March 1st, 2007

Marquette University

Personal/Theological Notebook: Student Attitudes Toward The Study of Theology

Some late-night grading after an evening spent at the Raynor Library reviewing for my midterm exam with my students, along with some fairly intense and enthusiastic conversation afterwards with two of them, Arthur Orville and Ram Lakhani, who I didn't realize until afterwards were from different sections and who I hadn't introduced. Duh.

Listening to my early college years on my "Musical Autobiography" mix on iTunes, but with headphones for the first time ever, for some reason, instead of headphones. I cannot believe some of the percussion on Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" that I've never heard before – absolutely incredible musicianship.

I'm beginning to really notice a difference that leans toward being a "generational difference" with my students. I tend to assume an apologist's posture in my presentation in class: not in a confrontational or persuasive apologetic approach, but as sort of a presupposition – that I just assume an overt hostility toward religion in general, and that I have to justify the study at its roots. Instead, there seems to be less of the blatant or unrecognized Marxist undercurrent in the undergrads that I remember from my own undergrad History program, and more of an open curiosity or even perhaps favourable attitude to religious and mystical experience in general. Sure, there's still the Secularist philosophies that one gets with their mother's milk in America, and the sort of egalitarian dogma of "all religions and religious experience must be equal because things are supposed to be equal" that seems to come in as a corollary of Multiculturalist thinking. But these tend to be at the presuppositional level, and there's a surprising number of students who start picking up on some of the logic problems on some of these ideas as soon as they actually start to reflect critically upon them.

The end result is that I find there's something different going on among the students – believers and unbelievers alike – than the base hostility that I consciously or unconsciously seem to expect. There's a recognition of how sub-standard their own thinking in these matters are, and that the pressure to be "neutral" toward religion that they've suffered in the United States by not having any education in philosophy or theology has left them not as enlightened as people have smugly assumed they were in the past. This makes them in no way gullible or uncritical toward what I have to say, and there, perhaps, my own apologetic (in the classic sense of "apology" as "intellectual defense") approach seems to have some payoff, in that they seem to appreciate my willingness to lay out my material in evidential terms.

So I'm not quite sure what I want to note here, or what conclusion, if any, to draw, other than to observe that they're acting differently than I expected. I don't think simply that it's because I'm in a Jesuit school, although I suppose that gets one past the ridiculous blanket horror I remember from my state university undergraduate of students who reacted in utter horror and rage at the very mention of Christianity. I certainly remember thinking upon my arrival at Notre Dame that the students were far more liberal in their range of conversation and of thoughts they were willing to discuss or entertain.