Sarah Coakley considers the place of religious knowledge in the university, and the public square.
How can you justify a divinity department in a modern university? Well, I have notably taught in two very different contexts in recent years: at Harvard in the United States, and at Cambridge in England, both of which have religious foundations. They started as religious undertakings – one, of course, a lot longer before the other.
So when you pull the rug out from the origins of the history of an institution, you have to ask what you might be losing. And my view is actually quite a simple one about why there should be divinity faculties in the modern university. And it’s an argument that was used by John Henry Newman, when he thought about the nature of a university at the end of the 19th century. His argument was this, and I would repeat it in modern form: wherever there is any truth or falsehood to be contested, it should be done in a university. That’s what universities are for.
And some of the most irrational forces can be associated with religious passions, but also some of the rational traditions of reflection and integration are also associated with those religious traditions. We need public spaces in which these matters are debated in a form that is measured, accountable; and what could be better than the university. In the British context, we still have bishops and other religious leaders in the House of Lords, and it took me 15 years living in America to realise how important that is.
In America it’s extremely difficult to find a place – unless it’s on television, and even then that’s complicated – where a bishop can defend the position of the church, or a theologian can defend the position of the church, and have a debate on equal terms with someone profoundly secular, with an outcome that might be edifying for a general public. This is immensely important in our fractured world, in which religion is playing such a … a sometimes pernicious role, in irrational forces.