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.


Anonymous said...

Asking questions and getting answers. It's what we do in REL 257!

Bob said...

I've taught before. The part for me that is the most challenging is to take an idea that can only be felt by the spirit, translating it into words that can be understood by the mind, and then trusting that God will take those words from the mind to the hearts of the listeners.

It's far too often that I sit with a concept of Scripture and am moved to tears. Then I try to articulate it (which is where reading attempts by others is very helpful). But it loses a little. Then it is presented in an organized fashion to a class and loses a little more. Distractions, differing backgrounds, differing personalities of students strip the message a little more.

In the end, the huge thought that moved me to tears has been reduced to the size of a mustard seed in the minds of the students.

But that is enough.

Kyle said...

Bob, I appreciate your thoughtful words as I reflect upon my own work. It helps me to focus on getting one... small... point... across, in the hopes that I provide them enough context to know why it's worth thinking about, and some way to move forward with God. We'll see if it happens!

Bob said...

I think that is the key--getting students to understand why something is worth thinking about. Too often, teachers are concerned with answering questions. Instead we should be concerned with pursuing the right questions *and*, in the case of theology, trusting God to do the answering.

Emma said...

This is easily said, but I wonder if part of it is communicating an infectious passion for theology that helps to lift it beyond academia. So often we can sign up to study a subject that we're passionate about, only to have that curiosity smothered or stifled by the reality of papers and exams.
I agree too that good teachers don't necessarily have the 'right' answers, but instead encourage students to think for themselves, equipping them with skills they can apply beyond the classroom. And the way in which teachers relate to their students and encourage and facilitate debate between them is also important.