wo weeks into the semester and I have to say that it has been a pretty good start to the school year here at Loyola University New Orleans. My classes seem like good groups. There were some rocky starts, due to people jumping in and out of the course a little bit later than I would have liked, and one of my sections of "Jesus Christ" startled me by having no one show up the first day. I had a list of students registered (I thought) that only numbered eight, and then two guys showed who said they were wait-listed and wanted to try to get my permission to join the class. I checked, and found that I had both students' names already on my list. This really started to churn my suspicions, so I ran down to the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences office and talked with the Assistant Dean, discovering that the course – at the very moment it had originally been entered into the computer system – had been marked "full" or "closed." So, in other words, no one
was able to sign up for it. Nice. So we got that corrected immediately and sent out an email to the entire student body of the HNS college that there was a "new" and empty course available for those trying to find one. But this has also meant that one section was already a day behind the other section of the course from the very beginning, which is a bit of an administrative struggle for me. So I've been juggling things in order to let them catch up to each other by this coming week.
Since these courses in the Religious Studies department ("Catholicism" and "Jesus Christ") are more specifically theological
courses than the more anthropological/historical approach of "religious studies" courses, I've been kicking things off with trying to get students comfortable with the methodological differences between doing theology and doing religious studies. I think that the former (at least in my approach, certainly) incorporates the latter, but "theology," properly speaking, also is comfortable using faith experience and perspectives in its methods of investigating, and I want my students to be clear in understanding the differences. (The first required course at Loyola is an "Introduction to World Religions" course, and so all I can be sure that they have had before at the college level is that more "religious studies" approach.)
I've kicked things off in both courses, therefore, using the Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introduction" series text on Theology by David F. Ford
. It's actually quite good, and it's more dense than I remembered from my original scanning through books back in the summer break when I was designing my courses. It wouldn't have hurt to slow down and spend quite a few more days on the text: it certainly is rich enough in ideas to bear such sustained reading and discussion. But, as I told students, I'm also kind of rushing them through it on purpose: that all I want them to get at this point is some sense of the "big picture" as regards doing theology. I've been describing it as akin to learning the names of the continents when you are a kid studying geography, before you start to really study the individual countries and their cultures. (Thanks to my nieces Grace and Haley and many talks over their globe and maps for that image.) The text has been particularly good in three regards:
1) in its kick-off discussion of the current historical setting or circumstances for doing theology, particularly in talking about the differences between Modernity and Post-Modernity, and our place in the midst of that shift. I am a big believer in understanding one's intellectual context, or the place of one's culture in the midst of the history of ideas, and I still remember how liberating and empowering it was for me as an undergraduate to begin to get some sense of where it was the ideas in my head came from, and thus to be able to recognize them as distinct ideas, and not just as the way "everyone naturally things." Only then could I decide whether or not I really wanted to subscribe to those ideas.
2) in its emphasis on continually re-assessing one's idea of God. I have long since learned to do this as a matter of habit, but I don't know that I would have made it so clear a part of pedagogy if I hadn't read Ford's emphasis on it, and seen his frequent return to it. Most of the time I hear people arguing against "God," they are arguing against some more basic or even childish idea of God that no seriously-educated religious believer holds. The so-called "New Atheists" are notorious for this, no matter how well-educated someone like Richard Dawkins is in his own academic field. This became a particularly well-timed bit of class discussion this week when some of the students read news accounts over last weekend of Stephen Hawking dismissing the idea of God as outmoded in his new book. The news stories I read (presuming that they understood Hawking's popular book correctly) showed just this sort of problem, where even a brilliant physicist like Hawking sounds embarrassingly silly because he argues against an idea of God that no one actually holds, except for perhaps only the most crude of biblical fundamentalists, and even then that might be iffy. (He seemed, from the quotes I saw, to fail to understand even the theological statements of Sir Isaac Newton with regard to basic physics.) So, like any other subject in education, one's concept of God has to be continually re-addressed as one grows in understanding, in the same way we discard the crudities of our third grade science when we take a more advanced course in the sciences.
3) in the text's substantial (for its size) addressing of the methods of doing theology, with particular attention to the constant dimensions of hermeneutics and epistemology that are involved in the theological enterprise. For these (more-or-less) beginning students, it's particularly useful for them to get an extra immersion in such questions of method because they have not been gradually exposed to such considerations in their education. While in most other subjects, students are constantly evolving in the sophistication of their understanding of the complexity of a discipline by their re-exposure to it over the years (as they take math each year, for example, and see it grow in depth and complexity and application), this is not the case with theology. Because of the American bigotry against the philosophical and theological sciences, lots of students are left assuming that "religion" is no more complex than whatever it was that they might have seen in childhood religious education, which tends to be notoriously poor quality. This goes a long way toward understanding the phenomenon of authors like those of the "New Atheists" (and their fans), who are quite right in rejecting the childish notions they have in their heads regarding things religious, but who are then often hampered by a prejudice against any further investigation that might reveal to them the adult level of understanding regarding such phenomena and ideas. So spending a day just discussing method, and then being able to refer back to such discussion throughout the semester with my students, is a real advantage.
This last week we had a reception for our majors, and I'm rather impressed with the quality of the students I've met so far. They're thoughtful and seem to be pretty well-formed despite the hardships of undergraduate religious studies (of the sort I mention above). One young woman, in one of my Jesus courses, had a number of ACE
teachers through her elementary and secondary education, and so it was interesting and pleasing to hear of the ongoing influence of that Notre Dame effort that J.P. and Erik took part in, among other friends, and for which I worked some summers as a mentor teacher while I was at Saint Joe's. We also have this year exchange students for the first time: three young women from European institutions studying religion who are taking a term or a year at Loyola as a way of diversifying their experience: one from England, who I have in a Catholicism section, one from Germany, and one from Finland. I've yet to meet the last one, but from the two I've met so far, I'm quite interested to see what they take from their experience here, and what they'll offer here to their fellows and to their courses. So I'm pretty jazzed about that, although because it's such a small major, it looks like it might be difficult to get sustained time just with these select students. I'm concerned to try to enhance their specific major (and maybe the minors as well) experience. Maybe some kind of colloquium....