Day 6 (Afternoon II): Religious Diversity and the Secular University

Is the inevitable future of theology one that lies outside the secular university?

From 2 – 13 July 2018, invited senior scholars and select early career scholars are participating in a two-week CRASSH Summer School devoted to some of the most critical issues in the emergence of the modern university and one of the most fraught problems of our historical moment: the related questions of secularism and religious diversity. Scholars will be blogging for the duration of the workshop, so keep an eye on the CRASSH blog for regular updates. In the following post, Ruth Jackson provides a brief overview of Day 6's second afternoon session.


In his paper on the Dutch Reformed theologian and churchman Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), Bruce Pass (University of Edinburgh) offered us a historical perspective on the debate surrounding theology’s place and status in the modern European university. Pass argues that Bavinck’s proposals, including his qualified understanding of theology as the servant queen of the sciences (a modified take on the epithet granted the discipline in the medieval context) remain relevant for discussion in the present day. This includes Bavinck’s indication that theology takes up a place in the (modern ‘secular’) academy by privilege, and not by right. Indeed, at a time when the epicentre of theological education was shifting rapidly towards private institutions like the newly-established Vrije Universiteit, where he himself taught, and away from state universities, Bavinck urged that it may be in theology’s interest to exit those institutional contexts which cannot provide the conditions for its flourishing, rather than persist in such conditions and be forced to make compromises in terms of method, subject matter, and authority.

Pass’ paper explains that in Bavinck’s view, theology can claim a legitimate place in the university insofar as it is a science – that is, a field of knowledge organised in relation to a particular object of inquiry. As is the case with other subject fields or sciences in the academy, theology (and in this case, Christian theology)’s method is dictated by its particular object, and merits its own distinctive faculty due to its structural and organisational differences with other fields. And yet in a manner distinct from other academic disciplines, the proper object of theology – God – is radically transcendent. This point about theology’s transcendent referent brings us to Bavinck’s defence of the notion that theology is regina scientiarum. For him, it is higher than all other sciences because it doesn’t limit its scope to a study of a particular part or area of created reality, but takes as its object the creator and sustainer of all things. And moreover, unlike what he names as the other ‘universal’ science, namely philosophy, (universal because concerned with every area of life and knowledge), Bavinck asserts that theology is not anthropocentric. It does not view things from the standpoint of the human, but it seeks to see and study all things in light of their being divinely created.

In Bavinck’s prescriptions about the nature of theology and its position in the academy, we see his interest in maintaining its distinction from the discipline of religious studies – the object of which for him was the phenomenon of ‘religion’ in its various expressions. But Pass also stressed that Bavinck did not perceive theology – even as ‘Queen’ – to be a science that should or even could reign normatively over other sciences. Bavinck recognised that Holy Scripture was not intended to be a manual for physicists, chemists and biologists. If theology by design must take its own object of study to be the Highest, then, Bavinck claimed that when it is part of a university, it can honour other disciplines by recognising their independence from its own methods, norms, and sources.

Pass’s exploration of Bavinck and the nineteenth-century Dutch context led us to consider the impasse, developing already in this period, between theology’s perception of itself as a discipline, and the discussions within new state universities concerning their structure and research aims. If it is possible to describe what theology does in some ways as a work of witness, then why might it be desirable, if at all, for an institution to have theology’s witness within its walls? Is the inevitable future of theology one that lies outside the secular university?

Pass pointed out in his paper that including theology in the university is one clear way to form a bridge between the university and the public square, which is suffused with religion. Moreover, since theology unequivocally upholds that there is a moral dimension to knowledge, Pass wondered whether retaining theology in the university ensures a wide-ranging and better developed conversation about what that moral dimension is. While responding to these questions about theology’s potential role in the academy in light of the present-day context, however, the summer school group found itself returning to discuss – much more broadly – a number of rudimentary issues concerning the very nature of research and teaching undertaken at university level per se. Who are academics writing for? What is it that characterises the type of knowledge that is valued and exchanged on a university level? What is it that gives academics a voice? Where does knowledge intersect with power? To work out where theology sits in our contemporary institutional context apparently requires an interrogation of our most basic academic assumptions.


Blog posts from the Summer School: 

​• Day 1 (Afternoon I)
Day 1 (Afternoon II)
Day 2 (Morning)
Day 2 (Afternoon I)
Day 2 (Afternoon II)
Day 3 (Afternoon I)
Day 3 (Afternoon II)
Day 4 (Afternoon II)
Day 5 (Afternoon I)
Day 5 (Afternoon II)
Day 6 (Afternoon I)
Day 6 (Afternoon II)
Day 7 (Afternoon I)
Day 7 (Afternoon II)
Day 8 (Afternoon I)
Day 8 (Afternoon II)
Day 9 (Afternoon I)
Day 9 (Afternoon II) 
Day 10 (Afternoon I)

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Posted: Monday 16 July 2018

Contributor: Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft

Day 6 (Afternoon II): Religious Diversity and the Secular University

Ruth Jackson, Research Fellow in Theology and Philosophy of Religion at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge