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First things first

Jan 15, 2024

One of the particular challenges of teaching theology today—even to students who have some religious background—is the utter lack of theological formation most people in the United States receive. Some students may come in with some religious formation, in that they have participated in their church’s faith formation classes or even theology classes in a religious high school, but that formation tends to be more catechetical than theological. To oversimplify, catechesis provides a student with a religious community’s answers to theological questions, but it does not always provide the rationale for those answers. Theology, inter alia, seeks the rationale. There’s nothing wrong with catechesis—everyone must begin somewhere—but it’s not theology.1

This challenge is compounded by the fact that the 101 course I teach is not exactly Theology 101. While teaching “The Way of Francis & Clare” as an introductory course presents certain opportunities for which I am grateful (& which often benefit students), it also presents certain challenges. In part to face those challenges, I’ve designed a “first things first” unit in which we consider some big questions for the course &, hopefully, given us a shared vocabulary & set of ideas upon which to build.

First, why study theology? Tara Isabella Burton is our guide here. Her argument for the place of theology in a liberal arts education, published in The Atlantic, is two-pronged. First, the academic discipline of theology represents something like a synthesis & integration of the skills & insights developed across the various fields that together make up the liberal arts—a “Queen of the Humanities,” as it were. Second, theology teaches a person to think from the inside out: to get inside the heads of people, past & present, to understand why they do what they do. As I tell students, the goal of theological study is not to convert someone to any particular religion, but rather to convert them to empathy.

Second, what is God? Much of this session is negative, ruling out what God is not. God is not a big man in the sky who grants obedient little humans their wishes. Neither is God, pace Richard Dawkins, a scientific fact about the universe. Here I use (for the first time this semester) John Haught’s What Is God?. We’ll see how it goes.

Third, what is spirituality? Since “The Way of Francis & Clare” aims to introduce students to the spiritualities of Francis & Clare, we need to get a handle on what is meant by “spirituality” in the first place. No one definition for spirituality can satisfy everyone, but I introduce spirituality by way of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, particularly the chapter “Things in Their Identity.” Spirituality, in short, is the search for one’s “true self.” Students, I’ve found, really like Merton & this chapter.

Fourth, who are Francis & Clare? Few students, I’ve found, have heard of Francis—& if they have, he’s the inoffensive & sweet “Francis of the birdbath,” not the much more radical figure I want to present—& none have heard of Clare. I assign a very brief overview of the lives of Francis & Clare, just to give them a quick sense of who these two people are. The hope is to provoke some questions in students that they’ll spend the entire semester trying to figure out: what could push these two affluent, privileged people to give up everything & live most of their lives in utter squalor? how do their lives of penance & asceticism connect to their religious conversion? why do lepers figure so prominently in their lives?

Finally, what is service? The semester-long assignment is a service-learning project, which provides students a chance to do some good for their local communities while reflecting on that experience in connection with themes from Franciscan theology & spirituality. To do so fruitfully, they have to understand what it really means to serve, especially in the Franciscan tradition. On this, we consider Pope Francis’s theology of encounter & his interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan.

By the end of this first unit, I hope to have corrected some theological misapprehensions & perhaps even assuaged some misgivings about the course.2 Even though I often wish students came into class with a more refined theological formation, this unit sometimes ends up delivering some of the most engaging class sessions of the course.

  1. What is wrong, it seems to me, is when catechesis is confused for theology. Historically, perhaps, catechesis was more properly theological—see, e.g., one of my absolute favorite works of theology, Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration—but that doesn’t seem to be the case today, at least where Catholic catechesis is concerned. But that’s for a different blog post. ↩︎

  2. Students often tell me they are relieved to learn that the course will not consist of me preaching at them or attempting to indoctrinate them. ↩︎