A Church of England Priest, Professor Graham Ward has held positions at Manchester University since 1997. He has recently taken up the post of Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. Oxford Today caught up with him to discuss theology, symbolism — and Batman.
How will your new role in Oxford differ from the work you’ve been doing in Manchester?
It’s going to be quite a different job here, because although I was a Professor of Theology in Manchester, I also held a senior administration role with the associated responsibilities of managing large budgets and looking after around 5,000 students. What interested me in returning to Oxford was that, now I’m in my mid-fifties and I’m an ordained priest, I felt it was time to put together my writing and research interests with a more vocational role.
At Manchester you championed inter-disciplinary study. Are you hoping to cross department borders in Oxford, too?
I am very much an inter-disciplinary thinker, and I started my academic career reading English literature and French. When I moved across to theology I realised I had found my natural home. It incorporates everything I’m interested in, from languages to textual analysis and philosophy. In Manchester, I had a fantastic opportunity to encourage students to cross the boundaries of all the liberal arts disciplines. When I was first working in Oxford in the early 1990s, the literature and theology faculties rarely engaged with each other, so I’m hoping to find new ways to interconnect faculties, particularly because both research councils and many post-graduates are strongly committed to inter-disciplinary work.
The connection between theology and literature is a natural one, but what about religion and science?
I am increasingly interested in the relationship between theology and neuroscience, and I’m on the committee for the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. There’s a unique link between religion, science and experimental psychology in Oxford, it’s a very exciting platform for cross-disciplinary thinking, and we’ll be looking into developing research proposals and grant applications.
There has been a proliferation of religious mythology and symbolism in popular culture in recent years. Will you be engaging with filmmakers too?
Yes, theology is completely relevant for understanding contemporary iconography in popular culture. You only have to look at films such as The Tree of Life or Of Gods and Men, which both won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, to see that you can find religious references everywhere. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is another great example. His whole career has been about exploring the borderlines between what is and isn’t human, asking where we have come from, where we are going, and what is the nature of human life. There’s even religious iconography in the Batman films.
But can this increasing interest in religious myths and symbols translate into getting people back into church?
I’m not really interested in getting people back into church. I’d rather talk about the fact that secularism has not ousted or replaced theological imagery, and our culture is being enriched again by a new landscape of Christian iconography appearing in art, literature and film. Our society has been going through a long period of de-schooling in theology, so for me, it’s not a question of asking if the Church is still relevant, but discovering if this revival of interest could trigger a recovery in our theological literacy. But we also live in a pluralised, syncretistic world so understanding a wide range of different faiths is absolutely necessary.
How has modern theology changed its conception of the God figure?
If we are talking about theology as taught in universities, then there has never been only one view of God. The study of theology has always explored multiple notions of God found within a single religion or across multiple faiths. But in theological discourse there has been a definite shift in thinking from God as a transcendent, imperialist, external ‘other’, towards a more immanent figure, concerned with the material and sacramental, inhabiting the world and our bodies, within Creation and the processes of Creation itself.