The following is the penultimate draft of an essay recently published in the Canadian journal Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. (The actual citation is “Putting God in God’s Place: Does Theology Belong in the University?” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 45:3 (2016): 377–396.) As I understand the terms of the publishing agreement, I can publish this version on my website, while the final (“official”) version has to be obtained from the journal site itself.
Putting God in God’s Place: Does Theology Belong in the University?
When the University of Oxford was founded in the Middle Ages, it included, as did the other major European universities of that era, the teaching of theology. Oxford still includes theology in its curriculum, and so do many others. Does theology belong in the university? Apparently so.
Some might prefer, however, that more be said to justify the continued inclusion of theology in the secular university today. It is true that major universities in Europe continue to teach theology, while in the United States, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and other leading institutions offer degrees in theology. In Canada, McGill, Queen’s, Toronto, McMaster, and other universities offer courses in theology taught by professors whose major research work is in theology. So far, so good.
At the same time, however, many universities, including equally prestigious ones, do not make room for theology as a legitimate academic discipline. The University of Paris, when it was reconstituted at the end of the nineteenth century, no longer included a faculty of theology. Many British universities offer religious studies, but not theology. In the United States, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford are among the leading universities that do not feature theology. In Canada, the legitimacy of theology has been a bone of contention since the middle of the last century as formerly religious universities came under the control of provincial governments, whole new universities were founded with some including religiously affiliated colleges and others not, and religious studies came into its own as an alternative to theological (= clerical) education. And the North American can glance Down Under and see New Zealand’s variegated educational landscape as being somewhat similar, while Australian universities that are not themselves confessional (such as the Australian Catholic University or various small colleges affiliated with the University of Divinity) make little or no room for theology at all.
One certainly can understand why theology would be suspect in the context of the contemporary secular—by which we shall mean here “not religiously affiliated or controlled”—university. By “theology,” I should make clear, I mean constructive theology, what is otherwise called systematic, normative, or doctrinal theology—not merely “history-of-ideas” social-scientific descriptions of the beliefs Christians or Christian institutions have held through the history of that religion. If we understand theology, that is, to be the articulation of the key truth-claims of the scriptures and other key texts and traditions of a particular theistic religion (and, by extension, the parallel doctrinal work in non-theistic religions), one can easily imagine a variety of reasons to hesitate over both the teaching and the scholarly production of theology on a secular campus. Religious beliefs can be passionately held—and who wants to offend? They can be violently held—and who wants to provoke? They can be obdurately held—and who wants to waste time in futile disputation?
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