Restoring `the queen of sciences'

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THEOLOGY has become increasingly marginal in American intellectual life. As recently as the 1950s, theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich exercised enormous influence on American public life. Niebuhr was a regular columnist in such journals of influence as The Nation, The Progressive, and Harper's. Tillich was a regular participant in gatherings of America's most important intellectuals, and toward the end of his career was granted a distinguished university professorship here at Harvard.

Those times seem astonishingly far removed from our own era, when the New York Times Magazine can do a detailed article on Harvard's 350th anniversary without a single mention of the Divinity School, and a Time magazine writer reviewing John Updike's latest novel is at pains to recommend the book despite the fact that its main character is a theologian! We may be witnessing in our time a revival of interest in religion, but that renewed attention has not yet spawned a reconsideration of the significance of theology. . . .

It is unlikely that theology will ever regain its place as the queen of the sciences, nor should it seek to do so.

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But theology can, and I believe must, regain its status as a significant critical inquiry within the church, within the university, and within our broader cultural and public life.

A recognition of theology as a critical inquiry emerging out of deeply held religious convictions can greatly enrich the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual life of our society. And a restoration of theology to a central point in the Divinity School's curriculum can help to overcome the gap between the academic and ministerial, between the scholarly and pastoral, that so bedevils American theological education.

Excerpted from ``Toward a Critical Theological Education,'' by Ronald F. Thiemann, dean and John Lord O'Brian professor of divinity at the Harvard University Divinity School.

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