EDUCATION
10/28/2015 03:33 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2015

At Yale, Learning About A 'Life Worth Living' And 'The Good Life'

"One of the big problems in our culture is that we don't know how to talk anymore about questions of ultimate purpose and meaning."
Vanderbilt Hall at Yale University.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Vanderbilt Hall at Yale University.

Over the last few years, Yale University has launched two seemingly unusual courses among its wide-ranging offerings in liberal arts, religious studies and theology. They're called "Life Worth Living" and "Christ and the Good Life."

Both draw heavily on history, philosophy and theology, with doses of contemporary pop culture. They are designed to get students to do something often considered a luxury in academia -- and life -- but that historically has been at the center of living and learning: focused thinking about values, purpose and meaning as they relate to their own lives. 

For undergraduates, professor Miroslav Volf and doctoral student Ryan McAnnally-Linz co-designed a class on the "Life Worth Living," which has been offered twice since Spring 2014. Matthew Croasmun, a lecturer in divinity and humanities, also taught the class last spring. This year, he and Volf are in the middle of co-teaching a new version of it, "Christ and the Good Life," to Yale Divinity School students.

The Huffington Post spoke with Croasmun about how Yale is approaching the big questions in its classes, and how students have responded. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What’s the "Live Worth Living" undergraduate course about?

It’s an intentionally pluralistic approach to these big questions of life. One of the big problems in our culture is that we don't know how to talk anymore about questions of ultimate purpose and meaning that used to be one of the central things you get out of college. It used to be -- way back when there was enough homogeneity -- that college would tell you the answers and inculcate a uniform understanding of meaning and purpose that was prescribed by a religious institution. Even after that hegemony started to break down, you still had a sense there was at least training to get students toward asking and approaching these questions. That is what we are now trying to do.

It used to be...that college would tell you the answers and inculcate a uniform understanding of meaning and purpose that was prescribed by a religious institution.

Sometimes, in some of these kinds of classes, you can see where there is an attempt to be quite universal, as if there is a neutral standpoint you can adopt and say, “Let's look at what makes us happy and we can use science in some kind of way that is assumed to be neutral.” We take a different standpoint with our classes and say the answers and these questions, while we do think they include matters of truth, we really think all the answers are inevitably embedded in particular traditions.

In class, we have gone through various religious traditions, various nonreligious philosophical traditions, having students read and find out what is the good life. The assumption is that they are answers situated in [religious or other traditions] from the start. We encounter those truth claims as situated within these different traditions. 

Matthew Croasmun

How do these courses differ from a traditional class?

These are not third-person "introduction to religion" classes. The courses are very much in the second person, they address you as a living being. For example, if we are talking about Islamic teaching on finance — the prohibition against charging interest, for example — we want to talk about the meaning of wealth and poverty and how it relates to everything else. Let’s think of what the ideas mean for people who are not Muslim.

The courses are very much in the second person, they address you as a living being

When we dealt with utilitarianism last spring, we read The Live You Can Save by Peter Singer. There’s a challenge, to think of our money in terms of how it can literally save lives. Once you think of your money that way, every decision you make has an incredible weight to it. Whether or not I see a movie suddenly becomes a moral choice.

The question for the course for each tradition is, “What are the truth claims this tradition is making and, second but more importantly, if those truth claims are true, how would your life have to change?”

What is "Christ and the Good Life," the course you are now offering at Yale Divinity School?

We are doing "Life Worth Living" but zooming in on the Christian tradition. We initially thought when moving from college to the divinity school that maybe this would not be all that revolutionary -- isn’t this what these divinity students are doing all the time, asking existential questions in their own lives?

Yet, increasingly enough we found that, in certain ways, divinity school students get inoculated against this existential personal reflection because divinity school, just as religious studies, can be a place where lot of the reflection done is merely descriptive. Courses ask descriptive questions: What did this theologian think? What did this council think? How did they construct their lives?

We are trying to add that next piece on top. We are reading the Gospel of Luke thematically through the whole semester. We ask, “If this is what God is suggesting through the Gospel of Luke, what does it mean for my own life?”

We try to look at the “real stuff” in life. We spend a week on food, fasting and feasting, for example. There’s another on suffering and death, and one on wealth and poverty. 

We try to look at the 'real stuff' in life. We spend a week on food, fasting and feasting, for example. There’s another on suffering and death, and one on wealth and poverty.

Each week students have Christian theological readings, but each week they have to examine something from non-Christian sources of importance, too. We want to frame these for students that these are human questions, these are not only questions of Christian doctrine.

So this week as we talk about repentance and forgiveness, we read Nietzsche, who is not a big fan of forgiveness. We also read Amy Poehler. In her book Yes Please, she writes about a time when she horribly offended someone during a sketch she did on SNL. She narrates her experience of not wanting to ask for forgiveness because doing so would mean she has to face the fact that she did something wrong. And we use these to frame our Christian theological discussion about repentance and forgiveness.

Who are the students? What are they looking for out of the class and out of divinity school? What has the response been?

Many are here to prepare for doctoral studies. Many are here to prepare for parish ministry, and a growing number are somewhere in the middle. Those are students who aren't going into vocational or church ministry but are getting ready to lead nonprofits, to do community organizing, or getting a masters in social work or management at the same time.

We have people who say, 'You’ve got to teach this more. This course is the integrating experience of my divinity school life.'

These students are thinking about the material realities of people’s lives, their clients who they will serve, the people who will be part of the institutions they will be leading.

We have people who say, “You’ve got to teach this more. This course is the integrating experience of my divinity school life.” They say, “This is what I came to school for, in order to get a contextualized, deep, rooted in history sense of how to answer the questions about my life and my community.”

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