One man’s journey to Cambridge

Erasmus’ successor

Are reason and religion incompatible? Not at all, says theologian Geurt Henk van Kooten. Starting in October, he will argue his case in Cambridge, where he’s been awarded the Real Madrid of special chairs. ‘It’s too good to be true.’
By Thereza Langeler / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Most people associate Jesus with Christmas and cathedrals. They imagine a friendly bearded guy, a hippy in a white robe. Maybe they also think of gospel choirs on TV, or well-meaning evangelists at their doors.

But they probably don’t immediately think of Socrates.

‘Socrates and Jesus are more alike than you might think’, argues theologian Geurt Henk van Kooten. ‘They both went out to engage people in discussions; they both spoke in parables; they both argued for the separation of church and state; and they both let the government condemn them to death.’

So what about their differences? Doesn’t the one symbolise religion and irrational faith, while the other represents philosophy and reason? No, says Van Kooten. Reason and religion aren’t incompatible; they go together. Starting in October, Van Kooten will research the relationship between faith and reason at the University of Cambridge, where he will be the new Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity.

This appointment is just too good to be true

It’s more than just a new job. If theology is football, and special chairs are football clubs, then the Lady Margaret’s Chair is Real Madrid. The chair is one of the oldest in the world, created in 1502 by Margaret Tudor, grandmother of King Henry VIII. The last Dutch person to hold the chair before Van Kooten was Desiderius Erasmus.

Hopelessly irrelevant

‘This appointment is just too good to be true’, says Van Kooten, smiling. In English-speaking countries, he has people call him George. It’s easier to pronounce than Geurt Henk.

So how does one end up in the Real Madrid of special chairs? ‘By applying. In January I was invited to give a lecture at the faculty about the role of the chair in the 21st century.’ Van Kooten chuckles: ‘They wanted to know how I would respond to someone who said my field was hopelessly irrelevant and self-referential.’

Van Kooten studies the New Testament, the second part of the Bible that tells the story of Jesus and describes how the Christian doctrine spread though Europa and western Asia. It’s a collection of writings that is approximately two thousand years old – an ancient religious text in an increasingly secular world. From that perspective, it’s not suprising that some people might think theology is an irrelevant, self-referential field of science.

But Geurt Henk van Kooten loves a good discussion.

Ever since the Enlightenment, we tend to see religion and philosophy as opposites

‘The Bible has a reputation for being somehow separated from the rest of our culture. But that’s wrong: the entire New Testament was written in Greek.’ That is, a language that everyone – from Jerusalem to Rome and from Corinth to Istanbul – would understand. Apparently, the writers wanted the scriptures to be read throughout the world. And apparently, the same people who learned from Socrates were also interested in Jesus.

Capricious creatures

‘Ever since the Enlightenment, we tend to see religion and philosophy as opposites, but they didn’t feel this way during ancient times’, Van Kooten explained. ‘Almost all philosophers were interested in the divine one way or another. Besides: for that time, Christianity was extremely rational.’ People were used to gods being capricious creatures that had to be appeased through sacrifice. But the god that the apostle Paul spoke of required nothing of the sort.

‘During the first three centuries AD, Christianity wasn’t even an officially sanctioned religion. And yet, people were converting all over the Roman Empire. So what does that mean for the relationship between the New Testament and ancient culture? Why would the Greeks or Romans be attracted to what it says?’

Van Kooten is convinced there is more to learn from the most purchased book in the world. But in order to do so, he says, we shouldn’t study the New Testament in relation to the Old Testament (‘the intrabiblical approach, so to speak’); instead, we should consider it in relation to the intellectual milieu at the time it was written.


His talk in January certainly convinced the staff of Cambridge, and they awarded Van Kooten his special chair. He will be teaching on a permanent basis as Cambridge’s Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity and will study the relationship between philosophy and religion in ancient times.

He is already preparing his lectures. In six months he’ll leave Groningen for England. ‘I’ll be sad to go. But this chance is just too good to pass up. Cambridge is an amazing place to do research in my field; there’s a great Biblical studies department, and their classics department is amazing as well.’

In Groningen his faculty (the department of Theology and Religious Sciences) is the smallest one there is. And within the arts faculty, Greek and Latin is the smallest programme. But in Cambridge it’s a different story for his field. ‘They just have a completely different attitude towards the programme.’

In the Netherlands, theology is like medicine: it’s a clear study programme that leads to a specific profession: minister. But in England, you can study theology and go on to do anything – even acting.

Paddington films

‘What’s that guy’s name again?’, Van Kooten mumbles, as he searches Wikipedia on his phone. ‘He’s in the Paddington films, and Downtown Abbey… Hugh Bonneville!’ He points to his phone. The actor’s biography says he read theology at Cambridge.

Van Kooten names a few more: ‘James Norton, another actor – read theology at Cambridge. Boris Johnson, Foreign Affairs minister – classical languages at Oxford. They consider your time at university as more of a way to shape the rest of your life. The profession you choose isn’t as important.’

Van Kooten seems to inhabit this philosophy himself. He started studying theology because he was interested in it, not because he wanted to be a preacher. And for a long time, he didn’t become one – he first did a PhD, became assistant professor, and then a professor. Only in 2007 was he confirmed as a pastor.

Church is one of the few places where you can find everyone, so to speak

‘And the Board of Directors completely supported me in that’, Van Kooten remembers. ‘I really appreciate that the RUG considers religion part of the public domain. You can obviously study religion if you’re religious yourself. Professors are allowed to judge cases, aren’t they? When I studied at the University of Leiden there were professors of political science who played active roles in the Labour Party.’

An extra step

Now, he sometimes performs a service at the Martini church – for free. ‘It adds an extra dimension to my work. People often assume that in order to hold a sermon I have to take a step back, to simplify things. When in reality I have to take an extra step. I try to make sure my message is relevant to everyone. I don’t want to tell people how things work; I want to facilitate them, give them something to think about.’

The classroom and the pulpit are similar, he says. From both, you’re faced with young, highly educated people. But churchgoers do vary: they can be students, young professionals, or retirees. There are managers, mothers, politicians, shop workers, artists, the unemployed, general practitioners, babies, the elderly, and everything in between.

Van Kooten loves it. ‘Church is one of the few places where you can find everyone, so to speak. Literally anyone can walk in. A church service is open to everyone, a gathering full of music and art and poetry. I think I’d attend even if I weren’t religious.’


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