The Role of the Christian Librarian in a Theologically Turbulent Age


Annual Public Lecture 2015 of Christians in Library and Information Services.

Lecture given by Kevin Carey, Chair RNIB, on Saturday 17th October 2015 at Salisbury Library, Salisbury, UK


"Never", to parody Winston Churchill on the Battle of Britain 70 years ago, "have there been so many theologians writing so much for so few" as there were in the 20th Century which was the most theologically productive century since the 16th Century Reformation.

Without giving comprehensive lists, but just a flavour from my particular theological interests, if the Roman Catholic Church had only produced any two of Maritain[i], de Lubac[ii], Rahner[iii], von Balthasar[iv], Kung[v], de Chardin[vi] and Lonergan[vii] during the 20th Century it should have thought itself lucky except, of course, that the Papacy had chronic problems with any theologian who was not at least a neo-Thomist. The Protestant and reformed sphere is dominated for entirely different reasons by the monumental Barthes[viii] and the martyr Bonheoffer[ix] but then we also have Tillich[x], Niebuhr[xi] and Gunton[xii]. There are, in addition, feminist theologians such as Tanner[xiii], Soskice[xiv] and Soelle[xv] and liberation theologians such as Boff[xvi]. Then, of course, we have a whole class of theologians who span the spectrum from the esoteric to the populist such as N.T. (Tom) Wright[xvii], Nicholas Lash[xviii], Stanley Hauerwas[xix], Richard Burridge[xx], Paula Gooder[xxi], Gerard O'Collins[xxii], not to mention a succession of Archbishops of Canterbury, culminating with Rowan Williams[xxiii], one of the most productive and searching theologians of any age. The matter of numbers, of the "few" is only tangential to my topic as I don't measure the health of the Christian enterprise in terms of numbers, largely because I have a deep suspicion that the Holy Spirit doesn't. Indeed, if we believe that we are physical agents of Christ motivated by the Holy Spirit, it's an insult to the deity to talk in terms of decline, or growth, for that matter, as we are simply God's broken creatures, deliberately made so.

Outside our supposed decline, much of which is an expression of lazy, materialist wishful thinking, the only thing we are really known for is our obsession with sexual conduct or, to put it more forensically, genital conduct. We are, of course, partly to blame for this because ever since the arrival in Europe in the early 16th Century of sexually transmitted disease, which coincided with the Reformation and Counter Reformation, we have, for a variety of reasons, concentrated on private moral behaviour in general and genital behaviour in particular while largely ignoring public behaviour in general and economic behaviour in particular. We have concentrated too much on Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae[xxiv] and not enough on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century[xxv].  Even now, the Archbishop of Canterbury is planning a meeting of the Primates of the collapsing Anglican Communion this January[xxvi] which will focus on human sexuality (primarily homosexuality) with additional items on religiously motivated  violence, the protection of children and vulnerable adults (another issue raised by Western misbehaviour_ and the environment; nothing on the ownership of wealth and the distribution of income or the broader framework of social justice which might inform the debate on the refugee crisis which, incidentally, is their crisis, not ours. Meanwhile, although the Papacy has the corpus of Catholic Social Teaching to support its stance on justice, highlighted most sharply by Pope Francis[xxvii], it is still mired in the sterile - no pun intended - debates about the gender of clergy and whether they may marry. The Christian churches would be better off opting out of pronouncements on sexual/genital issues altogether as it largely did, in spite of Saint Augustine[xxviii], up until the Reformation. The use of private confession and the clerical supervision of private morality was a strange bi-product, according to Garry Wills[xxix], of the power conferred on priests by their power of transubstantiation. But as there is no chance that the men will give up the power, we will have to wait for women to take over Western Christianity, as they surely will, recognising that all the ills of the Christian churches can be traced back, in one form or another, to the exercise of inordinate power.

So we, as Christian librarians (incidentally, I am a theologian who runs a church library, so presume to speak for both professions) will have to explain how things are because one of our jobs is to explain or at least find explanations we can recommend; but I think that the reason why Christianity is in numerical and influencing decline arises from three inter-related factors which I want to discuss in this lecture:

1. The misuse of metaphor

2. The decline of conversation

3. The flight from the collective

I then want to go on to consider how these three factors play into the concept of

4. God's purpose in creation

And the way these factors have come together in Christianity's catastrophic failure to understand:

5. Theodicy

I will then conclude, you will be relieved to hear, by making some positive suggestions about:

6. The use of language

7. The transition from stories to theology


Please select a section:

  1. The Misuse of Metaphor
  2. The Decline of Conversation
  3. The Flight from The Collective
  4. God's Purpose in Creation
  5. Theodicy
  6. The Use of Language
  7. From Stories to Theology