This week’s guest is Nichole M. Flores, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and contributing writer at America. She recently wrote an article for America titled “In Jefferson’s Shadow: Can Catholic theology thrive at a public university?,” which explored the challenge of teaching theology at a university founded by Thomas Jefferson, who once famously called for a “wall of separation” between church and state.
Prior to teaching at the University of Virginia, Flores taught theology at St. Anselm College, a Benedictine liberal arts school. “I really felt like intellectually and personally I flourished in the Catholic community context,” she said. “I didn’t exactly know what to expect arriving at UVA.”
Fortunately, Flores found that within the religious studies department at UVA, “it was easy enough to find some space to have those conversations.” However, she noted that “the place where there’s been the most kind of tension...has been the classroom...because when I was teaching at a Catholic school there was no pressure to present theology as anything but confession[al], but truth.”
Ultimately Flores believes that she can honor Jefferson’s legacy while teaching theology. “What [Jefferson] did want, I think, was a genuine exchange of ideas, a pursuit of tough questions,” she said. “I think some of the toughest questions facing…[our world] require us not just to look at religion...from a step removed, but really engage the theological traditions, practices and lived reality of people who believe.”
Flores concluded, “I think it’s a wall, but I don’t think it’s as high a wall as I thought.”