A theology of coffee

When you come to think of it, the coffee break in a theological college or seminary is a strange thing. We call a halt to lecturing and training the future leaders of the churches in order for us all to imbibe a drug together, and then resume our activities.

Coffee breaks seem to have begun in the USA early in the 20th century as part of the improvement in working conditions in factories and first had the name “coffee break” attached to them around 1952 when a coffee company used the phrase “give yourself a Coffee Break” in advertising. At some stage, the practice must have transferred across to theological schools, possibly via the universities, so now it is an almost universal practice.

In the minds of the teaching staff, a coffee break generally performs a refreshing function for the students – increased blood sugar levels, caffeine acting as a neuro-transmitter and a short rest for tired brains, all make for more attention in the next few lectures. But the student see the social function of the coffee break as paramount. The formal structure of interaction in the lecture room gives way to the more attractive informal chat and bonding over coffee, which is at least as important to them as academics.

But is there a more intimate connection between beverages and theology? (please take what follows with a small pinch of salt).

In the Reformation era, it was common for theologians to drink wine or beer. Luther was famous for his beer froth on the table at Marburg, Calvin was partly paid by the city of Geneva in wine for his cellar and many of the first batch of English reformers used to meet at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge. They wrote a type of theology which was deeply concerned with the fundamental issues, the big ideas of theology.

In the last few hundred years, the total abstinence movement in North America, UK and a few places on the continent has meant that the usual beverage for theologians, when they are on their own and when they meet in theological seminaries, conferences, etc. is no longer alcohol, but coffee.

Has this affected the nature of the theology done? Does the mind of someone who has drunk an alcoholic drink tend to concentrate on the big ideas and a mind affected by caffeine tends to make fine distinctions – preferring the trees to the wood?

Actually, Christian theologians were comparatively late in discovering the blessings of coffee in their calling. Below is a poem from the Arabic dated around 1511 in Mecca. I found it while browsing a book on the history of coffee houses (The Penny Universities) in the British Library a few years ago. It says all that needs to be said…….

“O coffee, thou dost dispel all cares,
Thou art the object of desire to the scholar.
This is the beverage of the friends of God;
It gives health to those in its service,
Who strive after wisdom.”

Maybe there is a case for coffee times interspersed by lecture breaks.

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5 Comments on “A theology of coffee”

  1. Mark Says:

    Don’t forget, the mighty theologian Bach (no, not Barth) was sufficiently stimulated to produce a whole work of music dedicated to coffee. Which will still be played when theologians have fallen silent (soon, please????)

  2. William Ford Says:

    I’m almost afraid to ask, but what about those of who abstain from the brown bean (and from the grape at least during working hours) and drink water. What sort of theology would we produce?

  3. David P Says:

    Are you familiar with this masterful theological essay on ‘Coffee as a Means of Grace’? Make sure to read the footnotes too for full edification:


  4. Ines Says:

    Great internet site. Nice internet site guide pertaining to A theology of coffee | Teaching Theology.
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