College Students as Theologians -- Notes on a Consoling Semester (UPDATED)

Although I have been teaching college for ten years, this term marked the first time that I taught an introductory course in practical theology to both undergraduates and graduate students in the same semester. Many Catholics in the United States do not know about the field of practical theology, identified as it has been since Friedrich Schleiermacher with the training of clergy in the Protestant tradition. But over the last several decades, practical theology not only broke away from an exclusively clerical focus in Protestant theology, it has come increasingly to be adopted into the Catholic theological curriculum (no doubt due in part to the increasingly lay and practice-intensive focus and production of Catholic theology).

Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and David Tracy wrote compellingly about the importance of practical theology as the domain of theology that deals with the creative analyses of the church active in the world. Basically, they argued, it is practical theology that has a particular Vatican II-styled "Gaudium et spes" vocation. Globally there are many Catholic theologians who identify as practical theologians, but the U.S. scene has been slower to give itself as fully to practice as a fundamental category of theological inquiry, with the exception of some strands of liberation theology (despite the focus on praxis, a good deal of liberation theology is an exercise in systematics), feminist theology (the same could be said there as well), and the relatively new field of spirituality. Practical theology makes the theological meaning of practice in church and society its basic material, and involves itself in multiple conversations with students of practice across many fields. Along with pastoral theology on the Protestant scene, practical theology in the Catholic and Protestant scenes are part of the professionally organized "clinical" arenas of theology.


My graduate students at Fordham, in the Graduate School of Religion, quite naturally understand that and how practice matters for Christian life, because most of these students are pastoral professionals who have come back for further academic training. You might be surprised, however, to hear that my undergraduates at Fordham this semester were every bit as passionate about practice. It was just a little different interpretation of practice at stake for them.

For these mostly 20-22 year olds, they want theology to be practical. Without at all undercutting scholarly theological work, indeed -- they correctly intuit -- as a condition of theology in the academy, most of them want to know what theology is for in their lives and in their culture. Few things make me happier in teaching than to work with this desire. Because I share it. I am obsessed with questions of where theology comes from, how it works, and what it does -- in concrete, embodied, political, spiritual terms.

So you will not be surprised to hear that this semester, when I assigned my undergraduates to do theological "field research" about practices, they did it their own way, making the assignment speak to their worlds. I asked them to take the models of making theological sense of practice, and practice-based sense of theology, that we had studied, and go observe practices in their world that interested them. They were to write a report based on their observations, correlated to our course readings. This was my way of helping them develop more deep everyday awareness of practice as a theological experience.

Toward the end of the term, they each stood up for a few minutes to share their topics and findings with the class. Here are the practices that they analyzed theologically: street preaching, swimming, going to sleep, military fraternity exercises, studying theology, leafleting, encountering street musicians, displaying religious symbols in one's car, going to religious education (a 7-year old cohort), making a social justice retreat, taking in music at mass, running, Eucharistic "holy hour," dinner parties, al-anon meetings, wearing religious jewelry, and life on Facebook. Almost to a person, these students performed vivid, creative theological analyses of these practices, based not on speculation but on inductive learning alongside theological theories of practice that guided their denominating of the theological material present in each practice.

Let no one tell you that undergraduates cannot do serious theological work and keep their appointment with their dynamic young lives in the process. This group of twenty Fordham undergraduates raised the bar on the popular discourse about this generation. Let no one say this cohort of young adults is not primed for theological adventure. I hope that over this very holiday break, they are thinking theologically about how they sleep, eat, drive, exercise, pray, sing, and read. And that they are driving their families and friends nuts talking about it.

UPDATE: Please see my responses to comments in the boxes below.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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Bill Mazzella
8 years ago

Perhaps it is central to all the topics you mentioned. Otherwise the concept of church as community appears to be missing. The real meaning of church is gathering signifying the people together for God. Further how do you relate what is going on with your students to the forthcoming conference at Fordham on the fact that twenty somethings are not staying with the church. Is your group different from the general trend  and if they are how will they stay in the church or will they express themselves differently? Do they realize that there is no theology without the gathering, the community , the church? Or do they consider it a purely individual venture.


COMMENT: Bill, thank you for these helpful and important points. Much of practical theology is concerned for the upbuilding of the church and its constitutive practices. Some even argue that practical theology is a theology of crisis because it is when the church faces a crisis of its practices that practical theology has the most to say from, to and for the church, focused as it is on the dynamics and contents of religious/faith/Christian/ecclesial practices. The field of practical theology is frequently -- though far from exclusively -- ecclesially centered and invested.

But as far as I am concerned, the "field" of any domain of theology that I am teaching is only part of the theological content of the course. The student's lives and passions are also part of the curriculum, and in some sense are the most important and enduring curriculum with which we work. As almost anyone knows, you can't make theology part of your life if you don't have a rich, felt sense for your life and the ways it might be or become theological. (Often, this sense remains unthematized in formal theological study.)

And without betraying any confidences and without making any generalizations, for many of my undergraduate students, and perhaps most of them, the "church" is a problematic concept, and has been a problematic experience. In this introductory course, I want them to theologize with and from the practices that command their interest. This makes their theology more "real". Finally, as a theological point, whether we have finally understood the "real meaning" of church is probably best left open for historical as well as eschatological reasons.

Having said that, readings and discussions about theologians who privilege church and tradition in their analyses inevitably run into some (typically thoughtful, warranted) questioning and resistance from my undergraduates. A challenge for me is to have a class in which this disagreement, resistance, or even rejection can be as public and considered as acceptance and affirmation. Where both can happen, with the priority being on good theological reasons advanced.

So, yes, in my experience, undergraduates over the last decade are those who are presumably the plurality being addressed by our upcoming Fordham conference: those who are not on track to fulfill some of their forebears' hopes for "handing on" the Catholicism that it is often imagined will be handed on. On the other hand, they are on track to do something inventive and real for their time -- and will have an even better chance of doing so if theology can see its way to being their allies instead of their judges or antagonists. I will be at that conference and will hope to see many America readers there.

I hope this gives a little context and perspective.... TMB
Bill Mazzella
8 years ago

Thanks for  your response. Perhaps I did not word my question properly. Perhaps some examples will illustrate my point. I am thinking more in line with the community based churches in South America where many places have developed community based churches which are quite strong in caring and providing for one another. Even many Protestant churches who are smaller seem to have this stronger community. There are some unofficial Eucharistic communities that are present in many places in the US. Catholic churches, as a rule, are larger and therefore make a solid community much harder to develop. The Catholic church may give some anonymity as most get lost in the numbers. At the same time the community gets lost in the mix. I well understand and mostly agree with the student's problems with the hierarchy. But I am talking about church in its truest sense, which is that close knit community, the Body of Christ. The hierarchy can be a part of it but they are not central as our monarchical officials would have it. So forgetting the monarchical structure, how do your students find that essential Body of Christ, the Church, and/or how do we get them and ourselves there?


COMMENT: Bill, thank you for your clarifying followup. Your question is a profound one, not easily responded to in a blog format, but I will try for some brief thoughts. First, my undergraduates are typically 19-22 years old. (This contrasts strongly with my Fordham graduate students, who are most often in their 40s-60s.) This means that my undergraduate students are usually very much "in process" in terms of faith and practice. A profound experience in the classroom can move someone fairly deeply at that stage of life. That notable openness makes me reluctant to chart too firmly where "they" are or where "they" might end up. That said, and under the presumption that I am speaking only for my own observations and not on behalf of my students, I would say that attempts to make present a credible and experience-able notion of church in the sense that you describe will require: (1) respect for a permanent diversity of desires on the part of students to even be a part of or in relationship to such a church -- some want that, some don't, some aren't sure, some will have their minds changed along the way; this reality should "read back" onto our ecclesiology as "theorized" and as taught to undergraduates; (2) new ways of thinking about participation in the church as it relates to participation in (or at least learning from) other religious traditions, and as it relates to participation in (or at least learning from) "secular" culture and practices. I try to enact these sensitivities in my teaching; only my students can say how far or in what ways these succeed theologically in their lives. I will close with this: as important as a well-constructed syllabus is in meeting my students theologically, equally important is their experience of the feeling of the classroom and the permission both to be deeply challenged and to find and mark their own way. The latter point is something too few academic theologians are trained to consider, much less pedagogically instantiate. I am constantly learning. TMB
Kay Satterfield
8 years ago
Seems to me that you are trying to help your younger students develop an awareness of "Finding God in All Things" which is at the core of Ignatian Spirituality..very cool


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