Over the course of the past year, the University of Notre Dame has been investigating the possibility of eliminating one of the two mandatory theological requirements from the core curriculum for its undergraduate students. The proposed change has been registered in the Washington Post and Commonweal, as well as elsewhere, and it’s raised something of a Twitter storm (#loveTHEOnotredame). But why, you might ask, does this curriculum change at a university — which you probably associate with quixotic attempts at football greatness (if you are being charitable), golden domes, and the Irish — matter to you, the reader of a blog devoted most frequently to discussion of theology from perspectives within the Anglican Communion (with frequent fascinating diversions into nature, dogs, comics, and tv shows)? The answer, I would like to argue, is that if this change passes we will all be just a little bit poorer.
First, the students themselves will be poorer. In our fragmented society (geographically, socially, morally, and politically), the possibility of exposing students to a consistent and coherent tradition is of inestimable value. The theology classes currently required at Notre Dame give students the chance to spend an entire year coming to understand the Christian tradition. These classes are not set up to be primarily apologetic, nor do they offer identical understandings of the whole of a Catholic (or more broadly Christian) tradition; the theology department is as rich a site of academic diversity as any other department on campus. However, the combination of the two classes does give the students a chance to understand what a tradition is, how it works, and why engagement with a tradition can be so important for personal growth and communal engagement. When combined with the rich visual, liturgical, cultural, and praxis-oriented opportunities to engage with the Catholic tradition available on campus, students are given the opportunity to begin the process of understanding themselves either with, against, or perhaps alongside of what the tradition has to offer.
In the first level theology class for which I served as a teaching assistant last semester, one of the most enthusiastic and involved students had come from a completely secular background. At first, he was somewhat nervous that other students, with exposure to the Bible and the Church’s tradition, would pull ahead. However, by the end of the semester, he was just as ecstatic about finding connections, asking questions, and engaging with theological interlocutors throughout time as were the students whose faith convictions actually intersected with the subject matter of the class. He had started to understand why engaging with a tradition mattered, even if this wasn’t a tradition he was ultimately planning on joining.
Traditions are not just about where we’ve come from, our beginning, because they are also about where we are trying to go. That student may not have been wholly converted (which is Christ’s prerogative, in which we only participate), but he came to understood the internal logic of the tradition itself, something no other history or anthropology class could have given him. It is this understanding of the internal logic that will make him better able to understand and converse with the Catholic tradition in the future, hopefully in fruitful ways. The benefits of this exposure to Christian students are so numerous and so obvious, I won’t even bother to list them.
Secondly, the removal of the second theology class will come as a loss for those of us who think that theology is important not only for discussion within the Church, but as an academic discipline. It’s all too easy in the modern world to bifurcate faith and reason, consigning knowledge gained from revelation to the private realm, as something irrational or at best inaccessible to others. The presence of the Notre Dame theology department at the core of a major research university challenges this presupposition.
Through their two introductory classes, students are trained in what it means to have faith seeking understanding. They learn that faith is not disqualified as an epistemic base for knowledge and that faith should not be isolated or restrained, but must actively seek and grow. They begin to see that theology is not confined to the home or the sanctuary, but engaged with all academic disciplines as a peer and on their field, not as a limiting factor, but rather as the queen of the sciences, making all fields of knowledge grow and expand rather than shrink. All fields of inquiry become more significant and not less, when they are understood as significant in God’s eyes, as areas of life which God both addresses and calls to him, rather than being cut off and isolated behind disciplinary walls and epistemic boundaries.
Finally, all of us, even those who aren’t interested in theology as an academic discipline, will be a little poorer if Notre Dame makes this change (it’s worth noting that if Notre Dame, one of the flagship Catholic schools makes this change, other Catholic schools will be unlikely to lag too far behind). As somebody who benefitted greatly from attending secular schools, I don’t want to claim that all schools should offer an explicitly religious curriculum or even be tied to a religious identity. However, after my time at Notre Dame, I’m convinced that some schools definitely should.
Much of the rhetoric around the change has been that the new flexibility is necessary to keep up with the school’s aspirational peers, such as Harvard or Duke or Penn. But what do we, as citizens, gain from having simply another aspirational Ivy? This is not to say that these schools are not important to our national discourse; of course they are. But wouldn’t Notre Dame contribute far more if it became the best possible, robustly Catholic school it could be, instead of a school trading on Catholic heritage and Catholic culture, with the theological center removed? If we are a country truly improved by diversity and plurality, particularly in our national discourse, then having at least one institution of higher learning robustly represent a different tradition in the public discourse, having her professors speak for that tradition and sending out her students for God, country, and Notre Dame, enriches us all, rather than takes away from the students, fellow Catholics, or non-Roman Catholics like me who are grateful for the chance to hear and learn something different.
So, please, Notre Dame, nobody is talking about removing the Grotto or taking the Knute Rockne gate down from the stadium. Keep the theology requirement at the center of the curriculum as well.
The featured image is “University of Notre Dame’s God Quad” (2012) by Michael Fernandes. It is licensed under Creative Commons.