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Long live the Queen!
(Issue 1 / Oct. 18, 2023) Introducing the Little Free Seminary
Hello and welcome to this inaugural edition of the Little Free Seminary newsletter! Join me for a short excursion into the world of theology. Each week you will discover something about theology and how it has influenced our culture, society, religion, and politics.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “theology”? To some, it’s just something future pastors have to study in seminary. To some mental images of an old European university where scholars sit in a medieval library full of ancient manuscripts. To most, it’s a topic that is irrelevant and incomprehensible to them – it seems like, in today’s society, anyone can invent their own spirituality and not be concerned with organized religion. “Spiritual not religious,” or the “Nones,” have grown to the point where 29 percent of U.S. residents now identify with that label (1). To them, spirituality is both purely personal and a matter of consumer preference.
But did you know that theology was once called the “Queen of Science”? This week, let’s explore how theology laid the foundation not only for churches but also for academia in Western Civilization.
To begin, what is theology? Wikipedia defines theology as “Theology is the systematic study of the nature of the divine, or more broadly of religious belief.” (2) The word “theology” comes from two Greek words: theos and logos. Together it simply means “speaking about God.”
Yet, not every conversation about God is usually considered “theology.” Usually, it is also a structured academic discipline.
Theology wrestles with the ideas about God. Theologians have long tried to come up with good definitions for who God is and what God does. Related to this are questions about the nature of the universe, of humanity, and how they relate to one another and to God. In many ways, it is inextricably related to philosophy, cosmology, and even sociology. Typically, theologians study historical interpretations of scriptures and the development of religious doctrines. Such a study is considered important for the sake of keeping the faith from turning into a “bewildering diversity of views… found among ‘fundamentalist’ sects and cults” (3).
Thomas Aquinas lived from 1225 to 1274. In his works, Summa Theologica, he called theology a “Queen of Science” for the first time (4). Aquinas was among the first known scholars to combine the study of Christianity with the philosophy of Aristotle, whose writings were rediscovered by Europeans in the 12th century through the importation of Arabic translations from the Muslims in Spain (5).
The time of Aquinas was also when universities began to develop in Western Europe. Most universities were first established as cathedral schools under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. But by the mid-13th century, they became separate institutions. The University of Paris, better known as the Sorbonne, was founded as the cathedral school of Notre Dame in 1150 and chartered as a university in 1200. The university originally had four departments: Arts, Law, Medicine, and Theology. (6) Most of the famous world-class universities, such as Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton, were also founded as theological schools among other disciplines. When Christianity occupied a more predominant position in Western society, theology was considered one of the key subjects of learning and research.
In the post-modern world we live in, theology still plays a vital role in understanding how our faith, religious traditions, and the wider society interact. Areas of research such as feminist theology, public theology, and intercultural theology are closely linked to the sociology of religion, cultural anthropology, ethnography, historical research, and other areas of social science and humanities.
In this sense, theology still is a “queen of science” – social science, at least – or, as Dr. Paul Radham writes, “Theology is in many ways a general education. A theologian will need to develop the skills of a literary critic, a historian and a philosopher. Some theologians will need to be expert in languages, others in anthropology, sociology and psychology. A theologian needs to have a sense of history as well as an awareness of what is going on in our contemporary world, and an understanding of the implications of the natural sciences as they affect our overall understanding.” (3)