Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Curriculum matters

I see by the Stonehill student newspaper that the trustees and administration of the college want to reinstitute a requirement in "Catholic theology." It has been some decades since the Theology Department was renamed Religious Studies, a change I deemed altogether appropriate. Now, here and at other Catholic institutions of higher learning across the land, there appears to be a new constituency in favor of shoring up orthodoxy. At my college, at least, this constituency does not appear to include most of the faculty and students.

The-ology is an oxymoron. As most of the great Catholic mystics have suggested, God is ultimate mystery, the unknown and unknowable ground of our being, and all being. A "theology" course should not require a semester, merely ten seconds: "Whatever you say God is, that it is not."

Religion, on the other hand, is an important subject for study by anyone who pretends to be liberally educated. What are the biological and cultural origins of religions and religious feeling? What are the varieties of religious experience? What is the connection between religion and morality? Between religion and art? Between religion and science? Is there a uniquely "Catholic" religious experience, and if so what is it? How do liturgies sustain individuals and communities? What is the advantage of perceiving the world as sacred?

These are just some of the questions that are properly addressed in a religious studies course. We are not talking here about knowing God, but about understanding a broad and important dimension of human experience. Science can contribute to religious studies; so can literature and art. Religious studies are comprehensive and open-ended, touching upon our deepest yearnings. Theology, as it was constituted when I was an undergraduate, was a closed door -- answers substituting for questions. The "-ology" in the Catholic theology I was required to study was parochial dogma posing as knowledge.