Thursday, September 19, 2013

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

If you're coming to my blog for the first time, I should explain that I've been attempting over the last few weeks to address three important questions my undergraduates frequently raise regarding a liberal arts education, and specifically, about studying theology:
  1. Why do I have to study anything outside of my major? (I address this question here)
  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 provided the first part of an answer to the second question here, in which I argued that the very nature of university education - i.e., the study of universal truth - doesn't allow for restrictions of any kind, and therefore that the elimination of theology from a place of universal learning was problematic.

At the end of the post, however, I acknowledged that this argument perhaps doesn't hold water for those who believe that theology has nothing worthwhile or true to say.  There is great diversity of thought among students who sit in my classroom.  There are adherents of various faiths; those who grew up within a faith but have left it for various (often legitimate) reasons; those who are opposed to defining the divine in any way and who therefore see religion as detrimentally limiting; as well as those who are atheists who find little reason to give theological ideas any credence, let alone in an academic atmosphere.

It is the last two groups of students who are frequently the most perplexed, and sometimes agitated, by the requirement to study theology as part of their liberal arts education.

I could argue here that theology deserves a place at the academic table simply because it has an exceptionally long history of academic rigor and profundity of thought, and that one should not confuse overmuch catechesis with the discipline of theology, even if the two do sometimes overlap.  But I doubt that such an argument would be overly persuasive for those who feel that theology has nothing worthwhile to say to them personally.

I'm going instead to suggest that theological study is worthwhile and even necessary for a liberal arts education because theology is, at heart, beautiful and therefore transformational.  Obviously there are different ways of doing theology, and not all theologians present a theology that is compellingly beautiful.  But theology, done and taught well, has the capacity to present a vision of ultimate reality that transforms simply through contact with, and experience of, Beauty.

For those who have been exposed only to a theological vision that is distorted, incomplete, or even perverted - and the reality is that many Christian traditions, and the Roman Catholic church in particular, do a very poor job of articulating even the basics of the faith - it is eye-opening to comprehend the profundity of what we mean when we say that 'God is love.'  An in depth examination of 'God is love' and its implications for understanding God's identity as Trinity, the purpose of the created order, the Incarnation, sacramental theology, ecclesiology, and social justice can lead those who claim the Christian faith as their own to a greater comprehension of both the beauty of their faith but also of the demands to which their faith calls them.

And for those without a religious affiliation, or with a religious affiliation other than Christianity, the vision can and should be transformative too.  Apart from dismantling the prevailing caricatures of Christianity these students may have - caricatures, I might add, that are frequently drawn by churches themselves - I'm convinced that an exposure to Beauty cannot but transform.  I do not mean that theological study should/will compel them into the faith; the goal of theology in the classroom is not, in my opinion, to evangelize.  But in a similar way that nature or a profoundly beautiful work of art - literature, visual art, drama, music, etc. - can elicit an experience of transcendence that transforms one's perspective so the study of theology - study that puts forward a profoundly beautiful vision that encompasses the whole of reality - can bring about an experience of beauty that transfixes and leads one's understanding of life and of the 'other' to shift, even minutely.

In short, an all-encompassing vision of Love can beget love, no matter one's religious viewpoints.

Image of books taken by myself at Newman's library in Birmingham, UK
Chagall's White Crucifixion from the Art Institute of Chicago's website. 


  1. To give my two cents: I think that theology should expand beyond Christian theology to include other theological points of view. Theology should expand do include not just Christian theology but also pagan theology, Hindu theology, Taoist theology, Buddhist theology, even atheism. This way it gives a fuller picture.

    1. I agree, to a certain extent. But it seems to me that students should get a handle on their own tradition before doing serious interreligious study.

  2. I find this interesting: If you believe the Church does a bad job trasmitting her teachings, then why did you convert to Catholicism?

    1. Alejandro: Sorry for the delay in responding. Great question. I, thankfully, had the opportunity to devote much time to studying theology, specifically early Christian theology but also 19-20th century Catholic theology, while in grad school. So I was able to see the beauty of what Catholic theology is ideally, even if the church falls short of living out this theology in her life.