've been trying to figure out how exactly I am going to open my Introduction to Theology lectures. While I will have a major component of the class be a survey of – or dash through – the Jewish and Christian scriptures in order to combat the utter lack of familiarity most students have with these irreplaceable roots of Western culture, I am inclined to open the class with a different topic. I think that the first thing I really need to address is
this very ignorance: how is it that that which gave birth to the culture they enjoy – with its vision of the dignity of humanity, its scientific inquiry into the universe in which humanity moves, and its insight into those things that transcend humanity and thus give humanity all these facets – is now not only utterly obscured by our culture, but is in fact quietly censored and hidden? I think I have to open with why they are ignorant about these things, even if the actual message of the culture is that all of this has actually been figured out and safely dismissed.
It is one thing to instruct students in a subject of which they are ignorant. It is quite another to instruct them in a subject which they have been conditioned to deny has any validity. Intelligent atheism is a rare beasty these days: most often one has instead a programmed disregard to deal with instead. It is a harder task to make an argument against a position that defends itself through not
making an argument, but by simply assuming its own all-knowing finality.
So I want to give a quick sketch of where this militant Secularist philosophy has come from, historically, and to show how it has distributed itself through the culture. Only then, when I point out that our inquiry is not
beginning on neutral ground, can I really begin to ask them to suspend the dominant judgment of the culture and to try to wade through all the information and evidences with an authentically open and inquiring mind. In other words, I want to uproot and throw away all entrenched conclusions before the semester begins. Then I can honestly make a case for the essential need for the hitherto-forbidden science of theology.
Someone a while back as I was ruminating on this suggested an article of Robert Louis Wilken's, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, as a useful reading along these lines. I remember that it was published in First Things
, but I can't remember what the title was supposed to be. Tonight I have read these interesting contenders:
"The Church's Way of Speaking" from August/September 2005
"The Church as Culture" from April 2004
"No Other Gods" from November 1993
My guess is that it is the last of these three that whoever it was talking with was thinking of. That deals most explicitly with the ghettoizing effects of Secularism and the kind of starting place from which an open inquiry will have to begin. It is also fabulously learned in itself, and would thus be a good example, right from the beginning, of the kind of informed but popularly-accessible article that a well-educated person should be able to read and understand. As this is one of the obvious goals of the class, it might give students a concrete vision of what kind of skill it is that they are aiming for, even if in these early days I will have to help them read it effectively.