Are we speaking the same language?

After the Making a Difference? (2014) report was published I spent some time trying to grapple with the what was meant by ‘thinking theologically’ or ‘theological enquiry’. Having been one of the survey team, it seemed important to me that I actually tried to work out what was meant by terms used in a report that I had in effect contributed to!!

As a Diocesan Adviser, I knew that teachers would want to know what this meant, and what they needed to do to support this approach effectively in the classroom. So where did I begin?

I began by looking at various definitions of theology. Yes, I know this is not the same a thinking theologically or theological enquiry ( I’ll come to that in another blog)… but it seemed to me a good place to start, as the roots were likely to be the same. I didn’t spend hours on this, but I found these quite useful

‘reason and discussion concerning the deity ‘( Augustine)
‘discourse on god’ ( Plato)
‘Systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious truths’ ( wikipedia)

There are many others, but I liked these because they reminded me of what I had done in theology myself. I had reasoned, and discussed. I had undertaken a rational study, I had explored the nature of religious truth itself. This was a subject that was robust, academic and challenging. That was the kind of religious education that I felt the Making the Difference? report was calling for.

I then reflected on what I had actually done in my own theology degree, which was in a secular university over 20 years ago. I realised that my own theology degree had included a number of different disciplines. I undertook textual criticism, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, church history, pastoral theology and ethics… there may have been more but this is what I can remember! I then talked to teachers about using different kinds of questions ( e.g. sociological, philosophical, theological, historical, anthropological…)to deepen the learning in RE. I called it theological thinking because it was based on my own experience of theology.

To me, therefore, theology is much more than studying the doctrine of the church, and it is certainly not about passing on revealed truth. This may (or may not) be what takes place in some theological seminaries or in bible college, but this is not the discipline I studied at University. This is why the theology described in a recent blog ( seems to be using a language that is unfamiliar to me. To me, theology is not something that only happens inside a religious community. I think this may be a particular characteristic of theology in the UK, which is distinct from perhaps theology in places such as the USA. In fact, when I studied theology, there were members of all faiths and none on my degree course. The University of Oxford makes this point on their website too:

While Theology is an ancient intellectual discipline, no-one can doubt the momentous social significance of religion around the world today. Study of the subject provides an understanding of the intellectual underpinning of religious traditions, and of the social and cultural contexts for religious belief and practice. Engaging fully with the questions that scrutiny of religions elicit will require you to become something of a historian and a philosopher, a textual and literary critic, and a linguist. To be able to employ these disciplines effectively will not only make you a scholar of religion but equip you to embark on a wide range of careers.

Hence, my question ‘Are we speaking the same language?’, because I actually think although coming from different perspectives, the recent blog and my own views are trying the say the same thing, but are just using different language. We all come from different perspectives, none of us are impartial or neutral and this will have an impact on how we use language. Our own experiences will also shape how we perceive the world, and in this case religious education. I know I make choices in what I read and who I listen to, how I interpret what I read and how I internalise what I hear…. I am sure we all do… that is why I don’t think we can ever be truly impartial or objective in our study of religion and belief. It is because of this that I disagree with the final sentence in the aforementioned blog.

However, I welcome the critique of my ideas of theological literacy because I feel it helps to clarify my own thinking, and to challenge it. The analysis of the recent joint paper (see link below) which I contributed to is helpful because there are aspects of it which the blogs refer to that were perhaps ambiguous or not clear, or that needed to be challenged.

Most importantly, I do think we all agree that our children and young people need a balanced diet in religious education. We want to see better and improved pupil outcomes in terms of children and young people being able to have an informed conversation about religion and belief. If this, is the core purpose of our subject, then we may after all be speaking the same language, and I believe that theological enquiry will be an important part of this….but more of that in the next blog….

Making a Difference? (2014) A Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools

The blogs referred to can be found at:

The joint paper mentioned can be found at:

I have found the following text helpful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies:

Dinham. A and Francis. M (ed) (2015) Religious Literacy in Policy and Practice Policy Press Bristol