We need more theology

Stephen Dolan says that the study of theology offers extraordinary benefits.

When I left school, I went off to university to study one of the most sparsely populated humanities degrees in the UK.

Even coming from a Catholic school, theology was a not a degree option people would regularly discuss or suggest to students.

Eight years later, I have had the great privilege to tutor undergraduate students for two years and have watched the subject evolve to reflect the modern concerns of young people.

These changes are a profound opportunity for the Church to meet the next generation in their concerns for modern society and open the Faith up as a way to encounter their world.

Who would want to study theology in the 21st century? Are you joining the priesthood? What will you get from doing a degree in that? These are some of the common responses people have.

It is not associated with big city jobs or work within industry, so taking on a degree in theology requires a conscious decision not to follow the tide of school leavers looking to prolong their adolescence over four years with a splash of schoolwork thrown in.

On reflection, I cannot pinpoint what drew me to theology in the first place. I did not study RE in school at a Higher level, nor did I remember any great aspirations to become the next Joseph Ratzinger.

In fact, I was so torn, I applied to study chemistry, theology, and history. However, I do know what made me stay. At the University of Edinburgh, undergraduate theology classes typically are broken up into three lectures a week and a tutorial.

The lectures I found fascinating, especially the early Church history lectures.

Church councils? Hadn’t heard of them. Trinitarian heresies? Not sure what they were. Having been in the Faith all my life, it was humbling and slightly embarrassing to encounter the Christian faith in a richness I had never experienced before.

On top of all this, I found myself in a room with 12 other young per- sons, a Postgraduate tutor, all with one aim: to discuss a key text of the history of the Church, or a famous work of system tic theology.

The debates and discussions felt electrifying. I wanted to learn more, discuss and debate more, challenge and be challenged, more. As a tutor myself now, I hope to spark the same desire for learning and understanding that I was lucky enough to have had shared to me.

What I also notice is that the young people starting theology degrees today – the so-called Gen ‘Z’ – have surprisingly different concerns and interests to those my millennial peers and I started with. A theology degree is more becoming a way to under- stand the rapidly changing world.

I have taught more than 70 students in the last two years in Church history, ethics, and philosophical theology. Of those students, the average age is between 18 and 19, mostly from the UK with a variety of educational backgrounds.

What they all shared is seeing their degrees not simply as a way to learn about Christianity, or Church history, but how these specialities inform and shape the world we live in today.

The young people of today live in a world that is more interconnected and interwoven than ever before. Covid has forced even their education into the digital realm.

Technology and the prevalence of information in the modern world has made it impossible in the UK to be isolated from questions about the way economics and politics are interwoven into culture and art, how history and religion are in discussion with science and medicine.

Theology is no different. The questions and interests of theology undergraduates, from diverse backgrounds, reflect this. What was the role of women in the early Church? What were the political situations during the emergence of papal authority? 

The ethics of Victorian evangelisation and mission? Those students who took ethics and philosophical theology classes discussed if life on earth is good, or whether life is suffering in today’s world.

How has the modern economic situation impacted the developing world, and is Christianity part of the problem? How does Christianity relate to Muslims, Hindus, and the non-religious? These questions are not without merit.

In a world where social media seems often to dictate where the nation’s moral sentiments should lie, and the place of traditional religions are being questioned, what does Church history, or systematic theology have to offer the world?

If theology is limited to discussions about what was said, what happened in the past, or how people acted, then young people will not engage. Theology, and the Church, should see theology as a way to open up discussion.

Young Catholics can shape the modern world best when they have spent time understanding why their Faith is where it is, what the modern world is asking of the faith, and what is needed to move towards understanding.

The degree of theology is not a redundant or outdated degree with nothing to offer our young people in the modern world.

Rather, it is the place where the deepest questions about the world we live in today are shared, discussed and debated in 12-person tutorial rooms.

Stephen Dolan is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

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