The spate of killings, from Nice to Munich to Rouen, has been interpreted differently by commentators representing their own take on culture, society, pluralism, and what western civilization is all about.

I was reminded of a remark in last term’s student press that ‘theology is not a proper subject’, given that religions and their theologies are crucial to the febrile nihilistic brutality given out to ordinary civilians in these events.

The brash student comment may be product a wholly secularist education and so forgiveable, but the ignorance of the intellectual and cultural history of the West betrayed by the cheap put down is amazing.

Even if we restrict our view to the past two centuries, figures such as Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Coleridge, Schweitzer and Weiss, Strauss and Gunkel, the whole project of biblical critical analysis, we have a brilliant and courageous body of scholarship crucial to cultural development.

Twentieth century theologians include giants of the stature of Karl Barth whose legacy is marked by his deeply Christology opposition to the Kaiser’s War Manifesto of 1914 and his ringing denunciation of Nazism as early as 1934 as ‘the antichrist’.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands out as another great theologian engaging profoundly with the evil of Nazism and the puzzle of the secularist mindset.

Forgive me if I fail to find such figures insignificant and unworthy of study.

And today a basic knowledge of the work of the nineteenth century biblical criticism movement would be extremely helpful in engaging with religious texts of other faiths. The Protestant theologians who insisted on freedom to ask scholarly questions about the formation of the biblical texts ultimately freed western Christianity from paralysing fundamentalism, and this painful process is arguably precisely what is needed for texts such as the Koran so as to encourage theological development and accommodation to western values and life.

Theology, and a knowledge of theological achievements, could be the key area of study to bring to the present tragic perplexity and mutual fear.

The Oxford University Faculty of Theology has recently been re-named by adding Religion to its title, indicating a movement away from a purely Christian theological syllabus and taking on board religion as a general phenomenon and also specific religions. It is vital that in dealing with all religions in a western university context no questions can be off limits for fear of giving offence to religious leaders and adherents.

The achievement of the biblical scholars in discovering the origins of biblical texts has not damaged the depth of meaning of these texts in all their variety. Does Shakespeare’s Macbeth lose any of its power and probing of the nature of evil by using historical sources available to him?

Tom Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword suggested that Islam arose after the Arab conquests of the Middle East as a way of validating and cementing their rule, as the Emperor Constantine had done using Christianity as a cultural glue for his empire.

This kind of thesis must be given full freedom in the study of religions without fear or favour: the Enlightenment would never have happened in Europe if ‘giving offence’ had been allowed to ban freedom of critical thought, likewise for the advances of science.

Another way of putting this absolutely crucial principle is that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, that threats and violence against ideas we disagree with and find offensive have no place in our society and especially our universities.

Tom Holland made a TV programme about his thesis for Channel 4, entitled Islam: The Untold Story, subtitled ‘Tom Holland examines whether the religion of Islam was born fully formed, or if it evolved’. It was pulled after he received death threats.

The sword was mightier than the pen, a complete inversion of normal western research and scholarship.

Western universities must maintain this key academic principle of free critical inquiry.

And other faiths will need to develop the confidence to embrace this freedom for getting at the truth, and escaping the paralysis of fundamentalism.