Religious studies vs. theology – the HE dilemma 20 July 2014

Andrew Grey argues that studying different faiths is essential in Higher Education but must be grounded in theological knowledge.

Recently, my university’s Faculty of Theology changed its name to the Faculty of “Theology and Religion”, and made a parallel change to the title of its BA course. This was to reflect a shift towards more study of religion as a phenomenon, and of the comparative study of faiths, to complement the traditional study of the Bible and biblical languages, church history, and questions of doctrine and ethics, that make up a Theology degree.

I myself supported this change as a student representative, partly because my own experience of study was exclusively the traditional Theology degree. I had one option to study one other faith, but doing so would have meant sacrificing other units that interested me and that played to my strengths. What I needed was sufficient space to experience the study of other faiths.

Why do I think this is crucial? When I write about and discuss religious issues, I cannot afford to do so from a standpoint of ignorance. If the issue is a moral or theological question for the Church, my knowledge enables me to offer a reasonably informed answer, even if more research is necessary. But if asked a similar question on Islam’s teachings on gender equality, or on Hindu understandings of wealth and poverty, I have little more to go on than school-level Religious Studies and conversations with friends. Even a small amount of study of different faiths would allow me to contribute so much more readily to such conversations.

Religious Studies is crucial for creating citizens who can give informed responses to questions that are, and will continue to be asked: what do most Muslims believe, and how does this differ from the beliefs of Islamist extremists? How can people of different faiths live together? Why don’t members of certain faiths eat certain foods? As long as we live in a multi-faith society – which includes not just a pluralist nation, but a global community – we must be able to answer these questions.

However, there is a caveat to this: the traditional discipline of Theology must not be eradicated. The proliferation of the Study of Religion should not be an excuse to phase out this important subject.

Theology provides a firm foundation for understanding how a religion comes together, the various components that make it, and the kinds of questions that ought to be asked of any religion in order to understand it better. For instance, knowing the various possible strategies for interpretation of the Bible, and the importance of understanding Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek nuances, is invaluable for approaching the text of the Qur’an in an equally careful way, being aware of allegorical readings, historical context, and the possibility of Arabic meanings lost in translation.

Allowing the discipline of Theology to die out in the Western university risks promoting the study of world religions without a proper understanding of how to do so. Frequently students from the USA, where at undergraduate level it is difficult to study Theology in the way one can in many European institutions, have told me how much they have appreciated a taste of Theology in the UK.

The social-scientific study of religion, which is the norm in the US, seems almost disingenuous: studying this phenomenon without truly attempting to understand the minds of those who have been part of it, or wrestling with the questions that religious people have been wrestling with since the beginning of time.

Undoubtedly the time has come to increase the study of religion as a whole, and of the details of multiple faiths in our Higher Education institutions. But we cannot do this without a solid foundation that illustrates how to understand religions in the first place.

Some day I hope to study Islam, Hinduism, and other faiths in depth – but I would do so in the knowledge that I am so much more capable of understanding them because I first studied Christian Theology.

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About Andrew Grey

Andrew Grey graduated from the University of Oxford with BA and MPhil degrees in Theology. He is a Writer and Editor at a national charity. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.

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