Why read theology?

I am thinking about the curriculum for a new compulsory module I have to teach entitled ‘Readings in Medieval Theology,’ and doing the usual academic thing with a new module, particularly a new module you didn’t design, of trying to work out some intentionality: why am I teaching this (beyond the fact that I have to)?; what do I want the students to get out of it?

There are various levels at which I can answer the question. The module exists in part because we believe that reading primary sources in the tradition should be a part of a theology degree (there are other compulsory modules in patristics, Reformation, and modern theology). This is in part about content: I occasionally apply the ‘graduation test’ to the curricula I teach: what would really embarrass me if it suddenly struck me at a graduation ceremony that someone was on stage getting a theology degree without having read it? Amongst the medievals, only Thomas’ Summa Theologica really passes that test for me. (And so I have always taken every opportunity to get primary reading in the ST in – together with a well-honed piece on how to read the text, beginning ‘The Summa is divided into five parts, helpfully numbered one to three…’)

There is also a skills element: reading primary texts, particularly ancient texts, intelligently is, or should be, a core skill in any humanities degree. Like most skills, it is gained only by practice, so compulsory readings modules have become a significant component of our degrees.

I want to go deeper than either of those answers, however. Why should anyone do a theology degree at all? Some of our students are preparing for Christian ministry, but even there – why does a pastor need to have read Thomas Aquinas, still less Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, John of Damascus, or John Major (all of whom will feature in my module)?

My answer comes straight from the medieval universities that Thomas and John Major taught in: we read theologians to learn how to think theologically. The texts we read are, at one level, entirely irrelevant. We are trying to learn an art, and thinking along with good practitioners of the art will help us to learn it. Thinking along with the greatest practitioners will help us to fly as high as we can, which is why undergraduates really should read Thomas (and Augustine, and Calvin, and Schleiermacher, and Barth) – and why graduate students should pick a great mind to live with for their three years of formation. (And why those of us who presume to teach should be reading the greats very regularly…)

The point of a theology degree is not that you know what Thomas or Calvin thought about this or that; the point is that, when asked what a Christian should think about this or that, you are a bit more able to give a worthwhile answer than you would have been had you not done the degree. (Of course, giving the time you spent doing the degree to prayer, or evangelism, or serving people who are poor and/or marginalised, would have been far more productive in these terms, but…) You know where to look for answers, have a sense of which logical distinctions might become important, and are just skilled, in a thousand subtle ways, at thinking in this mode.

(This generalises, of course. The point of doing any degree – possibly with the exceptions of medicine and law, amongst the traditional subjects – is to learn to think. The knowledge you acquire along the way is entirely accidental; what you (should…) gain is an ability to address any question, any problem, well.)

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Cinnamond
    May 28, 2012

    Steve,
    thanks for this post- Michael Haykin has recently used John of Damascus’ work on encountering Islam as a reason for reading the Fathers (if we extend the term beyond AD 451). This stuff is incredibly relevant to us today. (Haykin, ‘Rediscovering the Church Fathers’, pp23-27.)
    PS. Finally finished my PhD at LST on Admonition Controversy, 1572-77. Thanks for pointing me to Tony Lane as a supervisor!

  2. zach doons
    May 29, 2012

    As a law student, it might be worth saying that the first year of law school is primarily a time of teaching the student to think like a lawyer.

    • Steve H
      May 29, 2012

      Hi Zach, thanks for stopping by.

      Yes – my point was more that in medicine and law there is a body of knowledge that needs to be mastered, not that the disciplines don’t teach you to think…

  3. rachelmuers
    May 31, 2012

    Well said Steve! I’d add that I think we make students read texts from different historical periods to develop a sense of history – which is a general and not merely a subject-specific skill, to use the jargon. The comment above about the relevance of John of Damascus points to one aspect of this – reading historical texts teaches you that you don’t come from nowhere, you don’t make all this up as you go along, and you sometimes have to listen before you speak… (BTW are you going to post a full cast-list for your module? I’d be interested to see whom you’ve picked!)

    • Steve H
      Jun 7, 2012

      Thanks, Rachel. We have a meeting next week to try to coordinate the various modules; I’ll finalise my cast after that…

  4. Andrew Wilson
    Jun 4, 2012

    Great stuff, Steve. Out of interest, how does your bracketed sentence in the penultimate para affect your advice to prospective students? That is, if the primary objective of the medieval module (and perhaps others, like patristics?) is to learn something that would be better learned another way, why not do those other things instead? What do you say when they ask you that? (I’m being silly in a way, but serious in a sense as well.)

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