To conclude its Theology Now series during the season of Lent, The Church Times asked seven theologians 'What is going to be the next big thing' in theological debate? Revd Dr Steven Shakespeare, editor of Modern Church's quaterly journal of liberal theology Modern Believing, was one of the seven. Here are his answers:
What key influences are shaping theology now and into the future?
Theology does not exist in isolation from the world. It therefore has to face the continuing European legacy of imperialism and slavery; the growing dominance of markets in every aspect of life; the transformation of our humanity by accelerating technology; and desecration of the earth and non-human life.
What’s going to be the next big trend in theology?
I detest trends. I suspect it will be something awful.
What will be the standing of theology in universities in future?
Under fire. Universities are being warped by the utilitarian imperative that makes markets the arbiters of all goods. There is still a thirst among potential students to study beliefs seriously, and many departments are able to respond to this. Playing the game is not enough, however. Theologians need to explicitly resist these neoliberal narratives of education, or they will eat us whole.
What do you think will happen to theological literacy beyond academia, and how might academic theology contribute?
Clearly, theology cannot take a familiarity with Christian language and belief as a default starting point. But that should not be an excuse for theology to see its task as some sort of patronising apologetics, ‘educating the masses’. There is a need for creative, constructive and experimental theological writing and conversations which engage with where people actually are.
What makes you optimistic about the future of theology?
Nothing; optimism is a form of wish fulfilment. If I were to say what excites me, I’d point to the vitality of feminist, queer and black theologies, the resurgence of mystical theology, and the emerging work of people prepared to experiment in the name of liberation (I think of figures such as Katharine Moody, Marika Rose, Keith Hebden, Karen Bray).
What makes you concerned?
A lot of well-funded modern theology is living in a fantasy world. It pretends historical criticism of the Bible never existed. It oozes nostalgia for a Christendom centred on Europe. And it bristles with contempt for anything which contests that narrative, from Islam to liberation theology. Little is worse than the privileged theologian telling oppressed groups (in the name of some idealised Church) what they may and may not say, how they may and may not organise.
In your view, what recently published books are going to make a significant impact on theological learning?
- William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology (Beacon, 1998)
- John Caputo, The Insistence of God. A Theology of Perhaps (Indiana, 2013)
- Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (Columbia, 2014).