10 Things You Learn in Religion 101

I was always told not to go to seminary because you'll lose your religion, especially at the secular universities like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. This tendency exists. Some of my friends, entering seminary with certain religious beliefs, lost those beliefs, or at the very least had a crisis of faith which may not have necessarily been a bad thing.

Other friends tried to avoid the situation and went to denominational schools of theology, religious studies, and divinity. However, even in some of these religious universities, you can experience professors or lecturers who shine a new, different, and sometimes disturbing light on religious perspectives. To continue our exploration of ways faith and science can work together, I wonder if inspiring faith can survive and coexist with "surprises" that come from many of our social sciences -- archaeology, anthropology, sociology, history, economics, and even religious studies and philosophy of religion.

After listening to a recent episode of the podcast Homebrewed Christianity about the ten not-so-shocking things you learn in Religion 101, I thought I would share what Adjunct Professor and journalist Greg Horton and Trip Fuller spoke about and add in a few of my own shocking things. These are concepts that you learn in Religion 101 that you somehow don't learn growing up in certain faith communities.

  1. The spectrum of Christian thought in Christian history is wider than what is preached from church pulpits in modern, Western, mainstream Christianity - I started with this one because, in some sense, it encapsulates the entire list and evinces why there is a crisis of faith. For some reason, ministers, pastors, and priests study religion and learn about the wide spectrum of thought, but when they go to the lectern or pulpit to preach or speak, they do not share that spectrum with their congregations, but only their perspective or their church's narrow piece of the spectrum. The problem with this gatekeeper mentality is that it prevents a fuller education of the audience. Instead of acting as a gatekeeper for what information the congregation is allowed to know, it would be much better to expose congregations to all ideas and discuss and learn and debate and grow with them together. When Rob Bell wrote Love Wins, he espoused or shared alternative views of Hell and Heaven that were not new and can be found in writings from C. S. Lewis to Gregory of Nyssa. And what I loved about it was that even though the playing field was wide for academics, it opened wide the playing field for lay people and people outside the faith to say that you can hold a non-mainstream view of hell and still be a member of the faith. Think of sacred texts like a piece of literature that you study in your school literature class. Just like the teacher will ask you to write a paper on a novel giving your viewpoint and interpretation, so too are there many interpretations of sacred texts on who or what God is, what will happen in the future, etc.

  • Zoroaster's Influence on Western religion & understandings of Heaven and Hell - Most scholars note that current concepts of Heaven, Hell, and the afterlife are absent, unclear, or not fully formed in Judaism prior to the Exile. For instance, the serpent in the Genesis creation story was not the devil. After the Exile, through the influence of Zoroastrianism, these ideas begin to enter. By the time of Jesus, the dualism of Heaven and Hell are established and have continued through to the present day.
  • Certain Bible stories are not unique - A good example are the various flood narratives including the story of Utnapishtim found in the epic of Gilgamesh. Not only is Utnapishtim's story and other flood stories similar to Noah's story, but there are also stories of other Messiahs declared and crucified, stories of other gods resurrected (Isis and Osiris), and stories of other virgin births (Caesar's birth story). I am not making any statement about the veracity of Jesus's or Noah's life. The point is that there are similar stories that were known at the time of these Biblical stories. This knowledge can help us better situate and interpret those Biblical stories in historical and cultural context.
  • There are many genres found in the Bible and other texts - You can find poetic language, parable, explicit poetry, song, history, apocalyptic literature, story, allegory, letters, legend, etc. Again this is unrelated as to whether something is true or not; rather, it helps us determine how to read a passage or chapter or book. It gives us alternative readings or understandings of it. This also leads to the next point.
  • There are no such thing as explicit, strict Biblical or Quranic Literalists - The idea of literalism is a new one relatively and probably came about as a product of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Even explicit, strict literalists interpret parts of sacred texts as metaphors or parables, for instance.
  • God is not a man - This is self-explanatory and really points out that the language we use is not just descriptive but formative and performative causing all types of unconscious biases, partialities, prejudices, attitudes, actions, behaviours, and policies.
  • The Bible is a human text, as are all sacred texts - This is an interpretation and depends on what one means by the words "the Bible is 'inspired.'" However, it points out that to use language is human, and therefore, by nature, written documents are human documents. What makes them sacred is the use of them by a community that has decided to derive value from it, lend authority to it, or derive authority from it.
  • Historical, geographical, linguistic, and cultural context often alters the way we understand and interpret texts, sometimes in great ways - This is why translators must be extra careful to consider two contexts - the historical, geographical, linguistic, and cultural context of both the people at the time of writing and the people for whom she is translating today.
  • Orthodox religion, and specifically the definition of what is "orthodox Christianity" has changed throughout its history - It can therefore be difficult when someone refers to "orthodox Christianity" to understand what time period, level of consensus, or version of orthodox Christianity he is referencing.
  • Relatedly, understandings of authority have changed throughout religious history - The Wesleyan Quadrilateral finds authority in four sources--scripture, tradition, reason, and experience; scripture holds primary, dominant authority in this model. This understanding has varied before John Wesley's time and continues to differ between groups and over time. This may make sense given various dynamic and debated understandings of genres, literalism, inspiration, context, and orthodoxy mentioned above.
  • What others can you add to the list from your religious studies?

    These 10 items highlight one of the toughest questions facing theological education today. How can we possibly tell students "The stories in your text are not unique. They borrow from other traditions. Your text is not 'inspired,' etc." and then say "Now go into the world, minister to people, and inspire them?" We've delved so deeply in the social science of religious studies, we have lost the inspirational part of theological education. How do we bring the two together?