Undergraduates and Theology: Why Bother?

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This inspiring article from Denise Lardner Carmody, a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, looks at the needs, ideals, and gifts of her undergraduate theology students. She writes of the need to listen to the wisdom of the young people and of the responsibility we have to teach the beauty and depth of our tradition. An excellent article from America for theology teachers and departments!

They seemed happily unaware of traditional teachings.... I thought them unchurched.

The invitation to spell out what I see happening today in theological education for undergraduates is too good to pass up. I’ve been teaching undergraduates for nearly 30 years. Only the last five have been in a Catholic university, and only in the last three have I had the courage to teach Catholic theology. ("World Religions," "Women and Religion," "Mysticism: East and West" seemed safer topics.) And what am I learning in courses like "Catholic Theology: Spirituality" and the "Theology of Marriage"? More than I ever expected. So let me share with you some of the theological education I am receiving from my students. Those of you with more experience than I can nuance and correct my insights; those with less should bear in mind the relative brevity of my time as a pupil and talk with others who have been at this longer. (My focus, of course, is on undergraduate learning, not teacher education. But can one occur without the other?)

At the beginning, I ranted about how little the Catholic students knew about their tradition. We shared no common vocabulary: grace? sacraments? original sin? They seemed happily unaware of traditional teachings: trinity? transubstantiation? I thought them unchurched, their ignorance waffling between "culpable" and "invincible." Quickly I decided that lamentation would not substitute for learning, and I realized that together we would have to create a common discourse. Today’s computer-savvy students understand the need for technical language. If I made the theological truths compellingly clear, the traditional terms would follow. And so they have. My theological education had begun.

Gradually I am learning to listen. While students today appear to treat lightly what older Catholics felt were obligations (Mass on Sunday, sexual abstinence before marriage, confession of sins), they are deeply concerned about morality, personal integrity, their need for help in living a spiritual life. Many, perhaps most of them pray. They think about their motives, wishing they could be better people. Paul’s notion of the inherent division we find within ourselves resonates with them. Original sin, wearing a mythic fig-leaf or a Nike logo, has similar implications. Idealists, the students often judge themselves harshly; yet they react generously when it is pointed out that guilt is not a resting, but a starting place. Like young people of every generation, they resist, argue–even worse, roll their eyes–when confronted with uncomfortable teachings. But it is rare for them to refuse to dialogue. If I believe the truth of what I am teaching, I must be willing to explain, justify and defend it. I cannot retreat behind authoritarian decrees. I can, however, expose them (and myself) to the mystery that invites us to personal union but not comprehension. When the mystery is shown as unconditional, total love for every person (and each of them), they gain the confidence to appreciate Jesus’ twofold commandment. Love of God is then a joy-filled response, not a burden. Concern for one’s family, the poor, a sloppy roommate or global economics becomes embedded in the fact of God’s grace (i.e., God’s life) being present in all people and things. Listening respectfully to their questions does more than model the listening that they must practice, if they are to learn. Listening to them teaches me the clues I need to assist them in learning. It also often shows me glimpses of how the church might look in the next millennium. Regularly it startles me with the Holy Spirit’s sense of humor.

Here is an example, a story from a colleague who also teaches a section of the popular senior course "Theology of Marriage." A young woman approached her after class. "Can I talk to you in your office?" she asked. Once seated, the senior poured out her story. She is the youngest of five children. Her parents have given all the kids much love, good example and a solid Catholic upbringing. She is very proud of her parents. She paused, reluctant to continue. The instructor waited, sensing the student’s embarrassment. Taking a deep breath, the student continued. The night before she had for the first time discussed with her mother what she was learning in the course. In their e-mail exchange, she learned that both her parents had come to marriage with no sexual experience. The Student stopped. "And?" asked the teacher.

"Don’t you see? I love my parents. I’ve always respected them. I still do, but their behavior was the height of irresponsibility."

While we might debate whether laughter or tears is the appropriate response, I am sure that this student is not alone in her opinion. Students are afraid of divorce. They are searching for ways to beat the odds that predict their marriages will likely fail. While I cannot provide a panacea, I can probe with them the divine mystery that marriage enfleshes. They and I need to talk about why all cultures have surrounded marriage with religious rituals that underscore its value. As Catholics, they should learn that the tradition is a rich resource of wisdom that can enhance their efforts to grow into the love that will be stronger than death.

As I listen to my students, I hear their hunger for ideals that will push them toward a meaningful life. They don’t deny that they want material success, but they plan to seek it in ways compatible with social justice. The church has its place, but they believe only God should have their full allegiance.

They are sensitive to what they see as hypocrisy in some of the church’s attitudes toward women, gays and priestly celibacy. Artificial contraception is rarely perceived as a problem; almost always it is a given. Abortion is a great evil, but many think it should be left to the conscience of those involved. The Vatican and its pronouncements impinge little, if at all, on their consciences. For them, religion, even more than politics, is local. They want and respond to homilies that challenge them to take to heart the scriptural passages that have been preached intelligently and prayerfully. They respect leaders–lay or clerical–who earn their respect by living the faith. These students are not without heroes, though that status is not given easily or irrevocably. To this generation, walking the walk is not hype. More than all else, they crave the intellectual and moral tools that will enable them to live up to the ideals of their consciences. My task is to help them acquire and hone such skills.

Thus far, I have been talking solely about the Catholic students I teach. Let’s look now at the full picture. Santa Clara University’s student body reflects fairly well the diversity of American culture, with nearly 40 percent of the recent classes being people of color. The religious and secular faith traditions of these students are as diverse as those of the rest of our student population, spanning most of the world religions. Of our approximately 4,400 undergraduates, about 60 percent of those who respond to the question about religious affiliation list Roman Catholic. Even this statistic hides diversity, however. The Catholicism of our students comes from Vietnamese, Hispanic, Filipino, Tagalog, Cambodian and other heritages. No longer is Catholic diversity limited to the ethnic groups that came to the United States in the 19th century. The local church too benefits from a similar richness. For example, in the Diocese of San Jose, which includes the university and Silicon Valley, Mass is regularly celebrated in over 13 languages or dialects. Culture, campus and classroom reflect this diversity.

Santa Clara requires all students to take three courses in religious studies, spread over four years. Naturally, the 120 courses offered each year cover a wide range of religious traditions and topics. In short, all of our classes have religiously diverse populations, including those that center on Catholic theology. A class of 30 in Christology would likely include several Muslims, a few Buddhists and Hindus and at least a couple of students whose parents felt any early religious education would have stunted their growth. In such a classroom, there is the possibility for the honest, mutual enrichment that is the mark of ecumenical and intrareligious understanding. While such diversity puts a premium on theological clarity, it also underscores the common ground shared by those who hold sacred their religious traditions.

What then am I learning as I teach Catholic theology to undergraduates? My experience shows me that the depth and beauty of our tradition can attract and challenge my students and me, if we bring to it open hearts and minds. This is true for all my students, whatever their tradition. Each must appropriate what the tradition offers according to the grace and intelligence she brings to it. Each of us can help one another by our questions, our probing and our willingness to share our critical reflection. While all of us can teach one another, none of us can learn for another. Learning, like living, is uniquely personal, despite its social context.

Early last fall, I relearned my newest lesson. Struggling to translate Karl Rahner for a first-year honors class, I found my coffee-stoked morning prayer time more distracted than usual. Suddenly I was back in the fifth grade classroom, where I was disputing (a very young) Sister John Andrew’s assertion that Father and Son are equally divine. In the face of my stubborn refusal to accept what my mind could not understand, Sister blurted out: "Now I know why I’m supposed to talk more to God about my students than to my students about God."

Not bad advice. When I follow it, I learn again who is the teacher and who the student.


Published January 29, 2000.