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Watch Your Language

Nicholas Lash's I watch my language in the presence of God – Theology in the modern university (Brief “Thank You” remarks upon reception of an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Durham University, June 30, 2011)
Watch Your Language

Nicholas Lash, appointed to the Norris-Hulse Chair of Divinity at Cambridge University in 1978, was the first Catholic theologian to be elected to a chair of theology in either Cambridge or Oxford since the Reformation. He is perhaps best known for his work, Theology on Dover Beach (Paulist Press, 1979), an expansion of his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, “Doing Theology on Dover Beach”, though he has written many well-received books since then including A Matter of Hope and Believing Three Ways in One God. Not always someone with whom the evangelical Christian can agree, in this little gem of a speech, however, he raises points that are well worth reading, given the present surge of atheism among the scientific community.

The speech begins by affirming that one way of stating the difference between a theologian and a philosopher is that the first “watches his language in the presence of God”, while the second merely “watches his language”. Lash posits a distinction between doing academic work as a believer and doing it as a non-believer, and agrees that even some theological work can be done equally well by the unbeliever. He then asks the question, “Ought theology to be practiced within the university?” and spends the rest of the brief speech arguing that question.

Lash posits “all good reasoning expresses and proceeds from prior commitments and beliefs” and that since research is a collaborative process—especially through time as research is always dependent on the inquiries and discoveries of many past investigators—unbelievers must ultimately acknowledge dependence on something “outside” themselves. This has implications that Lash, almost impishly, summarizes in this way: “Perhaps, at the end of the day, it is not that theology is so unlike other academic enterprises as not to earn its place in the university, but rather that we have lost sight of the extent to which other academic enterprises are, as social projects, projects undertaken in community, rather more like theology than they know.”

Topically relating to “a theology of research”, this brief talk would form a wonderful basis for an hour-long discussion.

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