International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences

by Richard H. Roberts

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Richard H. Roberts is a retired professor of religious studies from Lancaster University in England and a former professor of divinity at St Andrews University in Scotland. He therefore lived and worked through the major changes forced on British universities, first by conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and then by her successor John Major and by the labor prime minister Tony Blair. These changes included an end to tenure, the standardization of acceptable criteria of success, and the great expansion of the university system by elevating the country’s technical colleges to university status. This latter particularly is taken by Roberts to be a Machiavellian move, in one stroke diluting and downgrading the meaning of higher education. 

Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences is an angry book by an angry man. It is a collection of essays written over the period of enforced change by someone who feels strongly that the very meaning of a university, especially as a place for disinterested research, is being destroyed. Drawing on thinkers of the past, for instance John Henry Newman (and his great essay, the Idea of a University), Roberts argues that managerial efficiency in the cause of the needs of the state is replacing the true purpose of learning and (particularly) the furtherance of knowledge. He argues also that this movement has spread to other organizations in Britain, most especially the Church of England, with failures to manage finances properly being used as an excuse to transform bishops from pastors of souls to men of business and management.

Expectedly, therefore, much of the collection has little to do directly with issues about the interaction of science and religion. It would however be a mistake to dismiss the collection because, at least indirectly, there is much here of great interest to the student interested in the science-religion meeting. Running through the essays is the realization that whether or not the changes being forced on universities and church are good and necessary, the crisis of theology in the nineteenth century (especially Higher Criticism) means that nothing stands still and that theology today must rise to meet this challenge or become irrelevant. This is very much the implication of the opening essay: The Closed Circle: Marxism, Christianity and the ‘End of History’.

Especially in one important essay, Theology and the Social Sciences, where Roberts traces the interactions between major Protestant thinkers of the past century (including Ernst Troeltsch and Dietrich Bonhöffer) and the social sciences (particularly sociology), it is shown that, in order to survive, theology must take on board the findings of the sciences. Although more schematic than detailed, it is made clear that this includes theology’s encounters with ethnicity, gender, globalization, and more. The concluding essay, Time, Virtuality and the Goddess, continues some of these themes. In an interesting break from much traditional discussion, Roberts acknowledges that the conversation must today be extended not just to non-Western religions but also to some of the newcomers like the neo-Pagans. Brief mention is made of the Gaia hypothesis, that the earth is a living organism, and the implications of this for thinking about such issues as gender.

This is a passionate and stimulating collection. The reader is warned, however, that it is not always easy to read and follow. Roberts is much given to polysyllabic words and technical concepts.  One must persevere to see the worth below the often-complex language.