Thursday, June 2, 2011

How to Teach Theology


Um, how are you supposed to teach theology?

I had an illuminating conversation today with a friend who graduated from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy (my college) and who is now a school teacher. I had taught two of her siblings, who were first-rate students. She knows the ins-and-outs of the OLSWA world and of education in general, so I take her opinion seriously.

The essential problem I have lies in making material which is characteristically offered only at the graduate level (that is where I received it) intelligible to undergrads. Sounds simple, enough? The problem is more internal to me that 'out there.' I refuse to - or at least am hesitant to - dumb things down. It belittles me and them - or so I think. But how could it? That's just foolish. The thing is, I value the material and want it grasped in its fuller form.

Theology is usually taught with the assumption that the basics of history and philosophy are already in place. What theology is left able to be taught when these are removed, if its not going to be mere catechism? In other words, you have to teach them all together. That is not all that unusual. You cannot really separate theology from these two ever anyway. Theology is the rational reflection on Revelation which is given in and over time, hence it cannot be divorced from philosophy and history.

Let's give an example. I'll avoid Christology, since all of my examples come from that field. Let's take my course on St. Augustine. In presenting Augustine you are presenting a citizen of the Roman Empire, a person who has received theological and philosophical traditions and then has handed one on. Knowing a person requires historical context, but knowing their significance requires knowing what impact they made on what came after them. It's obvious that someone of Augustine's calibre had an impact on both the future course of theology and of philosophy. The latter cannot be said of the majority of theologians, but of some it can - St. Anselm, St. Thomas, Duns Scotus, etc. But of all it can be said that to know them philosophical knowledge is required, since they were influenced by certain philosophical schools. Even of contemporary theologians is this true, or perhaps of them it is especially true.

So, to teach Augustine thoroughly or well you must mention those who came before from whom he drew inspiration: especially Plato/Plotinus, Ambrose, Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, Athanasius & Mani. You must indicate something of his political, geographical and social context. You must mention contemporary theological developments along the lines of Arianism, Donatism, Pelagianism, Origenism, etc., and the influence on him of contemporary figures: the Cappadocians, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, etc. Was Augustine an original thinker, or just part of a school of thought? This is one of the primary questions a course like this needs attend to. Secondly, what is his significance for the development of Catholic theology? That is a massive topic in and of itself.

One of the basic dimensions in education is teaching 'appreciation.' What is that exactly?

I want to hand my students a letter of Augustine's, read it over with them carefully, pointing out its significant features, and have them appreciate it. Why? Because it is good in itself. It is a piece of history, a piece of fine thinking and writing. The good of the letter needs to be appreciated specifically and the good of human life (history, culture) needs to be appreciated in general. Is that the goal of education - love of the good? I suppose so, but I'll have to think about it. Very Platonic.

If so, how do you teach love of the good in complex things (like Augustine's writings) to those who haven't the necessary background? You teach the background along with the subject itself, regardless of whether the student finds it boring and pedantic. But of course, then you risk their quick and superficial appreciation.

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