Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A personal perspective on the place of theology in the core curriculum at Notre Dame

I second Rick's evaluations of the comments on the importance of theology in the core curriculum at Notre Dame by Cyril O'Regan ("excellent") and Michael Sean Winters ("very thoughtful and wide-ranging"). I'll add John Cavadini's essay (linked by Winters): "Why Study God? The Role of Theology at a Catholic University." If one accepts Cavadini's description of the significance of a theology department in a university, it should follow that at least one theology course must be part of the required course of study if any course is to part of a required course of study. Cavadini writes: 

[A] university community that accepts in its midst a theology department is not different simply because it accepts one more discipline than secular universities do. In accepting that discipline, a university isn’t just adding another element to the paradigm already in place at secular universities; it is accepting an altogether different paradigm of the intellectual life—a paradigm of intellectual culture as a dialectic between faith and reason, to use the traditional expression. Having a theology department means accepting a commitment to the intellectual life as oriented toward an “understanding” of something that integrates and transcends all the disciplines. Such an understanding keeps each discipline from closing in on itself and proceeding as if the truths it discovers were incommensurable with the truths discovered by other disciplines. It means openness to a conversation that necessarily transcends each discipline but is not merely “interdisciplinary.” If the disciplines converge at some point, it must be at a point “above” them all, in a discipline that has as its explicit object of study the mystery that transcends all other objects of study. Otherwise one must either force nondisciplinary solutions of questions onto the disciplines (e.g., claiming that faith is an adequate answer to scientific questions), or declare that knowledge is hopelessly fragmented into incommensurate disciplinary truths.

For an intellectual community operating within the paradigm Cavadini describes, it is hard to know what required courses--if any are to be required--should take precedence over courses in the discipline that "has as its explicit object of study the mystery that transcends all other objects of study."

On this subject, I speak from some personal experience, although not the experience of a student who took a required undergraduate course in theology. I did not attend a Catholic university as an undergraduate. As I approached the end of my undergraduate studies, however, I realized something important had been missing from my academic studies. And I sought to remedy that through graduate work in theology.

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I was fortunate to be part of a vibrant Catholic community at Aquinas House, where I could learn and grow exposed to the intellectual, personal, and spiritual guidance of chaplains, professors, and peers. But I had nothing in my formal coursework in which the professor by disciplinary commitment was committed to helping me to ask and answer questions about God. I did find professors who could and did help me in that regard (and it helped beyond measure that our lead chaplain had a philosophy Ph.D.), but such help was extra-curricular.

It was not until I pursued graduate study in theology at Notre Dame that "faith seeking understanding" was part of--indeed, precisely the reason for--the formal academic curriculum. That year of study was among the most formative years of intellectual development for me.  And it almost didn't happen. I was originally denied admission to Notre Dame's program for failure to satisfy the prerequisite requirements of a certain number of "religion" courses. I sought (and was eventually able) to use a combination of courses from other departments in which I had studied Aristotle and Aquinas (among others) to satisfy the prerequisites. Those courses seemed more foundational to the study of Catholic theology, in any event, than many of the offerings in Dartmouth's religion department. And my experience bore that out. With the exception of two religion courses that were atypical in various ways for the religion department (one on Augustine and another on Aquinas), my undergraduate courses in the philosophy, government, and history departments were, indeed, better preparation for the study of theology.

My theology courses were stocked full of valuable propositional content, but I found that their primary value in relationship to my studies more generally was to supply new horizons and new perspectives on everything else. With God no longer missing from the foreground of my academic study, matters appeared differently. The differences are difficult for me to describe precisely, but Cavadini's explanation of how "[a]n undergraduate course in theology is essentially different from, say, an undergraduate course in history" illustrates how such differences emerge: 

Why should undergraduates be required to take courses in theology? An undergraduate course in theology is essentially different from, say, an undergraduate course in history. Even if both courses use some of the same texts, they will use them in different ways. The history course will examine the circumstances of their production, the culture behind them, the social situation for which they provide evidence. But the point of a theology course is to find out about God, in and through the properly disciplined study of these texts. If a student asks a question about God in a history class, the instructor is free to answer, “That’s not a relevant question in this class” (or, as it was put to me somewhat indecorously in a class at the non-Catholic institution where I studied as an undergraduate, “Please leave your theological baggage at the door”). But for a theology instructor to reply in the same way would be to violate the very identity of one’s discipline. Students are right to ask about God, and all matters related to God, in a theology class, where the question is not finally “What influences were operating in Julian of Norwich’s social setting that caused her to have visions?” or “What did Thomas Aquinas think about God?”—though such questions are certainly and necessarily involved—but rather “How has this study helped me think about God and God’s self-revelation?”

There are undoubtedly many considerations that go into the determination of whether to have required courses, and what to require. But at a Catholic university, it seems to me that the core of a case for required theology coursework goes something like this: Undergraduates have theological questions. Theological questions deserve theological answers. At a Catholic university, those questions and answers can and should be addressed with theological discipline.


Walsh, Kevin | Permalink