Friday, September 6, 2013

"Why do I Have to Study Theology?": An Explanation for Undergraduates (Part I)

Almost three weeks ago, I started a series of blog posts that would address three of the most common questions my undergraduates ask regarding their liberal arts education:
  1. Why do I have to study anything outside of my major?
  2. Why in particular do I have to study theology, especially since I'm not religiously affiliated?
  3. Why do you make us work so hard for your class when it isn't my major?
I addressed the first question here.  In this blog post, I want to write briefly about why I think it is important that a liberal arts education include the study of theology.  The reality is that I have a pretty big dog in this fight, and I should acknowledge that at the outset of this post.  I am a theology professor, and my entire livelihood depends on my discipline continuing to play a central role in a liberal arts education.  That said, economic and career considerations aside, I am convinced that theology - along with a multitude of other disciplines - is absolutely central to a liberal arts education.

There are two arguments that I'd like to make in favour of theology as an academic discipline of study.  The first argument is more general and has to do with the discipline of theology and the nature of university education  The second argument has to do with what students actually gain from studying theology, even students who are not, and do not want to be, associated with any religious tradition.  I'll tackle the first argument briefly in this post, and I'll argue the second point in a post next week.

I would argue generally that theology needs to be part of a liberal arts education simply because, as Bl. John Henry Newman writes in The Idea of A University, "the very name of University is inconsistent with restrictions of any kind" (15).  (A brief excursus is in order here. Please don't confuse Bl. John Henry Newman, the profound 19th century theologian, with the Cardinal Newman Society, the American organization that is the self-proclaimed watchdog of Catholic orthodoxy at Roman Catholic schools of higher education. The latter's understanding of education, and of theology in particular, lacks the nuance and profundity found in Newman's actual writings on university education).  A university is, by nature, a place of universal learning, and to exclude any discipline, let alone a discipline like theology with an academic lineage that traces back to the very origin of universities, is nonsensical.

The importance of studying theology is even more pronounced at a university with a religious affiliation, such as my own, for, with reference to Christianity, most Christian traditions understand theology to tell us something absolutely central regarding the very purpose of human existence.  To quote Newman again with reference specifically to Roman Catholic university education, "Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of University Teaching" (52-53).

As someone who devotes my life to the study of theology, I obviously find the above argument persuasive.  But I have to admit that the argument begs some key questions, particularly for those of my students who are not affiliated with a religious tradition and who may, in fact, question the validity of theology to tell them anything important or true about humanity or the cosmos.  The questioning of religious truth is not new, nor is it invalid.  Such questioning is vital and is, indeed, central to the discipline of theology.  But militant strands of atheism are becoming more prevalent, and to an increasing number of my students, it is simply not a given that the discipline of theology is actually a valid academic discipline at all; the quotation in the picture above exemplifies such a skepticism clearly.  In my next post, I'll address this strand of thought, and argue for theology as an academic discipline worthy of study for all, even for those philosophically opposed to belief in the divine.

Image from


  1. Does theology which is the never-ending study of the letter have anything to do with the Living Truth or Spirit, or does it, as Paul said, shut down the Living Truth or Spirit?

    The theological "God" is always an object in a universe language. To pursue religious truth by the effort to create a whole theology is really to pursue or construct a circle of immunities around oneself. In reality the separate ego-"I" is the "God" of language.
    I create the universe of thought, and thus "God" is never more than one of many things or objects within it - the ultimate object.

    God as Reality is the integrity of all things, even of myself. And so language or any objectifying mode is no way to the Living Truth. Only conscious surrender is the way to Truth.

    The mind is narcissus. Beyond narcissus there is Infinite Life.

    The problem of True Knowledge and Spiritual Truth is not theological or intellectual, linguistic or cultural. It is the problem of the Spirit or the Heart, the feeling psychic core of the being. It is the problem of the absence of Realization.
    There is nothing to be believed and no thus dogma to be attained or asserted. Truth is revealed in every moment in which one surrenders the hedge of immunities constructed by the mind in its fear.

    The pursuit of the literate or theological answer, the mental solutions of our philosophy and theology, is uniquely responsible for the confusion and smallness, the self-involved and anxious energy of Western life and its religious and spiritual teaching.

    The real task before us is not the purification or ever more perfect rendering of the ancient texts and matters of presumed "report". This is a temptation based on the need for the illusion of certanity in the midst of or mortal fear.

    We must become open to what is always instantaneously available at the centre of life and consciousness. We must be liberated from our bondage to externals, all the idols created by the mind in its mortal fear, of which the past is one form

  2. The author of that caption doesn't seem to know that people at the Church also trust in what the guys in labcoats say. He also seems to be awfully conformist and lazy, as rather than trying to improve himself, he appears to try to live life a carefree as possible, as long as it doesn't harm anybody of course. This is not good because this guy probably thinks that he shouldn't do anything for the community at large and that all he has to do is hold the correct opinions such as being tolerant. Going to Church may be boring, but it is part of improving yourself and becoming a better and more fulfilled person.