I was intrigued to see a letter in The Guardian last week suggesting that scientists should swear an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath. That oath, or a version of it, has traditionally been taken by physicians and medical practitioners in the west ever since the fifth century BC when it was first penned in ancient Greece. Here are three of its central clauses.
I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.
Patrick Butterly the letter-writer argued that it is not just the medical profession that should undertake to "do no harm". Like physicians, the knowledge scientists hold gives them huge power to do good and enhance human life. But they also have the capacity to damage and destroy. So scientific knowledge should be used not out of self-interest, personally or collectively, and especially not for destructive ends, but for the common good and the welfare of humanity. Like medicine, science needs to practise to the highest ethical standards. And a public vow to hold to those standards would be a reminder to everyone of what the purposes of good science ought to be. Here's the letter's suggested text: I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me may be great, I sign this declaration because I recognise that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace.
I thought to myself, why not theologians too? Theology at its best is a life-enhancing science (scientia = knowledge) because its concern is to reflect on our human condition and experience in the light of religious faith. Fides quaerens intellectum said Anselm, "faith seeking understanding". Good theology adds to the spiritual and intellectual capital of the human race. We are the richer for it, and the wiser and the healthier. To borrow a metaphor from John Calvin's Institutes, it's like putting on spectacles so that things are brought into focus and we see clearly. (He used the analogy specifically of reading the scriptures, but it surely applies to every way in which truth-seeking brings clarity to the way we think.)
Theology, the "study of God", is a matter of finding a discourse with which to speak about God and his ways in the world. It's important to qualify this working definition. For one thing, good theology is prayed as well as thought. Worship and spirituality are as much a source for theological understanding as every other aspect of our experience.
For another thing, it is of the essence of being divine that God transcends human knowability and language. We don't expect mere words to penetrate the ineffable, that which is incapable of being expressed in human terms. The best we can do is to be silent before a mystery we cannot fully know or speak of. And then to recognise that when we resort to language, it's as much about saying what we do not mean as well as what we do. The via negativa puts us in our place as theologians, teaches us to be humble about claiming too much for the statements we make. Before God, everything is provisional, a work in progress. And even when theology finds a more confident register, such as in the liturgy and the creeds, so much of its language is analogy, poetry, metaphor, more susceptible to being sung than said. Even the simplest of utterances like "our Father in heaven" or "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again".
Yet words are among the primary tools of theology. That straight away gives them enormous power. And here's where the capacity to do harm comes in. Words create allegiances and inculcate behaviours. We all know this as we listen to politicians' speeches during election campaigns. In particular, familiar words and formulae come to function as badges or codes that articulate our belonging, where and how we place ourselves on the political or theological map. (Compare Mrs May's oft-repeated "strong and stable leadership" and the debate around the Archbishops' election letter in which they commend the virtue of "stability".) Words have the capacity to divide people. The tribes of politics and religion coalesce around the words they agree about, and the words they collectively decide to dissent from.
There is nothing new in any of this. History shows how theological words have become rallying cries that have led to huge destructiveness. The troubles in Northern Ireland are a recent example of how Catholic words and Protestant words divided communities and fostered bloodshed. In the year we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation (or more accurately, of Martin Luther pinning his Ninety Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517), we see how Europe was torn apart by theological slogans bandied about on both sides. Sola fide! ("by faith alone!") cried the Reformed. Semper eadem! ("The Church is ever unchanging!") affirmed the Catholics. Princes took sides. On the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whoever your ruler is, you follow their religion), Europe was partitioned along religious fault-lines. What began as a war of theological words (or a clash of theological civilisations?) began to claim human lives. The Reformation changed Europe for ever.
Religious words and ideas underlie one of the most pressing challenges of our times, the violence that is inspired by radicalised religion. I'm thinking of the kind of theology that characterises Daesh and groups like them. Not all originate in Islam though it's those that come out of fundamentalist corruptions of that great faith that are the most familiar to us in the west. The cry Allahu Akbar, "God is most great" frequently shouted as acts of terror are committed illustrates how even the most noble of theological words can acquire a blasphemous destructive power. Yes, in all these instances, we are probably talking more about the abuse of words than the words themselves. But it's the words themselves that get shouted.
Philosophers talk about "speech acts". J. L. Austin wrote a famous book called How to Do Things with Words. He was exploring how language changes situations, often irrevocably, such as a judge passing sentence on someone who has been found guilty, or a couple saying "I will" to each other on their wedding day. You can effect lasting change just by saying something. This is the whole point of preaching and political speeches. When words evoke strong attachments and feelings, as the words of politics and theology do, they can easily slide into becoming speech acts that change things, often permanently. That can be (to go back to the marriage analogy) for better or for worse.
So wouldn't it be good if theologians and preachers took a kind of Hippocratic oath? We would promise only to use words for good. We would undertake not to speak in ways that destroy and overthrow but only to build up and plant, to borrow a phrase from the Book of Jeremiah. We would vow to practise theology and talk religion ethically for the sake of human flourishing and to serve the common good. We would help our faith communities to speak in ways that promoted what is wholesome and would decry the hijacking of religious language in the cause of conflict and violence. There's a special responsibility for preachers here, the local theologians who do so much to shape how communities of faith not only think but behave.
It is heartening to know that theologians from across the world's faith communities are increasingly meeting together to explore how to speak about God in ways that build understanding, friendship and alliances of hope. The shared study of one another's scriptures is one way; visiting one another's places of worship is another. It all helps to build up "religious literacy", a real need at a time when religion is proving an increasingly divisive force. And if we can do this locally as neighbours and friends who come from different faiths but share a common vision for a more peaceable world, who knows what a difference it may make?
Here is a draft text for theologians and preachers with acknowledgment to Patrick Butterly. If you are a theologian or preacher, try it for size and suggest how it could be improved.
I promise that my study and practice of religion and theology will always seek to be with integrity. Conscious of the power of religious language, I undertake to use it responsibly and ethically for the building up and flourishing of communities and individuals. I will resist all attempts to exploit religion for destructive purposes that cause harm to human beings, society or the environment. I promise to be a reflective practitioner who has regard for the ethical implications of my public words and actions.