Monday, March 28, 2011

Teaching Undergraduate Theology

“Which theology are you going to teach them?”
“The right one, obviously.”
It’s not obvious to everyone just what “Christian theology” means as an academic discipline. Is it the perspective of a particular church or denomination? Would it be a set of lectures on my own religious idiosyncrasies? Are we going to learn how to re-arrange the Bible into something more thematic and user-friendly?

There are two basic definitions that I share with my students. “Theology” is simply words about God. When we speak of God, we are “doing theology.” When we even talk about how we ought to live, and assume that God exists, we are in some sense speaking theologically. For a Christian, of course, a theologian is “one who prays,” and conversely, one who prays is a theologian (I did not make this up, just to be clear). When we learn Christian theology, then, we study the Christian revelation and draw out connections between different ideas. We consider the set of stories that the Christian revelation tells about God and the world.

The college catalog mandates that the course offer a thematic examination of all the major subtopics in theology. I consider it my job to offer a responsible introduction to the conversations Christians have had about these subtopics over the last 2,000 years. I don’t care what they think about the Bible, for example, but I want them to know what the Catholic Church teaches about the Bible, what some evangelical Protestants understand the doctrine of “Biblical Inerrancy” to mean, and how some different Christian churches articulate their understanding of “Tradition.” The students have a responsibility to make (or even unmake!) faith commitments in the context of their own lives and churches, and it’s my responsibility to help them accept or reject “the real thing,” not popular caricatures of various doctrines. Do Catholics “pray to Mary?” Is the doctrine of substitutionary atonement a kind of “divine child abuse?” Is “ritual” another way of saying “dead formulae”? Do biblical inerrantists worship the Bible? Students are welcome to make any of these judgments for themselves, but I’ll be working to make sure we have a well-rounded conversation, and move past stereotypes.

I am less concerned that my students will know the characters (i.e. theologians) involved in the historical conversations, but that they will grasp the fundamental issues, and have the kind of entry points that liberally educated people should have.

Have you taken a formal theology course? What do you consider to be the biggest “burning issue” that you would like to learn about in a class?

Have you taught anything like this before at a church or a school? What topics proved the most challenging to discuss?

We worked very hard on the syllabus.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


... to those of you who are visiting from the Mike Allen show. Thanks for listening. I welcome your comments and questions, and I'll spend some time over the next few days writing on some of the things we discussed on the air. I'll also post the link for the download of today's show when it becomes available.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

What is Ash Wednesday?

Here's a quick intro I wrote for the students in my ministry.

Disciples of Jesus observe the Christian calendar as a way of ordering time according to the life and work of Christ. The 40 day period is intentionally evocative of Israel’s 40 years of wandering through the desert wilderness, Moses’ 40 days on Mount Sinai with God, and Jesus’ 40 day fast that marked the beginning of his public ministry. Accordingly, this is a time of greater intentionality in the spiritual life, situated in preparation for Jesus’ execution in the holy city, and his resurrection on the third day. We prepare for Easter’s joy by remembering our own fragile mortality, and engaging practices of repentance and self-denial.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy brings the stark reminder (from the book of Job), “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” We are all made of mud, but we also bear the image and likeness of God. We are also a people who suffer the effects of the Fall: the separation from God and his life that brings death into the world, and inhabits our own hearts.

Our right response to this remembrance is to open ourselves to receive God’s gift of repentance. I commend to you today’s Scripture readings, Joel 2 and Matthew 6, which offer guidance on works of repentance both public and private. We seek to return to God by agreeing with him about the sin in our lives - those attitudes and practices that destroy his life in us, and mire us in bitterness and unforgiveness against others. This is an urgent call for all of us, whether we consider ourselves highly religious, or if we have drifted from the Faith. The good news of God’s forgiveness and healing in and through Jesus Christ is offered to all of us. If you stand in the Faith, let this be a time of spiritual reading and examination of conscience. If you have drifted from the Faith, or fallen into some habitual sin, come back. It’s difficult, but it’s at least simple. Come back. People fall into sin. We say yes to evil in small ways, and these small choices turn into big and habitual choices. There’s freedom in admitting that we’re walking down the wrong road, and then turning around.

Finally, this is a time of self-denial and deliberate conformity to the cross of Jesus Christ. God himself suffered and died for our salvation. We remind ourselves of this daily, and think on it intently. We pray in that place. We offer gratitude to the Crucified. As a way of remembering and walking along side him, we fast, and practice abstinence in various ways. We fast from something good in order to gain control over our actions, or simply to deny ourselves in some way, because in the Christian faith we understand that it’s actually good and needful to deny ourselves. (I would caution you, in conformity with the command of our Lord, not to share details of your fasting with anyone but your pastor or spiritual director, and the people you live with only in so far as can and will join you in the fast.) Follow in the way of Jesus over Lent by showing love to people close by that you find it really hard to live with.

If I can offer a listening ear, reading suggestions, or advice as you take your Lenten journey with Jesus, please let me know.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Pray for me, a sinner.