Do you have to be over a certain age to do theology?
“Theology cannot be taught to anyone under the age of thirty”, according to theologian John Fenton. “They haven’t had enough experience of sin, despair, failure and desolation.”
I can hear the arguments already: plenty of young people know despair these days, and many do engage with theology. But my own experience proves he had a point.
I boycotted Fenton’s lectures and wrote snide asides in his commentaries when I was a young theology undergraduate at Durham University. He was far too liberal for my then evangelical mindset. Now, he inspires me. I even named my liberal priest in Doubting Stephen after him.
What’s not to like about a Reverend Canon who says that to do theology, first run yourself a bath? Lie with water up to your chin, and ask:
- Why am I here?
- Why is there anywhere?
- Why is there anybody?
Belief in God gives some sort of answer, but people need to get to the stage of asking those questions before that answer is any use. Which is why you can’t teach theology to anyone under thirty.
For Fenton, we need experience of life and sin in order to do theology, but theology doesn’t have all the answers. Why is there disaster, injustice? Why doesn’t God do something? We don’t know.
“the critical point is when you see that God is unknowable. … the most important and obvious thing about God is that he is silent. He does not speak. He does not grunt, or shuffle his feet, or cough, or do anything to assure us he is there. He meets us in his silence.”
“What the church needs is people who believe in shutting up; that God is not a talking God; that we do not have the word of God, we have the silence of God. That’s all there is … that’s what we want to bring others into.”
What a load of liberal wishy-washy claptrap, my old evangelical self and her present-day equivalent explode. What about the Bible, and salvation, and the personal faith which knows, yes knows, that Jesus is Alive?! Why on earth would anyone want to be brought into ‘silence’?
But when – somewhat over 30 and with all those years of experience of sin, despair, failure and desolation – I’m lying in my cooling bath water or in my sleepless 3 a.m. bed wondering why there is anything or anybody and what it’s all for, it isn’t Bible texts and certainties which speak to me. I am drawn by this God who is in the silence.
Perhaps finally the Revd Canon John Fenton is teaching me theology. This time, I’m grateful.
* All quotes taken from an address Fenton gave to at the inauguration of the St Albans and Oxford Ministry Course in 1994, called “Reinventing the Church”.