In the second of this week’s blogs on child poverty, Nigel Varndell from The Children’s Society explains why they waste time on theology.
According to the story, an American theologian once challenged his student class and his congregation to shout out the first word that came into their mind when he said ‘theology’. The words that came up in response included; boring, self-satisfied, otherworldly and irrelevant.
If that’s how Christians view theology – that it’s something obscure and irrelevant to daily life and practice – it is even worse in the secular media. If you want to say something is largely irrelevant, you might say its ‘academic’. If you want to say it’s totally irrelevant, you say its ‘theological’.And that was just from people in the church!
On that basis it is hard to see why we would waste any time with theology, and why would be bother to scrutinise real life issue such as child poverty or debt, through the lens of theological thinking?
At The Children’s Society we take a rather different view.
We think that theology – thinking about God, the world and our place within a divine plan – is not irrelevant to our work, but actually vital. Not so much an academic exercise in understanding as an urgent call to action. That is why in the last year The Children’s Society have published two collections of theology essays, one looking at child poverty; The Heart of the Kingdom, and the second at the impact of debt on children; Who bears the burden? This second collection was published to support of our new Debt Trap campaign.
Both of these collections have unpicked the factors that cause children to grow up in poverty and the impact of policy and finance on children’s flourishing. But what these collections have also done have placed the issues in the context of God’s desires for us, our children and our communities. And it is here that theology finds space to speak.
Too much of the recent public debate about child poverty has descended into academic spats over definitions and measures of child poverty and divisive political splits between right and left over whether irresponsible parents or reduced levels of welfare spending are more to blame. But neither of these exercises in megaphone diplomacy (important though they are) help us to get to the heart of the issue. Theology can do that. Placing these divisions in the context of a bigger vision of what we as a society and as a church, responding to God’s call, should want for our children. It is this bigger vision that The Children’s Society have started to outline in our theological work, although the emerging picture requires a great deal more inking in.
But theology can also offer us more than this big vision and help us start to work through how to respond.
Over the course of recent years the church has been on the frontline in the struggle against child poverty, offering support to some of the most desperate families through countless food banks and debt counselling services up and down the country. But this vital pastoral ministry can never end the scourge of child poverty. To do that will require the church to also live out its vocation as prophet; confronting the political and economic systems that cause the problem in the first place.
The challenge for the church in this context is to be able to decide which way to respond in different circumstances, as pragmatist or prophet.
For those of us who find theology, boring and irrelevant, I have bad news. If we really want to end child poverty we need to do more theology, not less.
Find out more: www.childrenssociety.org.uk/debt
Nigel is the Director,Church and Community Participation at the Children’s Society and is also a deacon in his local Baptist Church.
Follow Nigel and his team on twitter @ChildSocChurch
- Who Bears the Burden: www.childrenssociety.org.uk/debttheology
- The Heart of the Kingdom: www.childrenssociety.org.uk/povertytheology
Tomorrow: We look at the Government’s Child Poverty Strategy and why so many more children are expected to live in poverty by 2020