Why studying religion is more important than ever

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry, writing in America, opined, “I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science. That is because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world and on nearly every issue central to U.S. foreign policy” (9/14/15).

His thoughts echoed those of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in her 2006 book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. In her book Ms. Albright argued that the failure of Americans to understand other religions “poses one of the greatest challenges to our public diplomacy.” The recent experiences of these two U.S. secretaries of state have led to their conviction that knowledge of religion is imperative for intelligently understanding the complexities of the current world situation. Their observations merit consideration in current debates in higher education, where the place and value of the study of religion and theology is being questioned. Because of increasing tendencies toward secularization and demands for profitability in higher education, it would seem that students need more than ever an informed awareness of the contributions religion can make to a good life as well as how it can help them develop a language for understanding their experiences of transcendence and a motivation for being agents of change in our world.


Yale theologian Miroslav Volf in his recent book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, argues compellingly for the vital contribution that religion can make to our increasingly globalized society. It is, he points out, a society in which religious belief and practice have not succumbed to the processes of secularization, but rather are thriving vigorously in both private and public spheres.

For Mr. Volf, religion is essential to human flourishing. As he puts it, “Whatever else world religions might be, they are, at their heart, accounts of life worth living, of life being lived well, life going well, and life feeling good under the primacy of transcendence. Accounts of the good life are the most important gift world religions can give to the world.”

Threats to Theology

Recent books by Martha Nussbaum (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities), Fareed Zakaria (In Defense of Liberal Education), Michael Roth (Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters) and William Deresiewicz (Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) all point to the worrisome trend away from the liberal arts in higher education today. Along with the growing tendency of colleges and universities struggling to remain financially viable by eliminating or consolidating liberal arts programs, there has emerged a growing tendency to curtail religious studies and theology requirements and programs in Catholic affiliated colleges and universities. There is strong and compelling evidence that the elimination of such programs is not only a betrayal of the “idea of a university” but a trend at odds with the needs and questions of students today.

It was perhaps this idea that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he spoke to the Board of Visitors of the newly established University of Virginia in 1822: “It was not, however, to be understood that instruction in religious opinions and duties was meant to be precluded by the public authorities as indifferent to the interests of society. On the contrary, the relations which exist between man and his Maker—and the duties resulting from those relations—are the most interesting and important to every human being and the most incumbent on his study and investigation.” Mr. Jefferson clearly seems to have recognized the importance of the study of the relation between “man and his Maker” even in a secular university. He realized that the study of religion provided an important space for students to enter into conversation with the wisdom traditions of the world about the great questions of life.

Though written more than a century ago, John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University makes a point similar to that of Jefferson. For Cardinal Newman, theology is not at the margin, but rather at the center of university education (See Ian Kerr, “Theology at the Center or at the Margin”? in Newman’s Idea of a University: The American Response). In the second discourse of Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman argues that to leave out theology from the circle of knowledge in a university is a grave mistake. “Religious doctrine is knowledge in as full a sense as Newton’s doctrine is knowledge. University teaching without theology is simply unphilosophical” (Discourse ll, Section 9). In fact, for Cardinal Newman theology was the one branch of knowledge, which, like the light shining through the stained glass window, integrates and makes whole all the others. If the word Catholic, from the Greek kath-holou, refers to making whole, then it is preeminently in the study of religion that an integrating wholeness can be achieved. Thus John Haughey (Where is Knowing Going) argues that the goal of education in Catholic affiliated colleges and universities must necessarily be about whole-making. The study of religion brings a necessary and important dimension to that process.          

This recognition of the importance of the study of religion in academia is an important reminder for Catholic institutions of higher education as they face difficult challenges to maintain and develop religious studies and theology majors as a vital component of their core curriculum. In an excellent article “The University and the Church” (Logos magazine, Fall, 2015), Don Briel reminds us that in his Convivio, Dante argued that students in late adolescence are especially open to a kind of stupor or astonishment of mind that comes from their learning of the world around them. Aquinas identified this same idea as admiratio or wonderment at the way all things are ordered to their creator.

Space for Conversion

What both Dante and Aquinas seem to be pointing to is that the study of religion and theology is not just learning about religions or a particular theological tradition but it is ultimately about giving students a language to understand transcendence and thus providing a space not only for intellectual conversion but religious conversion as well.

But there is a further dimension of transformation that also makes religious studies a vital part of higher education. For students to learn about the call to love and compassion at the heart of religious teachings is also to be summoned to a type of moral conversion as well. In Christian vocabulary this is a conversion rooted in solidarity with all who suffer and live, as Pope Francis reminds us, on the peripheries.

Speaking at Santa Clara University in 2000, the then superior general of the Society of Jesus, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach spoke of a solidarity that “is learned through ‘contact’ rather than through ‘concepts.’” Education required that students “must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think judge, choose, and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed.” Theological and religious study at its best also provides the space for this kind of conversion.

The recent best-selling novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, can be of help in making the case for the place of theology and the study of religion in higher education. This beautifully written novel tells the story of Marie-Laure Le Blanc, a young blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, a young German boy who is assigned to a Hitler youth camp because of his talent and brilliance. Their lives come together during World War II in a most interesting way. Werner develops an ability to “see” the invisible waves and impulses that surge constantly through space and time. He being able to see the invisible waves and Marie being able to see pure light become a major leitmotif in the novel, bearing witness to “all the light we cannot see.” The light we cannot see can also be an apt metaphor for the place and value of the study of religion and theology at a time when its usefulness is being questioned by many both within and outside of academia.

In its 2009 study of The Religious Studies Major and Liberal Education, the American Academy of Religion offers a trenchant perspective into the light that cannot be seen when it suggests: “Millions of worshipers and hundreds of thousands of local religious communities—through their prayers, rituals, devotions and acts of charity; their conversations about scriptures; and their hierarchies and institutions—shape and are shaped by the religious meanings of their traditions. If we truly wish for students to engage the tremendous variety of human understandings of life, death, suffering, love, and meaning, there is perhaps no more direct path than through the study of religion.” It is precisely for this reason that many colleges and universities cite an upward trend in the study of the world’s religions.

The same study goes on to say: “With almost 50,000 students majoring in religious studies in American colleges and universities at any given time (and with that number increasing rapidly), scholars of religion will play a significant role in shaping what the next generation of Americans knows, thinks, and does with regard to religion. Clearly, our efforts to improve the major in religious studies and to strengthen its links to the goals of liberal education are anything but purely academic.”

True Amazement and Awe

As chairperson of a religious studies department, it is my pleasure and privilege to read student comments about their religious studies courses. Some samples from the most recent academic semester help make the point. One student writes: “As I read yesterday's reading, I was literally shaking my head in true amazement and awe. The magnitude of God is so much greater than I had ever imagined. I am truly blown away.”

Another student who took the same course wrote: “It wasn’t until one night where I was watching a meteor shower outside with just my dog that I had time to reflect and experience God for myself. I could only think of the words, ‘Wow, now I get it,’ and it became a revelation for me. These ideas were only amplified throughout the year when I saw so many other students understand how I felt… For perhaps this one small period of time was worth so much more than any grade on any test I could ever get.”

A third comment comes from a student who had completed a course on peace and justice studies and a course on Buddhism wrote: “The semester empowered me to make a difference not only within myself, but within the world as well.”

Any one of us who teach theology or religious studies could add our own sampling of students who truly have been moved to admiration, wonderment and personal transformation through their study of religion and its perspective on the great questions of life. Their glimpse of the light we cannot see offers the most compelling argument for the place of religious studies and theology in the ever more necessary liberal arts curricula of college and university campuses, especially those rooted in the Catholic tradition.

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William Rydberg
3 years 8 months ago
In my opinion it's a tragedy that someone as prominent as the Author would actually suggest that St Thomas motivation was not much interested in "a particular theological tradition..." (see above) to in my opinion, to make his point. (Which incidentally, in my opinion fails to point out the importance of basic Catechetics long before higher Education. Otherwise comparative religions described by the author in my opinion would better serve the students if the programme was part of the History department... There is much to say in response, but let's share a quote from the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) which undoubtedly summarizes St Thomas' position, published 100's of years later: CCC: #108 - Still, the Christian faith is not a "religion of the book." Christianity is the religion of the "Word" of God, a word which is "not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living". If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, "open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures." Just my opinion, in the Risen Christ,
Luis Gutierrez
3 years 8 months ago
I agree that studying theology is now more important than ever. However, indoctrinating students with patriarchal ideology conflated with revealed truth is now more harmful than ever before, and the tragedy becomes a travesty when the graduates who are female are systematically excluded from ordination whether or not they have the signs of the priesthood. In the Catholic Church, this is a sacramental aberration that must come to an end, and sooner rather than later. The encyclical Laudato Si' denounces the symptoms of the patriarchal abuse of nature, but lamentably fails to identify the cause. The mindset of male domination and female subordination that supports ecclesiastical patriarchy, and the mindset of human domination and nature subordination that supports overpopulation and overconsumption, are one and the same. Everything is connected, and as long as this patriarchal mindset is perpetuated in the Catholic tradition, we are doing with one hand and undoing with the other. The credibility of the Church is matters of human sexuality is low, and becoming worse. Why should people even consider the wise teaching of Humanae Vitae as long as Canon 1024 is used as an artificial contraceptive (if not an abortifacient) of female vocations to the priesthood?
Elena Williams
3 years ago
It is not the religion or faith in God per se that we have a problem with. We, as a society, have a problem with communication. We lack abilities to patiently listen to other being and accept their point of view despite disagreeing with them. I do not agree with the article almost at all but I do respect Mr Petriano's point of view and I think he has a right to do so. He shouldn't impose his ideologies on others though but also understand and agree if someone doesn't think the same way. It all reminded me of a tv show for teenagers from a couple of years ago Joan of Arcadia. Do you think a show like that would be accepted and welcomed nowadays?


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