As early as middle school, students attend different classes for their different subjects—Math, English, Science, Social Studies, et cetera. By the time they reach college, students choose which discipline they want to focus in—their “major.” After majoring in a specific field, some students go on to “master” it—be it in Education, Divinity, Biochemistry, or British Literature. The result is that many students become cloistered in their departments, unaware of how their course of study connects with other disciplines in the university. Theology is no exception.
Theologian Graham Ward calls into question this isolation. Ward believes that theology is a field of study that is called to draw upon and speak to all of the disciplines. In this interview, he spoke to us about the place of theology in the academy and about how education, politics, and theology intersect with the world—through capitalism, globalization, and the like.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In your book, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice, you decisively ask, “Where does theology speak from?”1 Can you tell us a little more about what you mean with this question and about the role you see education playing in this process?
Graham Ward (GW): In Cultural Transformation, toward the end of the first section, I pose that question through an image. I positioned the theologian at the door, the east door, of the church, which is usually the door that symbolically looks over the city. The east door will be opened at Easter, for instance, and the city comes in then through that door in the medieval church. In positioning the theologian in this way, I was quite confident that I was going against some of the ideas that we have of the theologian’s position, such as Jean-Luc Marion’s, which often hold that the theologian is the bishop par excellence and that his or her function centers around the Eucharist and the administration of the mass. That positioning is quite important to me because it means that in many ways theologians straddle two worlds: the ecclesial world and that which situates the ecclesial world, the secular world. This last world is secular in the sense that it is distinct from the spiritual realm, though not autonomous. That positioning of the theologian is really a reflection of where I am personally.
Now, to connect this to education, I work at a state university. I work in a senior administrative role in the university at the moment. I will return to the department of religion and theology in another three years. This department is not a seminary. It’s not a divinity school. We are not training people to become ministers within churches, and so when I first moved to Manchester the question, “What is the theologian who is actually situated within a secular institution teaching secular students there to do?” became particularly pertinent. Because what I am not here to do is to train them for the church, and I am not there to convert them. So my most important pedagogical function as a theologian is apologetic—it is explaining and describing the world from the Christian perspective.
It’s very important in my work, then, that I engage with the culture. I‘ve always balked when people have asked me, “What kind of systematic theology do you do?” It is an engaged systematic theology; it is working with the material substance of the cultures that we inhabit today, cultures that influence every thought we have, and actually working with those materials from the Christian theological perspective.
TOJ: This idea of an engaged systematic theology—is that a struggle in the modern university system where the disciplines are fragmented, divided, and disintegrated?
GW: Currently at my institution, I am head—which is a bit like a dean—of a school of arts, histories, and culture, where there are eight subject areas including English, drama, history, classics, art history, archeology, music, and religions and theology. So in my own institution, those disciplinary boundaries are blurred, and in fact, some of the most important kind of work that I do is for English, where I teach critical theory. So I will give lectures on Baudrillard or on Foucault—I lectured in history on Foucault. The institutional setup allows me to move across disciplinary boundaries quite fluidly. That movement itself is not a problem either for a theologian, because culturally we have moved elsewhere from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
We’ve moved away from conceiving theology as a distinct subject in which there is discussion about confessional beliefs. In institutions where disciplines were isolated from each other, theology was frequently regarded with hostility in certain kinds of secular environments in the university. But that has culturally changed: People in those erstwhile secular environments are now much happier talking about what they believe, don’t believe, and why they hold the views they have. So I think that both in the institution that I work for and the new cultural climate, call it postsecularity if you like, disciplinary boundaries are not so rigid, and I am able to develop an engaged systematic theology.
I can see that in certain other institutions theologians might still have problems with other disciplines and the way they patrol their boundaries. But to my mind, it’s intellectually unhealthy to have and to insist upon a division between, say, a divinity school and the rest of the university, such that the divinity school is sectioned off as something which is a kind of separate part of the university—whether at Harvard or Yale or Duke. When I visit such schools, I find students interested in film, in contemporary literature, in gender studies, in legal studies, et cetera. So I hope institutional barriers do not prevent them from talking to other people across the university. It does seem to me to put an unnecessary obstacle between people. At a recent colloquium at Yale, I was both surprised and delighted that I was invited to speak about monotheism in a Centre for Gay and Lesbian Studies. There was only one person there from the divinity school.
TOJ: So in a certain sense you see the role of a theologian as being able to integrate those disciplines—
GW: Theology can’t integrate, but it can move across disciplines. There are a number of interests that can integrate these disciplines, for example gender studies, ethics, religious studies, and more broadly, cultural theory. There are many fields of study that speak to and speak across different disciplines.
I was myself an undergraduate in English studies and French. At that time, I was introduced to critical and cultural theory. Then I trained in theology later. And I’ve always found that I loved the breadth in theology. Theology is radically interdisciplinary, and it was so even before interdisciplinarity became trendy. It’s always had to deal with philosophy, with history, with languages, with various cultural and sociological situations. It was always enmeshed in these different disciplines. I find that theology can in fact cross waters, cross divides, quite easily. I’m as happy talking to lawyers about religion and law as I am talking to urban developers about their vision of a city.
TOJ: In Cities of God you talk about the importance of reading the signs in our contemporary culture. It sounds like you envisage theology playing a key role in that process because of its ability to speak to disciplines.2 What can theology really contribute to these other disciplines?
GW: It is one of the most astonishing transformations that has happened that theology can now contribute to other disciplines. And it is not just the post-9/11 phenomena. There are a number of major intellectual figures who are speaking of the new “postsecular” conditions, about a new visibility of religion or a new resurgence of religion. They are describing the way in which religion is now very much in the public sphere. It can come out of the closet; it’s no longer seen as a strictly private thing. That view dominated the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it became entrenched in the way education treated theology as a poor, enfeebled relation, already in their deathbed. But today the culture that we are living in is investing heavily in theological and religious ideas, symbols, myths. I have just finished the fourth volume of the Cities project, called The Politics of Discipleship, which comes out next year, and again, it’s very trite to say, but the times have changed, and we have, as theologians, something to say now because people everywhere are using our language.3
I sit on a research panel for the British Government, and I recently had to evaluate a proposal that came forward for research funding on resurrection and the afterlife in contemporary film. And I thought, “Yes! Someone is realizing how much that is happening culturally is shot through with religion.” Look at The Matrix or the Harry Potter phenomenon. Look at the popularity of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials and the recent film The Golden Compass based on the first part of his trilogy. Or take the last part of the Bourne Identity series. Culture is playing with books, themes, and symbols that are part of a Western Christian heritage. Just as they are playing with themes and symbols from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. And so theologians can reenter the public sphere now and say, “Look! What’s happening? How are you using this? Do you understand where it comes from and what the rest of this is about?”
So I think we have a fundamental role, a really important role now. In part it is a catechetical role because so many people have been unchurched through the kind of secularization that came in after the Second World War. Theologians announce “Look, the culture you are living in is a culture that is absolutely full of religious mythology, religious symbolism!” and then have to educate people about the meaning of the symbolism; they have to narrate to them the myths and stories associated with this symbolism. In the recent past, the churching or catechizing was being done by evangelicalism, or what we call here, alpha groups. Now things are changing. There is a huge, huge resurgence of interest in the religious, and I think theologians, particularly theologians that are culturally engaged, that are involved in cultural hermeneutics, can actually provide a lot of interesting material here for people to connect with.
TOJ: Right, that reminds me a lot of Slavoj Žižek, whose interactions with culture and religion come from a more secular perspective.
GW: Right. He loves it! I mean, I’ve spoken with Slavoj on several occasions, in a kind of debate, and I have always tried to pin him down, because he is one of our best defenders of the Christian faith. And he’s doing it not because he is a Christian—which he isn’t—but actually because he does believe that what we are standing for is something deeply important and that it, in fact, resists some of the kind of liquefying of the material culture that we’re involved in. Badiou would be another person doing this, and Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher, would be a third. Agamben’s commentary on Paul is really quite stunning and thoughtful, in that it has some thinking that Agamben is a Christian.4
TOJ: If we’re talking about people being influenced by these theological ideas that kind of show up everywhere, I know that, both in the United States and abroad, we’re largely influenced and impacted by late capitalism—and the church is no exception. In Cities of God, you talk about the effect that late capitalism, or what you refer to as “flexible accumulation capitalism,” had on the modern city. Can you explain what you mean by this, how you see this capitalism affecting the church, and what the church’s response should be?
GW: That’s a huge question.
TOJ: Yeah, sorry.
GW: It’s a huge question on several fronts, partly because with the credit crunch at the moment, we are heading elsewhere, and I think this is a major turn within capitalism as we’ve understood it. Flexible accumulative capitalism is, in fact, David Harvey’s term for the kind of capitalism that underwrites the postmodern condition. And what he’s talking about is the way society has moved off of the gold standard and turned to printing money, and now, not even printing money, but having it exist in electronic space. This dematerializes money considerably. With that dematerialization, the alienation between capital and the value of the goods it can buy vastly increases. Accumulation becomes an end in itself—constant wealth creation. There’s a question here of the sustainability of that, and the financial crises we have witnessed recently may be a warning to us here. But that late capitalism has actually been with us for, well, since the late seventies. I think that the credit crunch and the banking collapses that are going on across the world are causing some change, but the epoch of late capitalism developed a very, very shallow and superficial culture.
You see an example of the kind of culture produced in the book American Psycho, a fantastic book by Bret Easton Ellis.5 In both the book and the movie, the main character is phenomenally successful financially, but he was so superficial that all that he can actually think about is the designer clothes he wears. He’s a ruthless homicidal maniac as well, and it’s this kind of greedy, rapacious capitalism that wants to accumulate for the sake of accumulation rather than the kind of capitalism that I suppose is the old socialist notion that you actually generate wealth so that you can use it more equitably and invest in what is valuable (morally and politically, as well as economically).
Now where does the church fit into the late capitalist dreaming? Well, in many ways the church woke up to the management culture that pushed this particular capitalism through, and in some way it has actually bowed down to it, and to some extent I think this is absolutely right. The church is an institution, and like any institution it needs to be run efficiently. It needs to be run transparently. Therefore, it needs to manage what it’s got effectively. But at the same time, what the church must do is emphasize that it has different values, and those values have got to inform everything that Christians actually do, including what we do with our money, what we do with our savings, et cetera. Now it strikes me that there are some studies now—I am thinking of studies that are coming out of the States right now by people like Ronald Ingelhart—about a trend that began to emerge in the seventies regarding post-material values. There were certain things that people really became increasingly concerned about like style of life, like gender questions, like ecology, and that these values were impacting what people did with their money and their vote. There is some evidence that such post-material values were leading to more sacrificial lifestyles. Ingelhart calls these values post-material. What I do in the last book I finished, The Politics of Discipleship, is think this through in terms of the church. I look at the post-material literature and explore how the church can take these values and can actually invest them with a theological and metaphysical depth, which at the moment they don’t have. This means we start to transform the way people value things and so, in a sense, value each other. And so I think that in some ways the church as an institution has still actually got to function as an organizational unit and be run efficiently and effectively, but as Christians we are the body of Christ in action constantly negotiating the world, negotiating the city, and so what we have to bring into those negotiations is a whole set of other values, values that will actually be values that can be, can create, what I call in Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice transformative practices of hope.
TOJ: Right, so if theologians are consistently interacting with different disciplines, they can infuse those disciplines with the same values?
GW: Yes, and they can also point out certain kinds of blindnesses in those disciplines. Let me give you an example that I have been working with—religion and law. Many people see, for example, law as being a code that is established by the state for the governing of the people. Now I want to talk to the lawyers and say, “Yes, but in fact, some of important thinkers, like Hegel, advocated that law has to arise from religion,” because religion is actually all about justice and the good, all about freedom and peaceable living. Such a law that arises from within religious practice participates more fully in what it is to be human. Such a law is not then some creed imposed upon human beings externally saying, “This is what you will do, this is what you can not do.” So disciplines can contest one another and contest the symbolic or cultural power that privileges one discipline in favor of another. In this country [Great Britain] at the moment, we are having very lively debates in legal courts about the relationship between civil law and religious laws. So it’s not that the disciplinary debating within universities is superficial, because they are actually participating in debates that are going on out there in society at large.
TOJ: We’ve talked about how consumerism and late capitalism have affected the world we live in and what that means for theological education, that is, how it is to respond, but how do we respond to the way that economic impulses have affected theological education? In Cities of God, you suggest that your argument in the book hangs on the notion that change is possible, and that there is, in fact, no deterministic link between economic and cultural productivity. Can you explain this some and talk about how you see, or don’t see, this happening in modern higher education.
GW: Economic impulses are certainly driving the modern university. This is what I mean by living with a whole new set of values. Marx couldn’t have been more right when he said that new economic strides have been taken. The critics of Marx say, “Ah! Well, the thing is he just replaces the grand narratives of God and Hegel with the grand narratives of capitalism, and it is still a kind of big grand narrative thing,” and therefore the critics say, “Marx is wrong!” But, in fact, no, I say Marx is absolutely right. Everything at the moment—culture, politics, pedagogy—is being dictated by money. Well, not everything, I mean I am really interested in the way you’ve got indie music for instance. You’ve got indie film. You’ve got people who are actually trying do something quite distinctive on low budgets and trying to do something that is, in fact, critical of the big machinery.
But on the whole, you’re absolutely right. Education, for example, would be one of the main things that has become economically driven. I’m the head of a school with a budget of 28 million pounds a year, and a lot of what I do, a lot of the time I spend is time going over accounts, time doing paperwork, exploring how we are going to balance the books, how we are going to create teaching efficiencies, how we are going to finance what we want to do, et cetera. Now this is what I mean when talking about changing or modifying values. It doesn’t even have to be explicitly Christian, you can come at this from a number of different backgrounds—Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, et cetera. It’s about coming into a situation with a set of values that says, “I’m sorry. Economics does not drive my life,” with the idea that there is something much higher than money in the bank that’s driving your life, and then you bring that to your cultural field as a critique and resistance to those pressures that would actually work to make economics something primordial.
TOJ: Not to be pessimistic, but can values win over money? Twenty eight million pounds is a lot of money, and it makes individual value systems seem, well, not quite as powerful.
GW: Well, there’s a difference here. I’m not overly critical of micropolitics: situations where practices of hope can be generated by and for certain individuals; certain groups who might come together because they share certain kinds of values which are anti-economically driven. I’m not averse to micropolitics because I think that people’s lives are transformed on a micro level as well as on a macro level. Let’s think of managers working at a store as an example. Yes, the money is a big and powerful driver, but what if we sit around and say, “Yes, but the most important thing is life satisfaction, and we want people to actually enjoy coming to work.” The micro modifies, ameliorates some of the dehumanizing aspects of the macro forces. I want students that enjoy being part of my school, and I don’t want the economic machinery. Students are not just checks with legs—they’re human beings with their own aspirations, intellectual energies, desires, and curiosities. Let’s deal with the economics of recruitment and fee levels in the background; let’s foreground the kind of educational values that we’d actually like to see—personalizing the learning to the greatest extent that that is possible, immersing these students in the rich interdisciplinary education that’s available to them, feeding their ambitions and dreams. So, yes, I think that on a micro level, you can do something.
I think, in terms of the macro level, well, I’m looking at the scene at the moment, and as I said, I think in some ways the scene has shifted. From what I am being told by the economists I’m talking to, this credit crunch isn’t just going to be for one year or two years. This is the end of a certain understanding of credit capitalism, and this is going to be really quite transformative. If late capitalism ushered in postmodernity, then where do we go now? These economists, they’re looking at the situation and the way oil is going up, gas is going up, banks are collapsing, and national governments are stepping in to buy them up, and preparing us all for change. For the first time in Britain, there’s explicit talk about the end of the supplies of gas. We’re seeing the exhaustion of resources, and I think that these higher values—in terms of more profound, metaphysically rooted, theologically rich values—will be able to speak to these issues on a macro level. My own bet would be that after postmodernity there will be postsecularity—and some of the most important names in cultural and social theory are using that term. Theologians can certainly speak on a macro level to anyone who would listen to them about abortion and stem cell research—that’s probably controversial.
TOJ: This conversation, our discussion of the current state of things, reminds me of something you bring up in Cities of God. You mention the idea of a Disneyland effect and how that effect begins to dominate civic culture. I have to say, I resonated with that idea as a lot of people refer to my school as a sort of “Disneyland bubble.” Can you explain to the readers what you mean by the Disneyland effect, which is in a way, part of the macro-level values we are up against?
GW: The kind of Disney effect that I am talking about can be found today in any ambitious city around the world. They are all engaged in huge building projects that want to kind of create cities like Oz and Zanadu—utopian spaces. They want to create ideal cities, cities of glass and transparency, cities for angels. You see this all the time in Manchester. Simultaneously, you have huge investment in anything that is cultural and historical because there is a whole kind of culture industry there that’s creating the Disneyland city for tourists. Let’s look at an example, say, Vancouver, Canada. It would be interesting to go out and take twenty photographs of the city, and then compare those photographs with twenty postcards of the city that are regularly on sale somewhere and see the difference between the way that your pictures inhabit the city and what the postcards show. Cities want a certain image of themselves. This is what sells. What they want is international acclaim, so they need this image of themselves that sells. New York is doing this spectacularly successfully, and so is Chicago. That is the Disney effect that we’re actually finding.
Now, I have a funny story connected to this. One of my jobs before I was at Manchester was Dean of Peterhouse, a college in Cambridge. I came out of the college one day, and there was a student standing in the road. A car drove up, full of American, and they asked him, “Could you tell us where the University is?” And he answered, “The University is five miles down, this is just the theme park.” There is this kind of theme park effect that is going on with institutes everywhere.
Cities are becoming opportune venues for entertainment. How does a university fit into that? It’s a very good question, because it is easy to say that certain universities actually want to become Disneyfied themselves, because the more Disneyfied they are, the higher fees that they can charge. They, too, care about their international image, every university does. So you’ve got this Shanghai table that lists the top one hundred universities, and my goodness, if you are in the top twenty-five you are making it, if you are below that, you are trying to get into the top twenty-five. And achieving that has much to do with “how do we brand ourselves?” In my university, that is the constant word, “How do we brand our image and get it out there?”
So I think that universities are in many ways up there with Starbucks and other corporations; they both want to create an image. What this generates and multiplies is virtual realities. Now, how can this be resisted? Well, it can only be resisted educationally, by coming back to core educational values, which is increasingly difficult: the idea that we are to be educating human beings to think clearly, to be aware of what they’re doing, to be educated culturally, appreciating diversity, et cetera. The problem is that there is a real commodification of education at the moment. The student comes in, wanting to get this degree, this qualification for a job, and they measure their performance according to this goal through progress reviews and the like. So the instrumentalization and commodification of education is dominant, and it is more apparent than it has been before. But theology resists that.
And not only theology. I can’t think of one subject area in my school that doesn’t believe profoundly that what we’re teaching is something that cannot be reduced to instrumentality. The best kind of education is the one that enriches human beings as human being, irrespective of how much they make when they get out of the place and get a job. So I think theology can join the ranks, and maybe articulate some of the values more clearly, with a number of other disciplines that resist the commodification and instrumental reductiveness.
TOJ: Like the humanities?
GW: Right. You can’t reduce any of these fields of study to instrumentalism. They embrace the powers of the imagination and creativity so that people coming out of these subjects usually have to retrain to go to law school or to be an accountant. So, in many ways, especially at an undergraduate level, students have a really good opportunity for nurturing the values and visions associated with being educated. There are opportunities for resistance in education. In the midst of the quantification and metrics that are dominating life in and beyond the university, the humanities says, “Well, we believe in books for books sake.” The humanities subjects in my school are having to say that loud and clear in order to keep our library stacked high with books as opposed to having everything online and electronic. Of course, we all have benefited as researchers from the availability of material online, but we still like the weight and smell of books and the intellectual adventures in moving from page one to the end. In a book, you hold that whole adventure in your hands.
TOJ: Like the new Amazon Kindle?
GW: Right, it sounds quite lovely, and that’s the problem. People can come back and say, “Well, you know, it’s just not efficient storing all this print. Technology is now the age we live in.” Well, I’d love to sit down with these people and ask them what the best educational experience that they had was. I’d bet it’s been a book they have read, or a lecture that they have been to, or someone who has inspired them to do something and to see something that they had not seen before, something that, in fact, can’t be reduced to that type of instrumental commodification.
TOJ: I don’t imagine that a lot of people would say that taking the GRE or the SAT was the best educational learning experience they have had.
GW: Perhaps. I think it’s imprisoning, the way the GRE is used as a marker of one’s educational ability so students can get into the program they want. This is why I really like talking to people in English studies or theology, because the fields require imagination. If you have no imagination, you can have no theological vision. Theological thinking continually needs to go beyond analytical thought—it can be analytical, but it can’t be reduced to that. You can be as analytical as you like about the incarnation, but incarnation itself, grace itself, mystery itself; these are categories that only the imagination can really work with.
TOJ: We’ve spent most of this interview talking about economics and similar topics, but I would also love to hear you speak a little bit about gender. Your essay in Radical Orthodoxy is about engendered bodies, about the displacement of the gendered body of Christ that then opens up the boundaries of gender.6 I was wondering if you could speak to that in regards to education? What role do you see modern education playing in the gendering of bodies, and what about the role of theological education?
GW: I think you’d probably find a better answer than I am going to give you, but I will give you an answer, or more of a sketch than an answer. Recently I’ve been looking at the Pauline context of the church and the body, wanting to develop a notion of the body as invested in a theological resonance. The ecclesial body is, in fact, also multi-gendered in what its trying to do. It performs the body of Christ. The essay in the Radical Orthodoxy volume, as you said, traces the way the male body of a specific Jew transcends its gendered and ethnic limitations. More generally, what I want to emphasize for theologians is that we still have bodies, and these bodies are gendered. I find that the culture in which we are living dematerializes so much—this is one of the quibbles I have with Judith Butler’s work. Something like the doctrine of the incarnation, for example, says a lot about the sacrality of the material, particularly the material body, and so as theologians, we have a lot to say about embodiment. The incarnation is a very, very important theological doctrine for us, and it is about the nature of embodiment. So if our understanding of what it means to be embodied is modeled on incarnation, then let’s look at the way in which Christ’s body actually functions as a body that is both gendered and transgendered. In short, I think in a culture in which the body is being continually appealed to, theologians have much to say.
TOJ: So we’re basically falling under one of two extremes. Either we are making a Butlerian move and wanting to deconstruct and thus take away value from the body, or we want to rely completely on these constructions of gender that might be culturally dictated or too limited?
GW: Right. And it comes up again in queer theory. The danger of queer theory is that the subjectivity becomes so liquid that again the body disappears or becomes epiphenomenal. Whereas, I want to come back always into bodily practices—because the heart of Christian theology concerns such practices. What are we doing with these bodies? How do these bodies change in the way that they are understood, the values that are given to them in different kinds of situations? You know, a body that is praying, a body in a hospital, a body making love—each of those positionings of the body reunite the body in some way with its value, and I want to get back that embodiment and its value.
TOJ: Dr. Ward, thank you so much for talking with us at The Other Journal and offering your insights on education, politics, and theology. We really appreciate it. And your book is coming out next year, right?
GW: Yes, the book, The Politics of Discipleship, is coming out next year with Baker Academic.
TOJ: Great, we look forward to reading it.
1. Graham Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
2. Graham Ward, Cities of God (London: Routledge, 2000).
3. Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, forthcoming).
4. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).
5. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).
6. Graham Ward, “Bodies: The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward (London: Routledge, 1999).