Thursday, July 8, 2010

Opinion: Secular Religion Courses

I'm currently going into my third year of university for business and, each year, we can take up to 2 electives from another discipline. Considering that learning about Christianity has become a topic of major interest to me recently, my eyes obviously went straight to the religion department course list.

Now, I excercise a word of caution when deciding to take a religion course offered through a secular university. My uncle took a theology course back when he was in university, and his prof at the time was an atheist. What started out as a course about the Bible turned into a course attempting to prove that the Bible was not real and that God did not exist. It caused my uncle to begin doubting everything he had once lived for, and he spent years struggling because of it. Oftentimes the views of your professor, whether intentional or not, translate through to the course itself. Historical information can often be distorted or viewed through a biased lens. My suggestion? Be extremely careful when selecting the type of course and be sure to find out your professor's particular approach to the material before enrolling. The last thing you want is to bring your faith into question because of the views of your influencial professor.

So that's precisely what I did. I was interested in a course called "Introduction to the New Testament" which was designed to examine New Testament literature within the historical context of the first two centuries CE. Didn't sound too concerning to me, but I wanted to be sure. First thing I did was email the professor teaching the course explaining that I was a new Christian and had some concerns taking a religion course offered through the university. I asked him what particular approach he was taking with the material and he responded with a very thoughtful and informative email:

Thank you for writing and for your conscientious questions. I can understand where you're coming from, and I want you to know that you can feel both comfortable and intellectually challenged by a religious studies course like RE 201.

Our approach is academic, or critical--It isn't "critical" in the sense that it aims to criticize a religion, but rather that it aims to study the New Testament and its first century context (Christian origins) in a way that is impartial and empirical. In other words, we want to ask questions that biblical scholars ask: What is the historical and social context in which Christianity developed? (For instance, What in the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds impacted on the earliest Christians' understanding of Jesus?) What do the major New Testament texts argue? How do they try to argue persuasively? And why do they say what they say--that is, what in the historical worlds of individual writers were the problems, concerns and aspirations that influenced their texts?

When we ask these questions, we're not assuming either that Christianity is an inspired tradition (is "true") or that it is not (is "false"). We bracket such questions of faith and focus on academic questions. And a good reason for this is that it allows all of us, whether people of Christian faith, or other faiths (or no faith), to talk on the same level. Indeed that is the beauty of religious studies: it is a secular discipline that allows us to talk about religion(s), what it means, how it works and how it affects people, without having to adhere to a religion.

Having said this, it's important to know that biblical scholarship can complement faith; it can inform, and even reform, faith. If you are Roman Catholic or belong to a major Orthodox or Protestant Christian denomination (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed, United Church and so forth), you might want to speak with your priest or pastor, for very often their theological training in seminaries includes courses that largely reflect our approach in religious studies. Moreover, some of the best biblical scholarship comes from scholars who belong to one Christian tradition or another.

So Stephanie, as you indicated, our approach treats New Testament texts as we would other ancient texts. We are wearing a "historian's hat" so to speak, but I think that wearing this hat can be an enriching experience, and so I really encourage you to take this course. It would be terrific to have you, and you're welcome any time to speak with me if you have questions about our approach or the material. Thanks again for writing, and I hope that you are having a peaceful summer season- we all need it! :) Take care for now

So as you can see, he was very eager to help me out here. It really helped to ease my concerns about the course and it was reassuring to know that I could go to him throughout the term with any other questions that I may have. My research wasn't done though. I wanted to share his response with my uncle, who has a lot of experience with these issues, so that I could get his opinion:

It was very proactive of you to e-mail your prof the way you did. From reading his response I would say he appreciated your approach and honoured it with a thorough and honest answer. He didn't show his cards as to whether he is a believer or be aware that he may not be and be prayerful.

Having said that, now that I have a few miles on me I have come to the conclusion that a purely academic treatment of the Bible like the one your prof describes is of real value (besides I don't think God has anything to hide). But remember that first and foremost you are growing in a relationship with the Creator...which is pretty mind-blowing. The academic approach is helpful but secondary to our first hand experience of stumbling through this mysterious process of laying down our rights and submitting in obedience to a sovereign, wise and all-powerful God who knows everything about us and loves us with a perfect love.

So long story short I say take the course but keep praying lots and pressing into God on your own and with your fellow travelers...other people who 'get it' and are still real if you know what I mean...where you can lean on each other when you need to.

I also went to my friend for some additional insight:

It seems like a educational and encouraging course. Perhaps my fear of the secular classroom is a bit exaggerated, but in my own experience I have seen that many of the "religious" studies in secular schools are designed to knock any idea of God right out of you. I remember listening to one preacher who said he felt rather uneasy one of the first days of college when his professor blatantly said, "this course is designed to knock any belief in God right out of you". But I like the letter and I like the tone of this professor. It seems like this may actually be a solid course. I would say give it a shot. But I think the real challenge of this course is to not only learn the material, but back check it against other historical places to confirm its accuracy. Keep in mind, the professor did say that they were not approaching this material as if it were "true", or "false". I am not sacred of learning history, because I know history supports everything the bible says. But I am scared of teachers who have the ability to distort history and view it through a bias lens.

So I did my research. And in the end I came to the decision that this course would be a very enriching experience for me. I definitely do see the benefits of studying scripture from a strictly academic prospective. I just need to make sure I don't lose sight of what is truly important.

I'll keep you updated on how the course goes once it starts in September. Has anyone taken a similar course taught in a secular environment? How was the experience for you?

I'll leave you with an interesting little story I found online about a professor and his students. I found it very inspiring and encouraging to my faith. Hope it does the same for you! God bless!

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