When I am asked what I study, the second question is almost always, ‘are you religious?!’ This is an ambiguous question in itself, as the word ‘religious’ is understood very differently from person to person. Some people ask this question to find out if someone does or doesn’t believe in God, while others want to find out whether someone practices their faith. Additionally, the word ‘religious’ can be seen to have negative or prescriptive connotations, meaning that some people prefer to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’.
Another question I am often asked, once I have informed people that I am a Catholic, is how the study of Theology affects and influences my personal faith. Do you have to believe in God to study Theology? How does the study of Theology as an academic discipline relate to someones personal faith?
It is important to recognise that whilst the BA Theology and Religion course at Durham University has a predominantly Christian focus, therefore attracting many Christian students, there are also many students who choose to study Theology that are athiests, agnostics, or who are simply indifferent to the notion of believing in God. It is by no means a requirement that people should believe in God to study Theology as an academic discipline.
I managed to get through most of my first year studying Theology barely addressing any aspects of my own faith. I had been brought up a Catholic, and whilst I inevitably went through different stages growing up, I had always been very passionate about my faith. However, various events which affected me personally in first year meant studying Theology and generally talking about God and Christianity every day became very difficult for me. I was struggling with my own faith, and being confronted with this issue daily was making it harder to deal with. My studies and my own personal faith were in completely different worlds.
This issue of how personal faith and academic study of Theology can be reconciled and compliment one another is an issue that many people who study my course experience. When you study Theology as an academic subject, it can sometimes become difficult to see the ‘God’ who you pray to and have a personal relationship with outside of an academic setting. As with any subject in Durham, there is so much reading and thinking to be done in the area of Theology that any further reading, thinking and even praying in your own time can become too much.
On top of this, many things studied within the Theology course pose a challenge to faith, as studying Theology academically does to a large extent require seeing topics on a more objective, intellectual level. For example, studying the Christian Gospels as historical texts is very different from listening to them being read in a Church environment. Additionally, as with anything, the more you learn about the Gospels, the more you realise you don’t know and understand. Many things that were once accepted in faith become subject to debate and questioning.
However, this said, this year I have had a totally different experience of studying Theology. The development of my personal faith has become completely aligned with my academic study. I am studying a module which requires me to explore Catholic thought in the nineteeth and twentieth centuries, and this has caused me to completely rethink my attitude towards the role of ‘tradition’ within the Catholic Church. I no longer see ‘tradition’ as a compilation of static concepts which are simply passed down through the generations, but as something that whilst maintaining continuity, must also be adapted to meet the needs of the present times. This has helped my attitude towards my personal faith, both through private prayer and practice, immensely. I feel so lucky to be studying a degree that interests me so much on both an academic and personal level.
When thinking about Theology as an academic subject and the impact it might have on the faith of the people who study it, we must firstly be conscious that having faith in God does not by any means apply to each Theology student. Moreover, we should recognise that the relationship between studying Theology and someone’s religious faith is an extremely complex one, which can change in the course of a person’s life depending upon the experiences they are subject to. Whilst it can be difficult to reconcile personal faith with academic study, it can also be a real blessing and privilege once the balance is found.