Source: Religion Dispatches


What do you know about theology and where did you learn it?

Most of you will answer, “not very much,” and “at home” or “at a place of worship.” Most people don’t study theology at all in college—especially those who attend public universities and colleges.

I believe this should change.

In every corner of our public world, we find people arguing about, mobilizing, and developing politics around things theological. Theology is as much part of the world we share as race, sexuality, money, art, and literature—if we aren’t studying it in the public universities, then we are ignoring a mountain in the middle of our political and cultural landscape. And I’d argue that the public university is in a unique position to transform our by-now predictable yet intractable conflicts about religion and secular life.

So why don’t we teach theology alongside history, political science, or math?

First, theology is an historically Christian concept and discipline, and most arguments for the inclusion of theology in public education, or public affairs more generally, have tended toward Christian apologia. When we read one recent brief for “taking theology seriously in public universities,” and discover the view that “religion options should be presented [to students] as live options for living their lives,” we have to wonder which religious options are going to be the live ones. All of them?

The common default to Christianity (occasionally Judaism) with regard to theology forces us to ask: isn’t theology simply too parochial for a public university?

Next, whatever the intrinsic value of any particular theological point of view, the “public” of a public university is not a particular one. It is a broad one, shaped by plural and often conflicting religious and secular norms. It is Christian and Hindu, Muslim and Jewish, atheist and agnostic, spiritual and indifferent, and much more. It is politically divided, economically segregated, and increasingly fragmented into cultural and political islands.

Why bother with theology if it does not reflect the multipolar, globalizing, and cacophonous world that we inhabit?

And finally, the separation of secular and religious education that began in earnest in the late nineteenth century would seem to militate strongly against any consideration of theology in a publicly funded setting. Theology belongs, the argument has long been made, in seminaries and divinity schools, where it can serve principally as vocational preparation for clergy. And the law on the matter seems clear. As recently as 2004, in Locke v. Davey, the Supreme Court upheld that states have a substantial interest in preventing public funds from supporting the university training of religious professionals.

Doesn’t legal separation forbid the university from engaging this topic?

Theology Lurks, Just Out of Sight

Let’s begin with the final and fundamental issue, that of legal constraint. To be sure, theological inquiry in a public university setting could not entail the promotion of any particular theological views, Christian or otherwise, let alone prepare for professional ministry. The legislation on the issue seems quite clear, and indeed the prohibition on matters theological (in Abington School District v. Schempp, 1963) goes some way to understanding how religious studies grew and developed in our public universities in the first place.

This constraint should not be seen as a liability, however, but as an advantage for the public university. If theology is to be “public” in any way that reflects the actual public we engage, after all, it cannot merely advance the norms of one faith.

Happily public universities are already well-equipped to deal with competing and plural norms. We do it all the time, in fact, especially in the humanities and social sciences. We teach particular topics (say, Aristotelian ethics or Woolfian aesthetics or Rawlsian political theory), not in order to produce a modern Aristotle or a new To the Lighthouse, or a new Justice as Fairness. Rather, we teach them in order to jump-start discussions about values and virtues, to open students’ horizons, and to give them tools to evaluate their world in critical and measured ways. One engaged student might end up hating Aristotle; another loving him, and the same would be true for Woolf, or Rawls, or any of the other powerful and world-shaping ideas we encounter. All of these outcomes are successes.

Fundamentally, then, any theology appropriate to a public university would have to be released from Christian ownership, meaning from any Christian monopoly on the idea. Let’s provisionally imagine a new idea, then. Let’s call theology that constellation of conceptual commitments and modes of inquiry that together have enabled communities to investigate and understand the world in religious terms.

Even this loose description articulates quite differently in different traditions. Legal opinions, textual commentary, and even ritual practices can all serve as spaces of inquiry, as repositories of the imagination, as places for conducting arguments about the nature of God, and so on. Theological communities also differ, and so do the structures of authority that organize them, and both of these in dialogue with other forms of collective life.

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