Monthly Archives: May 2010

Image from a 15th c. ms (Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg M III 36) depicting Theologia driven on a cart pulled by the seven liberal arts (i.e. the other university disciplines) and driven at the rear by Peter Lombard, author of the Liber Sententiarum, the basic textbook of the late mediaeval theological curriculum.

One of the differences I’ve noticed on moving from the UK to New Zealand is the relative insecurity of Theology’s place in academia here.

In the UK, Theology has at least the weight of time on its side. In most of the ancient universities it’s been there from the beginning. In fact, even where the ancient universities didn’t teach theology, it was still their goal and raison d’être: the “Queen of the Sciences.”

Calling for Theology to be expelled from its old haunts has a whiff of year zeroism about it: the kind of tidy-mindedness that wonders why weeks aren’t decimal, why English spelling isn’t regular.

But there’s more to it than the weight of time. It seems to me that keeping theological scholarship ticking over is just plain expedient. If people stop learning Latin, then vast numbers of historical texts, and thus vast reaches of Western History are no longer accessible to us. If theology goes under, the history of most disciplines in the university go under with it. Like it or not, the history of science, medicine, architecture, art, literature, law, philosophy and even the dismal science are unintelligible without a deep and nuanced understanding of the Christian context in which they developed.

The only problem is that this isn’t a very strong argument for Theology as such. It’s more an argument for something like a Classics Department. No-one believes in the Homeric pantheon any more, but we still need to keep studying Aristotle, Plato, Virgil etc. At that rate Theology becomes just a bigger, broader version of Classics. It’s lasted longer than Classical civilisation and has affected (in fact continues to affect) far more people and cultures. But you don’t actually need to believe in it to study it.

In my opinion that’s more than enough to justify an even more prominent role for ‘Theology’ in the university. Moreover, those in New Zealand who think that Theology has nothing to offer the university or the country seem to me to exhibit an astonishing provincialism – both historically and culturally.

Even so, they’d be quite entitled to respond that what I’ve described above isn’t Theology as Theologians have traditionally understood it: i.e. St. Anselm’s faith seeking understanding. The case I’ve made doesn’t require Theologians to be believers, but Anselm’s description does. At the very least it requires doubters who think it’s worth trying to make sense of the claims made by faith.

This is why I find this week’s CiF discussion of Theology a bit disheartening. The advocates of Theology proper (rather than my Classical Studies version) haven’t so far offered a convincing case for its continuation as an academic discipline.

Yesterday’s opening salvo by Tina Beattie seems to run along the following lines:

  1. theology’s a way of talking about the “unconditioned condition of all being,” which is necessarily mysterious and inscrutable by scientific means
  2. you need sensible, and sophisticated believers to help you undermine the enthusiasms of the nutty and dangerous ones
  3. indeed when rationalism turns nutty and dangerous, it’s useful to have some believers (here probably any kind will do) to prick its pretensions

I know CiF pieces have to be short and pithy, but there doesn’t really seem to be much attempt here to think about why the Christian account of the “condition of all being” is worth studying (or whether the unconditioned condition can be studied at all). If the answer is just that the Christian understanding of God happens to be the one that’s shaped a large portion of world history and culture, then we’re really just back with Christianity as Classics.

In answer to 2 and 3 I can imagine a non-believer or doubter asking why any clued-up contrarian wasn’t just as able to burst the bubble of a given brand of nuttiness.

On the other hand, Terry Sanderson’s Humanist reply today, comes mighty close to an adolescent whinge about why  people bother to study things that aren’t science. One version of the case he makes might also be made against any subject in arts or humanities (or, let’s face it, a lot of economics).

On the other hand, if his complaint is that Theology (proper Theology) is uniquely self-referential and impervious to external scrutiny, then you can’t help feeling that Tina Beattie doesn’t have much to offer him.

And, to be honest, I’m not sure that I do, either.


The previous two posts – and in fact all discussions of liturgical minutiae – remind me of this exchange, which I first heard on a BBC radio adaptation of P. G. Wodehouse decades ago now.

The speakers in the scene are a bishop (‘Boko’ Bickerton) and vicar (university boxing champion, the Rev. Stanley ‘Pieface’ Brandon), both of whom went to the same school.

Thus the tension:

The vicar, his hands behind his coat-tails, was striding up and down the carpet, while the bishop, his back to the fireplace, glared defiance at him from the hearth-rug.

” Who ever told you you were an authority on chasubles ? ” demanded the vicar.

” That’s all right who told me,” rejoined the bishop.

” I don’t believe you know what a chasuble is.”

” Is that so ?”

” Well, what is it, then ? ”

” It’s a circular cloak hanging from the shoulders, elaborately embroidered with a pattern and with orphreys. And you can
argue as much as you like, young Pieface, but you can’t get away from the fact that there are too many orphreys on yours. And what I’m telling you is that you’ve jolly well got to switch off a few of those orphreys or you’ll get it in the neck.”

P. G. Wodehouse, “Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo,” Meet Mr Mulliner

Saint Lawrence, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

Reading the church fathers on numerology is one of those instances at which you find yourself thinking that (historically speaking) “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

When you see the multiple significances that Augustine’s Pentecost Sermo 270 derives from the number 10, Sesame Street’s Count von Count begins to look less obsessive.

This all a round-about way of saying that during tea-break yesterday morning, I got some way towards working out the meaning of something that had been puzzling me while looking at mosaics on a trip to Ravenna last month: what were those letters doing on the sleeves of clerical tunics?

Look at the picture above, and you’ll notice that Saint Lawrence has the letter I on his sleeve-tips. I’ll post some more images later in the week just to show that these marks are actually letters and not stripes of some kind. You’ll also see Z, H and Γ (the last of which makes it clear they’re Greek rather than Latin letters).

What I discovered is that they’re the Greek numbers – γ=3 ζ=7 η=8 ι=10 – and each of the numbers is invested with an ocean of theological meaning.

The technical name for these markers is gammadia (singular gammadion – from gamma).

In the image above (from the 5th century mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna) St. Lawrence is marked with the number 10 (iota) which signifies the ten commandments or the law, and the four gospels (since 1+2+3+4=10). My guess is that this choice of number is connected with the open Gospel carried by the deacon Lawrence on his way to the grill.

There’s a series of papers on each of the gammadia, to which I don’t have access, alas. They’re by A. Quacquarelli and in the Italian journal Vetera Christianorum. Feed “gammadia” into Scholar Google and you’ll turn them up. Alas, no New Zealand library holds the series.

However, you should also find what seems to be a resumé of Quacquarelli’s findings in a downloadable article by Maria Paola Biaggio “Simboli cristologici e iconografia.” I flogged most of the above information from this. She can tell you about the significance of the other gammadia as well.

BTW, I fed “gammadia” and “gammadion” into commercial databases such as ATLA and didn’t turn up much of any use. Full marks, again, to scholar google!

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