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By: Dr Jacob Phillips  (Head of ​Institute of Theology)

When you tell people you study theology and religion, you can get all manner of different reactions. Many people are genuinely interested, and want to know more. Some, perhaps with misgivings about religion, react differently.

Among these more negative responses, you might even find some people doubt whether the sphere of belief should be studied in the modern University at all. They assume that, in an increasingly secularised world, the University should concentrate only on what they suppose to be more ‘rational’ subjects, or those focused on practical training for a specific vocation.

At St Mary’s University, however, theology and religion are not only included among the other academic disciplines, but have their own dedicated centre: the St Mary’s Institute of Theology.

Those critical people I mentioned might baulk at this; why should theology and its cognate disciplines have their own Institute, surely they’re just another way of inquiring into the world and equipping people for life, like any other subjects?

Indeed, this was the general attitude for many Universities founded after the Enlightenment. After many basic contentions of Christianity were questioned in the 18th Century, it was decided with the founding of the paradigmatic modern University in Berlin in 1810, for example, that theology should not get any special treatment. From then on, it was often considered one of the arts and humanities subjects.

There are certainly good reasons to approach theology and religion in this way. In the broadest sense, the humanities involve reflection on the many expressions of the human spirit. Where there are human beings, one invariably finds belief of some sort. Some would say the fullness of being human cannot really be grasped at all without some measure of theological and religious literacy, because faith and belief are of such fundamental importance in human life and society.

Notwithstanding these good reasons, it is important not to lose sight of history. In the first place, many of today’s academic disciplines are relatively new, while people have inquired into matters surrounding faith and belief from the earliest of times. Theology and religion have a unique lineage, combined with a continuity of community practice that has endured through centuries of human development.

It is also important to bear in mind that the post-Enlightenment status of academic theology was something very different to what preceded it. A University education had previously, for centuries, been centred on the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium) and then geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium). Theology was held apart as something lying at the very top of the tree of knowledge. A basic contention behind this, was that someone would need to have a certain proficiency in the rudiments of intellectual activity (like forming arguments, being fluent in the requisite languages, etc.) before that person could engage constructively with the most intellectually demanding and perennially acute questions at the heart of human existence: Why are we here? Where do we come from? How might we understand the source of life? What is the proper way for us to behave toward each other?

It is testament to both the importance and complexity of such questioning that, in the Middle Ages, theology was regarded not as just another academic discipline, but as the quintessential mode of questioning which lies at the heart of all the others. For this reason, it was not merely considered another discipline (or ‘science’) among others, but as something with a distinctive standing, and hence was known as ‘the queen of the sciences’.

Another dimension to theology’s once-privileged status relates to how people can claim to know its ultimate subject matter, God. The mode of knowing in question is traditionally understood as something which enables us to conceive of matters ‘beyond’ or ‘transcendent’ to the world, yet disclosed or communicated in and to the world. As put by the document Dei Filius, God ‘can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things;’, but – crucially -, there are matters pertaining to the divine which are not accessible to the natural light of reason, which are disclosed to us on God’s initiative, and are then ‘known readily by all with firm certitude and with no admixture of error’ (DF§2).

St Mary’s University was not founded in the Middle Ages, and nor was it originally a post-Enlightenment research University. It was founded in 1850, after the Catholic Emancipation act of 1829, with a view to training teachers for Catholic education. In this sense it is an institution which has always had a very clear practical focus: seeking to improve people’s lives through their intellectual formation. At the same time, St Mary’s is now a fully-fledged University, which is distinct in its founding Catholic identity, something shared with the most ancient centres of learning in Europe, and which, moreover, continues to flower to this day in the University’s guiding mission and ethos. 

I would suggest the factors just mentioned provide an excellent rationale for St Mary’s University having a dedicated Institute of Theology. St Mary’s has long-since sought to foster the common good and equip students for effective living, and theological and religious literacy are essential for understanding human beings and society. Yet, St Mary’s has a distinct identity with faith convictions at its heart, so the great practical and worldly value of these disciplines is combined with a marked attentiveness to their longevity and continuity. Most importantly, I suggest, the Institute of Theology offers a forum in which open critical inquiry is encouraged precisely in a setting where certain key contentions of faith are taken seriously: namely, that there is a knowledge (scientia) that ‘dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Tim 6.16).