What place do theological, confessional, and other religiously normative texts have in a secular, liberal arts curriculum? This is a longstanding debate. It's a tension that even marks the history of the university in the West.
Scholars of religion are understandably wary of the ways strident and heavy-handed confessionalism might derail commitment to the academic study of religion. But this important concern has more to do with the environment, parameters, methodologies, and goals of teaching and curricular design.
When it comes to the course content itself, there are good reasons to expose students to texts written by religious insiders for their own communities. Theology, with its otherworldly claims and calls to commitment, still has a place within the humanities. These discourses continue to play a role in educating students and preparing them for life in the secular public sphere.
I recently taught a seminar, "Religion and Social Capital," exploring ideas of social capital and network power and their connection to notions of sacred communal bonds and the ethics of relationships. Alongside sociologists and theorists such as Bourdieu, Coleman, Putnam, Veblen, Durkheim, and Mauss, I included a week dedicated to theological debates about the trinity and its bearing on forms of Christian community. (You can find the syllabus here.)
The arrangement stood out to me on the syllabus as a marked shift in texts and tone. We would move from broadly secular conversations about the social world to a more sectarian discussion by Christians about a (from some vantage points) very esoteric and pedantic argument about trinitarian thought and its relation to the lives of committed believers. Yet, I knew it would be a productive juxtaposition, and I believed the conversation was deeply relevant to our exploration of social capital.
Class discussion confirmed my intuitions and underscored the benefits I have observed of including theology in humanities and social science courses:
Including theology can help foster generous and empathetic reading
Just as historical texts invite students to bridge eras, and novels offer new worlds to inhabit, so theological texts provide windows onto the values of particular communities. Crossing these divides creates opportunities for empathy and for generously making room for divergent viewpoints.
It can be jarring to read a text that clearly doesn't have you in mind as an audience. Many of my students commented on the disorientation, perplexity, and sense of alienation experienced while reading. The authors presumed readers shared a belief in the Christian God and a desire to understand God's trinitarian life more clearly and reflect it in their lives more faithfully.
I was impressed with how my students endeavored to get into the minds of the authors and implied readers, struggling to understand what was at stake. Why care about the implications of kenosis or perichoresis? Could these claims about God's mysterious inner life provide insight on the allocations of social capital in our society?
This afforded the chance to develop skills in inhabiting the perspectives of others and considering the logic of their worldview. Such skills are crucial in today's world--as they've always been--even if they seem in short supply.
Including theology helps disrupt the myth of academic objectivity
Theology remains one of the few openly normative forms of language in the academy. It serves as a reminder of the implicit normativity in all disciplines of inquiry. Theology also acts as a screen and space to explore the promises and pitfalls of making prescriptive claims.
In considering the direct call by these theologians to pattern their lives after the mutual self-giving of the Father, Son, and Spirit, for instance, my students were quickly sensitized to the more subtle value claims and visions of all our course texts.
Students recalled that, in purporting to be a straightforward and empirical analysis of trends in American society, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone set forth a fairly value-laden lament about the "decline" of social capital. They read Putnam as nostalgic for a bygone age of social cohesion, one subtly based on a singular and narrow set of cultural values he hoped to reclaim.
Theology's open normativity helped remind students to apply this lens to the claims of all our authors.
Including theology provides unique insights on our culture and society
Familiarizing students with theological ideas helps them be better readers of culture and analysts of our social institutions.
At least one lesson from books like Charles Taylor's A Secular Age or Michael Gillespie's The Theological Origins of Modernity is that understanding theology provides glimpses into many of the forces that shaped societies in the West. We gain a historical and genealogical sense of where we've come from and why we think and act the way we do.
Thus, as we read James Coleman's description of the shift from "primordial" to "purposive" social organizations, students were attuned to the critical role that religion played, as social cohesion around family and church gave way to new networks and corporations.
Now aware of long-held claims about society being structured in the trinitarian image of God, students were better equipped to evaluate the motives informing earlier and later institutional arrangements.
Including theology projects alternative possible worlds
Theology is a language of imagination. It preoccupies itself with claims about unseen realities and their supposedly visible effects and consequences.
Radical alternatives are something we are currently short on in our public discourse. Part of this is a failure of imagination as well as hope. Whether or not one finds a particular theological vision compelling, immersing oneself in such texts fosters the capacity to think creatively about new possibilities.
Deeply impressed with Ronald Burt's application of the theory of structural holes in organizations to gender dynamics, students creatively considered how the incarnation of the Son served to bridge the structural hole between God and humanity. Might we say that God shared divine social capital with humanity in this act, inviting them into the benefits of the trinitarian community?
Students then collaborated to construct proposals in which ideas of compassion and self-sacrifice advanced by these theologians might be translated into more inclusive visions for transforming society.
Including theology still invites critical analysis
Even if they're a vastly different language game, theological texts are still subjected to the same analytical distance applied to other genres. They need not foster the suspension of critical faculties or endlessly defer judgment.
Rather than simply dismissing these texts with a "this has nothing to say to me," students first considered the claims on their own terms, evaluating internal logic and coherence. They then assessed the persuasiveness of the ideas and possibilities of translating the arguments to other audiences. Finally, they analyzed the suppressed or hidden assumptions and interests informing the texts.
Student's recalled Pierre Bourdieu's discussion of the "laughter of bishops," the ways spiritual capital was cultivated in the church through a calculated denial of the economic dimension. This enabled a critical reading of the theological call to self-sacrifice in the image of the trinity, as students asked whose interests were served and what institutional positions benefitted from such visions. Might the trinity itself be a projection that not only reflects but masks power interests within these religious communities?
Considering the trinity from the vantage point of social capital is a fascinating concept unto itself. But the benefits of including this theological interlude in a liberal arts class on social theory were even more far reaching. Such texts occupy a crucial place at the liberal arts table, even as the liberal arts and humanities occupy a critical place in our society more broadly.