Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why Theology?

Last Friday I stood in front of a classroom leading a discussion section for an undergraduate intro to theology class. I was well aware that many of them had signed up for the course because it is a university requirement, not because they have any interest in theology whatsoever. As such, my goal for the first section was to persuade them that theology is actually worth studying, certainly for those who believe it but also for those who don’t. So, why should one study theology?

First, theology helps us know God. It teaches us both what God is like and what God has done throughout history. But these ideas are more than abstract ideas or historical facts. I didn’t say only that theology helps us know about God. Information can be the gateway into a relationship. To develop a real friendship with another person, you must know things about them: where they’re from, who their family is, what they like and dislike. The same goes for God. Knowing about God is a necessary step on the way to knowing God, and those who already have faith can deepen their knowledge of God through academic study.

Second, theology helps us know ourselves. It addresses all the big questions everyone must face. What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? Why is there suffering? What happens after death? While many of these central questions are also addressed by philosophy, sometimes we simply can’t reason our way to answers. It is then that we must turn to revelation, a resource that can only be accessed through theology, to guide us as we reason toward answers.

So theology is deeply important for those who believe it. But what about those who don’t? Can my non-Christian students gain anything from a required theology course? I would love my students to believe Christianity’s answers to the deep questions of life because I think those answers are true. But even if they don’t, they can still profit from studying another’s viewpoint in depth.

In our culture, it’s easy to think of religion as merely culturally engrained habits at best or superstition at worst. But when we think this way, we often fail to grasp the ways that religious beliefs affect other people’s actions and thoughts. How can an atheist and a Christian have a productive discussion without understanding what the other person actually believes? Studying theology can help even unbelieving students understand the depth and intellectual rigor that comes from religious beliefs, the content of some of those beliefs and the way that affects believers’ thoughts and behavior. This will be very valuable as students go out into the world and meet people from different backgrounds.

On a related note, much of Western art, literature and film draws on the Bible, directly or indirectly. Developing a familiarity with the basics of Christian theology can help my students understand European and American culture more deeply.

Last, studying theology helps us develop skills we use in understanding other areas. It helps us think carefully about large questions, listen to and assess various viewpoints, discuss ideas clearly and respectfully and write about these issues. Each of these takes practice, and the course I’m teaching will help my students develop skills that they will use throughout college and for the rest of their lives.

Did I convince my students that this course isn’t a waste of time? I have no idea. I suppose the more important questions are: Did I convince you that learning about and discussing theology is important? And did I convince myself not to shy away from talking about it?

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