise on this planet – it is universal. And I’m not that sure that Gutenberg’s printing owed that much to China (I could be wrong in this) – AFAIK it was the concept of movable type that was the biggie. And papyrus, of course, originated in Egypt, but you could be right that the modern process of paper-making originates in ancient China. But then we *were* taught that in school… that was the UK though.

  16. Hey Shane,
    I’m not really sure of your intent. So let me ask a few questions first:
    (a) Do you feel that Asians made any important scientific or mathematical discoveries before or simultaneous to Europe?
    (b) Do you feel that Asians made any discoveries in those fields in the distant past that contribute to our knowledge today?

    I am supposing you are not doubting a or b. If you are, it means our conversation would be very involved. I am hoping that is not the issue and that indeed, you are just nitpicking.

    Concerning herbal medicine: For one example: The herb Ma Huang (“Mao”, AKA Ephedra) in Japanese is in an ingredient that the Germans noticed in many of Traditional Chinese Medicine cold remedies and then isolated pseudoephedrine and it entered Western Medicine.

    Also, from what I have been told, we Americans have a bit more parochial education than you continentals. That was my experience when I was in Europe also. Smile

  17. Ian

    Well, I would ordinarily be all smug about the British vs the American Education System. But then it was one of our guys who thought Hitler lived 400 years ago.

  18. Hi Sabio, my goodness, Far eastern culture has made a huge contribution, and our colleagues over there continue to do so. However, from my blog you’ll note that I am not a hyperdiffusionist – how much our technology “owes” to various sources is rather debatable. They’re all in the mix. Yes, ephedrine, but then Digitalis and Aspirin are products of the West; what I’m getting at is that the East (or West) did not invent herbal medicine – it’s a universal thing in general, and we get pharmacologically active compounds from folk remedies all over the place. I just think we need to be a bit deeper before attributing true innovation. That said, the Chinese were inoculating for smallpox before Jenner, and I think there is some evidence that he was aware of that. Could be wrong. And today, BGI genomics is one of the largest and best genetics labs in the world; the Chinese space programme is actually *exciting*! So please don’t think I’m down on the Far East…
    Cheers,
    Shane

  19. “Certainly if you look at theology undergrads, most of the theology intake are from more evangelical churches, and they fare less well with their faith compared to the fewer Catholic or dissenting students.”

    -i agree there! i came from a combination of Catholic and Mainline churches and have relatively little contact with the evangelical side. i can challenge and fight all day long in seminary whereas my evangelical brothers and sisters would be spent after just questioning the virgin birth. craziness!

    ” I always wonder about the divinity students. There is attrition, obviously, but theology students lose their faith all the time, and divinity students less so: I wonder if they really have a stronger faith.”

    -speaking as a former divinity student, i could say that it could be a stronger faith… or a faith with a purpose. or a practical faith. Bart Ehrman is a good example of this. For me, he got lost in the specifics and could no longer see the forest from the trees. granted, he got stuck on a great problem for not only theistic religions, but systems of any type in general. namely, the problem of evil and suffering. as Alfred North Whitehead stated, “All theological ships break upon the rocks of evil.” i’ve lost my faith countless times only to find a strong more flexible one in it’s place.

    i also know a few pastors who have lost their faith and are atheists serving churches. and i trust these pastors 100 times more than pastors with a faith in their certainty. Miguel Bonino stated that “Only an atheist could be a good Christian.” what he means by that is that Christians who do good only to get to heaven or to convert people aren’t good Christians. Christians do good for good’s sake because that’s what Christ would do. not for a reward/punishment model. and i agree. so these pastors tend to be more practical, be able to break through people’s theological self-deceptions, and be able to handle stress and time management a little better. they also preach sermons which MEAN something and challenge and stretch people, versus the cliche ridden tripe i hear coming out of 8 out of 10 pulpits.

  20. @ Shane
    Good, then we just established that you were, as you warned, nitpicking. No need to continue then.

  21. Ian

    @zero1 — Thanks for that considered response.

    I hope it is a stronger faith or a faith with more purpose. I fear it is inertia and embarrassment, and a lack of other options. I also suspect it is partly maturity – there are more mature divinity students, which means that finding out all this challenging stuff about Christian doctrine isn’t tied up with their first experience of the world outside their family. I think that probably has a stabilising effect.

    I think it would be fine to have an atheist pastor a church, if they weren’t compelled to lie about it. The act of daily compromising your integrity is a real psychological burden among folks who have lost their faith. With a common effect being mental illness, in my experience. Given that, I can’t summon up your optimism on that score.

    As for the problem of evil – yes. Amen. There simply is no sane theodicy of the omnimax God. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong 🙂

  22. @ Shane: Yeah, your article sounds like a simple summary of Diamond’s “Guns, Germs & Steal” analysis 13 years later but with the addition of the Pacific and adding in that dealing with tides and tradewinds stirred the scientific revolution — the last part seems far stretched.

    BTW, I am far from being an Asia-phile, but when I smell parochialism I sneeze uncontrollably. You aren’t parochial at all, I get that. You were just being picky — it seems.
    BTW, I graduated from Oriental Medical School in Japan with a graduate degree there in Herbal Medicine. I get the whole herbs belong to everyone thing better than you may imagine.
    Salam Sahib!

  23. “I hope it is a stronger faith or a faith with more purpose. I fear it is inertia and embarrassment, and a lack of other options.”

    well said.

    “I think it would be fine to have an atheist pastor a church, if they weren’t compelled to lie about it. ”

    agreed. the few i know who are “out” are in very special communities who love and support one another truly. the sad part is, these types of churches are few and far between, even though every single one of them are called to do so. i didn’t mean to diminish the psychological effects and torture many atheist pastors who are in the closet go through. i am optimistic, but that is my nature and the substance of the things i hope for.

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