As we launch a new programme of Autumn courses, open to all, Rod Garner discusses why learning and faith go hand in hand.
You have been running these courses for a number of years - why are they important to the life of our diocese?
They seem to meet a need on the part of people who want to think about their faith and its implications for how we should live in distracted and sceptical times. They genuinely appreciate a forum where difficult or intriguing questions can be raised, where discussion is welcomed and the riches of the Christian faith can be explored and put to good use. The courses matter to the life of the Diocese because an authentic faith is always seeking a deeper understanding of how we are to love and serve God and each other.
How did they come about and how did you come to be involved?
Over the years the various courses – a ‘rolling programme’ of events held each Spring, Summer and Autumn – has evolved to meet the requests and needs of participants and my own sense of where contemporary culture is and the kind of response this calls for on the part of congregations and clergy. They have formed an integral part of my remit and job spec as theologian.
Who are the courses aimed at? Do you need a high level of theological literacy for example?
Everyone is welcome to the courses: I frequently choose university or college settings mainly for their amenities and learning environment, not because people have to be ‘clever’ to enrol. It helps if students see that good theology is essential to discipleship – we are after all to love God with our minds as well as our hearts –but the main requirement is a readiness to learn alongside others and to go on exploring. A simple faith seems to work for quite a lot of people but in my experience any truth that matters is rarely pure and never simple. There is no religious sound bite for what we should be doing in Syria just now.
How do you go about deciding the programme? Are there any particular highlights this autumn?
I take ‘soundings’ from regular participants –they have been known to share tea and cake with me from time to time! – and I’m always looking out for the new books that deal with religious issues, old or new, in an intelligent and accessible way. I’ve also written quite a lot of books, myself and value the opportunities of sharing what I’m discovering about religion, philosophy and politics and no less importantly, the questions emerging beyond the Church.
For me, the world and local communities always have a key part in setting the agenda for our mission and ministries. I try to follow the great theologian Karl Barth: ‘have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other’. Particular highlights this Autumn are a short course at Edge Hill on the Holy Spirit and a Liverpool Hope Seminar on the Creeds. We recite these so often without realising the extraordinary things we affirm or how strange they sound to many thoughtful and decent people who find Christian believing a difficult or impossible prospect.
Why is learning and development important to you - what do you get out of doing this?
Running such programmes means that I remain a learner myself. If I can hold on to my own brains I might encourage others to do the same with theirs! We are born curious but as G. K. Chesterton once remarked ‘how regrettable it is that so many remarkable children grow up into such unremarkable adults’. At one level, my latest book ‘How to be Wise’ is an invitation to be more curious about what wisdom actually means and the surprising sources that can lead to it.
Is learning important for all of us if we are to mature as Christians?
Learning is life-long and a joy. I am not surprised that some Jewish believers see heaven as a place where they go on learning and in such work find endless delight. Without learning we shrivel as human beings. Christianity at its best makes us more human and theology is a gift of the Church to assist such maturing.