Faith Seeking Relevance: The State of Theology Today

In the spirit of Daily Theology‘s “Theological Shark Week” posts and in light of an outstanding article in the current issue of America by T. Howland Sanks (about which I will comment in a future post here), I thought I’d share this little piece I put together a few months ago and hasn’t really found a home — maybe you’ll appreciate it.  

When St. Anselm of Canterbury proposed the now-classic definition for theology, fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”), he could not have imagined me standing in front of a classroom of college students in Upstate New York nearly a millennium later.

In an age when economic and social pressures have forced educational institutions at all levels to reconsider how their financial resources should be allocated, schools have put whole programs on the budgetary chopping block.  Departments that are not as revenue-generating or as immediately appealing to students-turned-consumers as other academic areas are scrutinized and evaluated for their relevance: to mission, to financial sustainability, to student interest.

One timely example of this trend occurred last fall at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany campus.  On October 1, 2010, George M. Philip, the President of SUNY at Albany, announced the cutting of its French, Italian, classics, Russian and theatre programs.  A veritable blow to the humanities in higher education, this announcement did not signal something entirely new, but illustrated what was possible even at a large state institution of higher education.

College students are increasingly more aware of the need for decent-paying jobs after graduation, in no small part due to the rising costs of tuition.  This is an understandable reaction to what has become an increasing burden for young adults with high educational debt and few career prospects that adequately afford the student loans already incurred.

It is no wonder then that my greatest challenge, standing in front of my class at a Catholic Franciscan college across town in Albany, NY, was not simply encouraging my students to seek understanding of Christian faith in an academically rigorous manner, but my need to demonstrate the relevance of theology as worthy of their time, their energy and, because it has come to this, their money.

I am not suggesting that theology or religious studies are fields immediately in jeopardy at Catholic or other religiously affiliated institutions of higher education, but I do believe that the lesson of SUNY at Albany for all colleges and universities is that we have entered a new age of prioritization in education and the ‘sacred sciences’ are no exception.

The state of Christian theology today is a challenging one if only because its material benefits are few and its quantifiable features are limited.  So then, why should somebody study theology?  If classics, theatre and foreign languages are up for grabs at big research universities, why should small and large schools alike preserve programs in theology?

I believe that there are several reasons that theology remains relevant today.  At the risk of subjecting theology to a cost-benefit analysis, I want to share just a few of these reasons with you here.

The Need to Improve Religious Literacy

Among the many reasons theology remains relevant today is the demonstrable need to improve religious literacy in our society.  The results of a poll published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in September 2010 reveal that most Christians in the United States know little about their own religious tradition, not to mention how little they know about other religious traditions.  Of those surveyed, professed agnostics, atheists, Mormons and Jews scored the highest in the “U.S. Knowledge Survey,” while Protestants and Catholics scored noticeably lower across all age and educational levels.

This poll captured the attention of many news organizations at the time because the United States frequently shows up in studies that rank the affective religiosity of various countries.  An earlier poll by the Pew Forum showed that “nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say that religion is ‘very important’ in their lives, and roughly four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week.”

While much of the U.S. population confesses religion’s importance and nearly forty percent of those surveyed attend worship services weekly, few have a clear understanding of the basic tenets, practices, histories and major figures of their own religious tradition.

If a similar survey revealed that adults over the age of 18 could not read or write, certainly a movement would be afoot to improve the educational system in areas related to literacy.  Likewise, maintaining programs of academic study of theology is needed to improve the religious literacy rates of the population.  Although women and men are showing up to church, it is unclear that they leave their places of worship better informed about what it is their Christian communities actually believe.  A renewed effort is needed to educate adults in sound theology, not just in academia, but also in more general and popular ways.

Reshaping Everyday Discourse

Although we all know that “religion and politics” are two things one does not discuss in polite company, in reality they are likely two of the most common themes of popular conversation.  Furthermore, it is not unusual to have these two themes merge together in any given discussion.  One has only to think of an election year to recognize how faint the line is that separates the two subjects.  While such topics often elicit heated debate, few people are theologically competent enough to engage the subjects in a way that yields fruitful and constructive conversation.  Instead, one is more likely to encounter repetitious sound bites, hearsay and stereotypes rather than substantial discussion of religion, faith and doctrine.

In a way, the poor shape of everyday theological discourse finds its origin in the religious illiteracy of the population.  If one does not understand his or her own faith, how can that person reasonably engage another in such topics?  Yet there is also the matter of being able to be a sound consumer of information.  Theological education, even the most rudimentary, can provide some of the tools necessary to discern, understand and analyze information presented in the media and from the pulpit.  From there, everyday conversation that carries a religious hue – particularly in the shades of Christianity – might be reshaped into fruitful and engaging discussion that carries the weight of substance over and against the more vacuous discourse of the misinformed.

Faith Beyond ‘Standardized Testing’

For those who are avowed Christian believers, theological education offers a multidimensional approach to their religious tradition.  While it has been some time since the Baltimore Catechism was the textbook par excellence of the American Church, the specter of rote memorization and reductionism still lingers in the ecclesiastical air.  There is perhaps no clearer example of this sort of approach to Christianity than the ceaseless debates about “who is in” and “who is out” when it comes to matters like reception of Communion or which presenter may speak on Church property.  Creedal formulas, moral teaching, liturgical rubrics, among other things, have become reduced to self-serving litmus tests of others’ orthodoxy or legitimacy.  The result is an atmosphere that resembles an ongoing administration of a “Christian SAT,” whose score denotes how well one does in relation to this or that set of issues.

In such an environment the Anselmian notion of a faith that seeks understanding is reduced to a fideism that seeks conformity.  Theology is a discipline that strives to engage the “Catholic imagination,” as scholars like David Tracy of the University of Chicago have reminded us, and not limit or dampen the spirit of inquiry that Christian faith has always elicited.  The practice of theology, dating back to the early Church Fathers, has always required thinking beyond circumscribing statements to better elucidate the faith, while helping to make sense of the Christian claims for a given time and place.

There is a need for theological study from an apologetic perspective too.  By this I do not mean that one must militantly “defend the faith” over and against other religious traditions and secular institutions.  Instead, we must seek to highlight the reasonableness of Christian faith, an effort endorsed by theologians of every age from the earliest apologists of the Second Century through Thomas Aquinas and modern scholars alike.

A Sense of the Transcendent

Consumer culture decreases the sense of the transcendent in the popular imagination.  If one is aware that there is more to life than material objects, that value and worth are not limited to clothing, cars and technology, men and women might be less likely to spend their resources on disposable goods.  It would seem then that many corporations are not interested in emphasizing the transcendental reality of life.

Theology, by contrast, places the transcendent at the heart of its discipline.  Theology is concerned with questions of being, God, salvation, creation and ultimate meaning, shirking the otherwise trivial concerns with fleeting matters for the existential interests of the human condition.  While theology is not a panacea for a consumer-driven, materialistic culture, it does offer an alternative narrative and intellectual focus.

Simplistic faith or fideism often runs up against many of the challenges of daily life.  Questions about evil in the world (why do bad things happen to good people?) or the search for meaning in complicated events of both joyful and sorrowful experiences are not easily answered by rote responses and black-and-white faith claims.  Theology offers a systematic way to reflect on what it is the community of faith believes and how that informs our experiences in life.

An Optimistic Anthropology

What does it mean to say that we are created in the image and likeness of God?

Another way theology is relevant today stems from what the Christian tradition has to say about what it means to be human.  Simply stating the claim that we are imago Dei is not enough; we have to seek understanding of what that means.  In an age that has succeeded a century marred by two World Wars, genocide and a host of other atrocities, it can be difficult to see the goodness of humanity.

What the study of theology offers is an optimistic view of anthropology that does not dismiss the reality of sin and suffering in the world.  I think of great theologians like Karl Rahner who, in his engagement with modern philosophy, identifies human beings as intrinsically capable of and always already in relationship with God.  While sin is a condition of human finitude and imperfection, there is hope in the fact that the central Christian claim of the Incarnation says quite clearly: being human is such a good that God desired to enter the world as one like us!

Amid the pessimism that naturally arises in difficult times and in the face of horrendous historic and systemic evils, Christian theology offers another way to view humanity.  This is perhaps one of the most important characteristics of theology’s relevance today.  While other areas of academic study might contribute to human flourishing, few other areas of scholarly inquiry offer its students such a life-altering look into who they are in ways that even biology, psychology and philosophy cannot.

If we can decide as a community of learners and educators that theology is valuable, not for increasing profit margins or boosting postgraduate salary opportunities but for personal and communal life, then we might be able to move beyond seeking its relevance and get back to faith seeking understanding.

Photo: Stock

2 Responses to “Faith Seeking Relevance: The State of Theology Today”

  1. Most Catholic college students and their parents do not doubt the importance of theology. That is why they are spending money to get an education at a Catholic institution.

    What they doubt is your ability to teach it. Long experience has shown that the vast majority of professors of theology at Catholic institutions are not interested in teaching the Catholic theological tradition; they are simply interested in using it to propagandize students with their political and social agenda. (These differ. Ave Maria pushes the Vatican agendum. Georgetown pushes the gay lobby’s agendum.)

    And nobody wants to pay tens of thousands a year to hear your personal agenda. They hear it for free just by turning on the idiot box.

  2. Paula Lee Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. I appreciate your efforts to articulate the relevance of faith for everyday life and am glad to have discovered your blog. I look forward to reading more!

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