Two Worlds Colliding

Prayer in a lecture hall at Aarhus University – twice. Even though it was at the Faculty of Theology, this is very unusual for an institution that prides itself of being secular; in a region of the world where the pursuit of reducing theology to theory has reached heights previously unheard of. Does this represent an actual thaw? That’s probably too early to tell.

I was in Aarhus for a conference on Church and Mission, celebrating the centenary of the Edinburgh 1910 conference on mission. It was in many ways a stimulating experience; exciting lectures (and lots of them), meeting new friends, networking with colleagues with common interests. Much of the theoretical input still needs to settle in my mind. But the divide between practitioners of faith and mission and academics studying the same field is an interesting concept. And try as you may, it’s not a divide that can be upheld as strictly as some might wish for. One of the strengths of the conference was that it brought together people from both areas.

There were, of course, a number of lectures of purely theoretical content; which can be interesting, no doubt about that.

But then there was the touching appeal on the first night of the conference by a bishop of the Christian minority in a Muslim country who gave a stark and de-romanticising account of the pressures and suffering taking place.

There were the American researchers presenting a methodology of studying local churches, or actually enabling local churches to study themselves with academic tools. When asked the question, what are some of the results of their research, they replied, that the local church gets a more healthy view of themselves and gets to reflect on their own mission.

And finally, there was the prayer. Controversial only for the sake of its presence. The professor was an American. It was the prelude to the morning sessions which might in other places of the world be called “bible study” or “devotional”, but here, in a secular university, it received the title “missional hermeneutics”. Of course. Very fine presentations, on both occasions.

So what’s the big deal? Well, apparently some believe that the distinction between practice and objective study should be extremely sharp. A Swedish professor voiced this opinion in his response to one of the lectures. I don’t think this holds water in the extreme sense. Of course critical discourse and reflection are important. But you can’t completely cut yourself off from practice. Would you study medicine without any hands-on experience during the education? That would be ridiculous. Yet this is an academic field. Or take my own field, Information Science. This was an academic study, but we didn’t shy away from building websites, writing software etc. during the course of this education.

But in theology, even the slightest little prayer is frowned upon by some.

Most probably, it reverts to an Enlightenment fear of the non-rational. A deep saturation of positivism; the belief that by staying detached you stand a better chance of objectively discerning the “real world”, or the “truth”. For a time, the natural sciences ruled the world, and other fields were also influenced by the view that rational truth not only existed, but was the saviour of the world. The other-worldly was excluded from rational thinking, and reduced to myth and superstition.

This, however, is no longer the case, and as early as Einstein the idea of absolute, measurable truth received its death blow. In the postmodern society people seem to be less critical of the idea of a divine existence. But many fields of study, not excluding theology, still seem to come short of embracing this.

Author: Kenneth Mollerup Birch

Living north of Copenhagen, Denmark. MA in Information Science. Interests include communication, internet, sociology, language, politics, religion, theology, travel, music, and food.

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