Today, we welcome a simply brilliant interview with Simon Hall, the founder of Cafe Theologique. It’s about something beautiful which is at the heart of Revive as a church in Leeds. If you are wondering what we get up to outside of our Sunday meetings, then this would be a good example. We love how Cafe Theologique has evolved and how it integrates ideas with leading, interesting thinkers of our generation.
If you want to know more about the events Simon helps to put on, visit the Facebook page – Cafe Theologique.
For those that don’t know, how would you describe Cafe Theologique?
Cafe Theologique is based on the cafe model of conversation that is very popular in Leeds. In most settings, it’s an opportunity for an academic to share their insights with a wider audience. CT has the additional aim of addressing issues that are often a hurdle to Christian faith, but the format is basically the same: a short talk, conversation around tables, finally a plenary conversation with the speaker.
It happens in a cafe and coffee and cake are a central part of things. I would say that most people that come are Christians who are trying to make sense of their faith, although there are always folk there who don’t have any particular religious commitment.
Can you give some examples of the subjects which have come up in the past?
The topics that come up are a mixture of things that I think are engaging and speakers that I think are excellent, preferably world-leading. It’s only when we have a great subject and a great speaker that I put an event on.
We’ve looked at the role of religion in oppressing women, whether God answers prayer, whether Christians and Muslims worship the same god, what happened on the cross… stuff that people struggle with when it comes to believing in Christianity (which I would say is more complicated than believing in Jesus).
What’s the history of Cafe Theologique?
CT started about 7 years ago. At that time revive had a theology reading group. We were basically a bunch of theology nerds reading Bible commentaries together, and I asked the group (and myself): what would a theology nerd group for spiritual seekers look like? It’s all very simple: I find a speaker, book a venue and put an event on the Facebook page. Now that events mainly sell out we have tickets. It’s not hard to organise.
Have there been any surprises?
I think it is always exciting when someone is welcomed, when their question is validated, when their perspective is celebrated. Just this week we had an attendee who had concocted a version of faith that was – to her – highly heretical and placed her outside Christian orthodoxy.
To be fair, her perspective may be pretty weird to most Christians, but Charlotte our speaker was really affirming to her and included her in a really beautiful way.
Do you find it easy to come up with subjects and / or speakers?
I am a very thinky person, and my belief system needs constant maintenance – even after that there is a lot of faith on top. So if I were to go through just my own struggles with the religion called Christianity that would last a lifetime! It’s harder to find speakers who I feel confident in releasing on our audience: I want them to be genuine experts in their fields, but not come across as belittling people’s questions.
There is a tradition of what’s called apologetics (explaining Christianity) which I find a bit distasteful at times: it can come across as a bit too clever-clever and implies that the listener would believe if only they were clever enough. CT treats everyone as clever, and instead says that in reality the church permits multiple answers to most questions.
Is this the sort of place where you can come with your awkward or controversial questions?
I hope so! Although each time we meet there is one main question, so it’s not a free-for-all. I’ve never seen a full-on fight, everyone is very polite. We have a few simple ground rules that prevent the conversation ending up in the usual dead ends.
Do you need to be an intellectual or “highly-educated” to come along? Is this for nerds or those with theological training?
I tell speakers to aim at a general non-specialised audience at undergraduate level. As I mentioned, the vision of the original cafe meetings is to make academic learning accessible, and we have to be realistic about how that can be done.
Not every brilliant idea can be explained to a child, although maybe we should keep trying!
Do you ever find speakers come along who have a different theology or world view to that of yourself? If you feel a speaker is saying something which is fundamentally wrong, do you call them out?
Simon Hall: I have occasionally asked people to speak and I genuinely don’t know what they’re going to say, I just trust their wisdom, experience and character. I have also invited a speaker that I disagreed with. Part of CT is opening up space to say that it’s OK to not know what we think about certain things, or even to disagree. The Bible is not completely clear on everything.
Lastly, who’ve you got lined up for 2020?
We have two people coming so far this year. Stephen Williams is an expert in bioethics who will be speaking on what AI can teach us about the soul. And Noel Moules will be coming to say whether or not Christianity has something to say about the climate crisis.