Teaching, Theology and Church, Vocation

Reflection on My First Year of Teaching Theology*

Christ Teaching in the Temple

Now that I’ve posted the final grades for TH02401, my first year of teaching Catholic theology to undergrads has come to an end. While I have been preparing and teaching this course, as well as applying for jobs to teach in the future, I have also been reflecting on what I am doing when I am teaching theology. While these reflections are far from complete, I thought I might offer some of what has been on my mind this past year.

Some background: my course was a year-long course, meaning I largely had the same students both semesters. This time frame allowed me to cover important material in greater depth than would be possible in a single-semester course. It has also meant that my students have endured me for an entire year, without the natural break at semester that would normally introduce them to a new teacher and a new way of doing things. My students are predominantly freshman and predominantly from Catholic high schools, meaning they have some background but are new to the world of collegiate level education.

The underlying theme that I have wrestled with throughout this year has to do with the dual tensions of the place of theology in the academy and the role of the theology teacher. Regarding the former, I have sometimes wondered whether my students consider theology to be a “relevant” field. Does it make a difference in their lives? Does it make a difference in society? Is it reasonable to make theology a required part of their core curriculum? In one of my favorite quotes from The Analogical Imagination, David Tracy laments that

David Tracy

Indeed, religion suffers even greater losses than art by being the single subject about which many intellectuals can feel free to be ignorant. Often abetted by the churches, they need not study religion, for ‘everybody’ already knows what religion is: It is a private consumer product that some people seem to need. Its former social role was poisonous. Its present privatization is harmless enough to wish it well from a civilized distance. Religion seems to be the sort of thing one likes ‘if that is the sort of thing one likes.(The Analogical Imagination 13)

My students’ frequent use of “I feel” “I believe” and “in my opinion” are valid so far as they go, but they tend to operate on the assumption that theology is only a collection of baseless opinions from which we can pick and choose what makes us feel whatever way we want to feel. Genuine differences are chalked up to diverse perspectives, but then those differences are left to languish because of disinterest in probing deeper. My greatest successes this year occurred with those students who learned to see such alternative views as not merely alternative opinions, but as reasonable, well-thought out arguments that resist the dismissal that comes with lazy forms of tolerance. I suspect that one of the subtle ways that we marginalize others is by marginalizing their ideas as “opinions” that demand no more of us than passing acknowledgement.

Over the past year I tried to convince my students of two things: (1) that theology is basically concerned with questions of meaning and purpose in life and (2) that Catholicism is a valuable conversation partner in that (and, for those in the class who identify as Catholic, a privileged conversation partner). The first could come across as syncretist and the second as not Catholic enough. Yet these two points have been my negotiation strategy for involving students with a wide range of responses to Catholicism, including curiosity, apathy, rejection, devotion, cultural appropriation, conversion, and boredom.

This leads to the second tension noted above, which is my role as a teacher of theology. Teaching theology is not like teaching history, sociology, or philosophy, but it seems to include bits and pieces of all these (and more). It’s not like teaching a catechism class or leading an RCIA group, in which one might introduce prospective members of the community into the mysteries of the faith, but we tend to do that too (many of my students know nothing of scripture or tradition, so I have to introduce that to them). It’s also not like preaching, but sometimes I get on a roll and the teaching begins to feel like an exhortation.

I’m not sure what to do with these tensions, and I suspect I will continue to wrestle with them as I grow as a teacher. I think these tensions are mainly problems for those of us doing theology because we commit ourselves to dual vocations to the academy and the church. Working within a Catholic university, the line between these vocations is further blurred. I doubt my colleagues in chemistry worry about justifying the relevance of their field to their students or that they are concerned with a type of formation beyond the academic or professional kind. Perhaps what it means to teach theology is a bit fuzzier because of these two publics and their attendant commitments.

I conclude this reflection with questions rather than answers. Do other teachers of theology struggle with these tensions? Do you teachers in other fields experience something analogous?

*Which, despite the picture above, went very differently from Jesus’ first go around

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About Stephen Okey

is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Saint Leo University outside of Tampa, FL. His dissertation was on the theological anthropology of David Tracy. His other interests include theology and culture, especially pop culture and media, the relationship between sin and grace, and the public and political aspects of theology. When not theologizing, Steve enjoys bad television, hiking, and rooting for the Indianapolis Colts.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Reflection on My First Year of Teaching Theology*

  1. I cannot think of any field of study that is more relevant to life and vocation than the study of God. No truth can be understood apart from its author.

    After my first year teaching Bible to high school students, I am convinced more than ever of the relevance of scripture and faith to all of life. Rather, I am convinced that all of life has its relevance and application as it is illuminated by the light of God.

    In Christ alone,

    Robbie

    I highly recommend the book “Total Truth” in thinking about this topic of relevance of the study of God to vocation and life: http://robbiepruitt.blogspot.com/2012/04/review-of-total-truth.html

    Posted by Robbie Pruitt | May 6, 2012, 5:07 pm
    • Thanks for your comment and book suggestion, Robbie. As much as I too am convinced of the relevance of theology (why else would I still be doing this), that doesn’t necessarily convince students of its’ relevance. From your review, my impression is that Pearcey’s argument might work well on those of us already in the camp; do you think it’s a compelling argument for those not convinced of the Christian faith?

      -steve

      Posted by Stephen Okey | May 7, 2012, 10:31 am
  2. Steve: Thank you for sharing your reflections on teaching. Your experience of tension is not uncommon. An English teacher friend of mine argues that the best teachers seek to disturb, and that those disturbances can be and must not be prevented from being tense. I appreciated the David Tracy quotation you cited as well. Unfortunately history suffers even greater losses than theology by being the single subject about which many intellectuals (or teenagers) can feel omniscient. It is my job to contend with a different sort of ignorance (including my own on several occasions).

    Robbie: I believe that there are truths that exist outside of any understanding of authorship. Shining the ‘light of God’ on historical events elicits theological, not historical answers. You have every right to attempt to understand the author by reading the text, but I see value also in reading the text alone and according to itself.

    -Eric

    Posted by rufusthecouch | May 6, 2012, 6:31 pm
  3. Steve, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been thinking about this, too. In particular, I’ve been reflecting on teaching theology in light of Vince Miller’s book and his analysis of the commodification of religious symbols and ideas. The more seriously we engage the modern world and attempt to translate this “venerable doctrine,” into language meaningful to students for whom fragmented, frictionless, commodification is the norm, the more directly we need to confront consumer culture’s habits of interpretation and the related deficiency in our freedom to undergo the trauma of conversion. The fragmentation of consumer culture not only makes it more difficult to live a life consistantly shaped by the Gospel, but it challenges the possibility of being able to teach the radicality of the Gospel call. Conveying such depth, by definition, requires the ability to call, confront, and challenge the student—it demands the possibility of transformation. This understanding of theology brings with it an increased attention to not only the ecclesial location of the theologian, but also to the spiritual and religious context of the teaching of theology in our university classrooms. To teach the substance of Catholic theology in a consumer culture necessitates a pastoral concern for the student’s openness to being confronted by that which can transform and make all things new. Teaching theology obliges us to teach, not just the content of faith, but also a pastorally-accented hermeneutic wherein such content might actually matter to our students. Theology becomes here a translation of a call to personal and communal transformation. These are not so easily taught in the theology classroom, and they always run the risk of being reduced [either by the instructor or in the eyes of the student] to catechetics or proselytizing. But such is the risk of teaching love. [or so I argue in a paper I just delivered.]

    Posted by Andrew Staron | May 7, 2012, 6:24 pm
  4. and this: “I suspect that one of the subtle ways that we marginalize others is by marginalizing their ideas as “opinions” that demand no more of us than passing acknowledgement” I love.

    Posted by Andrew Staron | May 7, 2012, 7:05 pm
  5. I enjoyed reading the post Steve. I am a year late reading, but it is my first year teaching theology and I found your thoughts encouraging. I am finishing a MDiv degree this fall, and although I am currently teaching secondary school, I also plan to teach undergrad soon. I too would like to go on for phd. Where did you receive your education?

    Posted by Austin Bailey (@austinbaileyws) | November 25, 2013, 7:21 pm

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