Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God

Tara Isabella Burton writing for The Atlantic:

Even in the United Kingdom, where secular bachelor’s programs in theology are more common, prominent New Atheists like Richard Dawkins have questioned their validity in the university sphere. In a 2007 letter to the editor of The Independent, Dawkins argues for the abolishment of theology in academia, insisting that “a positive case now needs to be made that [theology] has any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.”

Such a shift, of course, is relatively recent in the history of secondary education. Several of the great Medieval universities, among them Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, developed in large part as training grounds for men of the Church. Theology, far from being anathema to the academic life, was indeed its central purpose: It was the “Queen of the Sciences” the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others. So, too, several of the great American universities. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alike were founded with the express purpose of teaching theology—one early anonymous account of Harvard’s founding speaks of John Harvard’s ,“dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches”and his dream of creating an institution to train future clergymen to “read the original of the Old and New Testament into the Latin tongue, and resolve them logically.”

Universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton no longer exist, in part or in whole, to train future clergymen. Their purpose now is far broader. But the dwindling role of theology among the liberal arts is a paradigmatic example of dispensing with the baby along with the bathwater.

Richard Dawkins would do well to look at the skills imparted by the Theology department of his own alma mater, Oxford (also my own). The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism. As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”

Yet, for me, the value of theology lies not merely in the breadth of skills it taught, but in the opportunity it presented to explore a given historical mindset in greater depth. I learned to read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.” I read “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts alike of the nature of the Godhead, and learned about the convoluted and often arbitrary historical processes that delineated the two.

Emphasis mine, as I’m currently thinking and reading about generalism and breadth vs. depth of knowledge. Working in a university means these thoughts occur rather often.

Explore religious buildings in London: 360° videos

I’ve just completed a video project for The Open University where viewers take a guided tour round 7 of London’s principal religious buildings in full 360° detail. The videos are embedded at the bottom of this post.

Why we made the videos

Here’s what Prof. John Wolffe, an academic I worked with, said:

These short videos are designed to replicate on screen the experience of visiting seven of London’s principal religious buildings through the use of 360° technology. Each building is introduced by a leading member of the community associated with it.

Although Christianity has long lost its historic religious monopoly, it remains the largest religious tradition in London, and has indeed seen some resurgence in recent years. Hence three out of the seven buildings are Christian ones. St Paul’s Cathedral represents the Church of England, still the national church with residual ties to the state although actively supported only by a minority of London’s Christians. Westminster Cathedral and Jesus House represent the two numerically largest Christian groups, Roman Catholics and Pentecostals. The latter have grown particularly rapidly since the turn of the millennium.

The other four buildings represent London’s (and the UK’s) four largest religious minorities. The early eighteenth-century Bevis Marks Synagogue is a striking physical reminder that religious diversity has a long history in this country dating back to the readmission of the Jews in 1656. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have also had a longstanding presence in London, although major purpose-built places of worship such as the Neasden Temple, the East London Mosque and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara have only appeared in recent decades.

These buildings offer just one approach to the study of religion. They do however enable one to begin to appreciate some comparisons and contrasts between major traditions. To take the study further one needs, among other things, also to be aware of the countless smaller and inconspicuous places of worship to be found all over London and other towns and cities; to look at the rituals and practices taking place both in these buildings and in many other places; to understand the role of sacred texts and images in religious life; and to reflect on the nature and significance of religious experience. We should also balance the rich ‘insider’ perspectives offered in these videos with more detached academic analysis and remember that the rich internal diversity of religious traditions means that other ‘insiders’ might have different perspectives from the speaker in a particular video.

These films therefore serve as a ‘taster’ for a new Open University module, A227 Exploring Religion: Places, Practices, Texts and Experiences which will be offered from autumn 2017, and will pursue all these issues in depth.

Issues with publishing and embedding

This was a fun project! Despite the hype around 360° videos, there remains several issues with publishing and embedding them on OpenLearn, the OU’s site for free learning:

  • The videos display correctly when played on YouTube on desktop machines in Chrome.
  • On mobiles and tablets, they work fine in the YouTube app, but not on mobile browsers. They display in their ‘unstitched’ state. Imagine the 360° video as a sphere, then flatten it out. It’s not attractive or useful.
  • Even on a desktop, when the YouTube videos are embedded on a site, they usually (but not always) display unstitched.
  • Uploading them to Facebook helps! They can be embedded on other sites without any noticeable problems on desktop browsers. Except…
  • They don’t play in mobile browsers. The videos don’t even appear.
  • Another option is to use Google VR, but there are more bugs and issues for various browser/OS combinations.
  • OpenLearn itself isn’t responsively designed, making it harder for mobile users in general. We’re addressing this as part of a relaunch and redesign later this month.

It turns out that making 360° for all users is harder than the platforms would have you believe. There doesn’t seem to be a single way to present the videos to all users across all devices.

I’ve had to include some clunky advisory text on the OU site that some people probably won’t even notice. I’m yet to widely promote the videos on OU accounts until I can find an better way to do this.

Watch the videos

So, the videos below are embedded from Facebook. If you’re using a mobile or tablet, they may not play correctly or display at all. You can try opening the YouTube playlist in the YouTube app.