Theology Matters: Brain, Stomach and Soul

What does daily diet have to do with faith? Is the way I eat a meal sustainable and meaningful? Are my food choices consistent with my values? These are the kinds of questions students grapple with through our team-taught bridge course fulfilling the third requirement in theology at the University of St. Thomas. At this level, courses are designed to give students an interdisciplinary perspective or to address a pressing social issue. “Theology and the Environment” does both, since we address the issue of food sustainability through the lenses of both theology and conservation psychology.

A good amount of grappling with this complex, interdisciplinary issue occurs through a series of short academic journal entries that account for about half the graded work of the semester. In the journals, students interpret experiences such as growing a basil plant, shopping for and cooking a meal, or visiting an urban farm in light of both theological and psychological concepts they have learned in class. Although many of the individual entries do not require students to write about both psychology and theology, one assignment in particular requires students to employ their knowledge of an important psychological concept to communicate effectively with a religious group. This entry is due near the end of the course, after students have had practice integrating material and just when the markets in Minnesota are offering the first local produce of the season. Students visit a local farmers’ market and, afterward, create an advertising flyer that appeals to a specific religious group—Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian—drawing on values, beliefs, and practices of the religion to encourage members to visit a farmers’ market.

The psychological approach we emphasize in this assignment is called “framing an issue.” Framing an issue in terms of beliefs and values that are important to a particular group is not the same as distortion or spin. Rather, framing calls attention to the most salient aspects of the issue for a specific audience. In course readings, students have already seen that certain religious beliefs, values, and practices overlap significantly with environmental outlooks. In order to create an effective poster for the farmers’ market, students need to know what the most relevant beliefs or values are that might help members of a religion see the connection between their worldview and buying locally grown food direct from the farmer.

We encourage students to get creative with the assignment, and they do, incorporating images and creating slogans that function as framing devices—the specific elements that create the frame for the issue. For example, students who choose to create a flyer for Buddhists might refer to the “middle path,” which is the ideal of a moderate lifestyle avoiding both excess and poverty. They might evoke Jewish understandings of justice for laborers, or a Catholic vision of food as sacramental.

Collaboration as “Iterative Praxiology”

Two pedagogical concerns motivated us to create this assignment. First, this course has a lot of parts to coordinate—psychology, environmental sustainability, and three world religions. We chose to focus on food sustainability since food is such a fundamental element of everyone’s experience and plays important roles in the religions we study in the course. But we still needed to help students integrate psychology and theology—to see and experience the ways that humans can simultaneously act as both psychological and religious beings. Creating the flyer brings all the elements of the course together into a practical, problem-solving action.

This leads to our second pedagogical concern: the relationship between theology and psychology that we want to model in the classroom. Would we try to harmonize the two disciplines as much as possible? What about potential areas of conflict? Fortunately, we found an approach that maximizes the cooperative elements of our classroom endeavor without losing each discipline’s distinctiveness. We adopted a teaching method from University of Portland professors Russell Butkus and Steven Kolmes. Butkus, a theologian, and Kolmes, a biologist, developed what they call the “Iterative Praxiological Method,” which is “the collaborative attempt to address a complex problem, utilizing scientific and theological-ethical analysis, with the aim of proposing ethical solutions and policy guidelines.” Instead of directly inquiring about the relationship between theology and a scientific discipline, both disciplines focus on a common problem: ecological sustainability. The method is iterative because it cycles repeatedly through four steps that can be summarized in the following way:

  1. Historical/social analysis: What is the problem and how did we get here?
  2. Scientific analysis: How can science provide theories, models and evaluation of data to clarify the situation?
  3. Theological/ethical reflection: How can religion and ethics shape our values and guide our decisions?
  4. Ethical practice and policy implementation: sustained pro-environmental action, in both private and public life.

While this method was developed for a theology-natural science pairing, we adopted it for theology-social science, and it can certainly work for other disciplinary pairings. The farmers’ market flyer emphasizes steps two through four of the Iterative Praxiological Method. Utilizing the psychological theory of framing issues, students evoked core ethical values of a religion to address one aspect of a complex problem: the need to change the way we eat.

The Benefits of Interdisciplinarity

Strategic interdisciplinarity has helped us to model constructive collaboration between two disciplines that sometimes fail to connect with each other. We do not pretend that the instructors (or students) share identical worldviews, but we show how our shared desire for a safe and sustainable food system can bring different kinds of people together in ways that respect their various identities. Cooperating on approaches to common social problems also enables students to see the necessity of integrated learning. No one discipline is going to solve complex social challenges—we need all the wisdom and knowledge we can muster to resolve our current ecological problems.

Team teaching also allows different students to connect with the course in different ways. Whether their primary interest is psychology, theology, or environmental studies, students are likely to find something that motivates them. Such variety can be a liability as well; anyone planning to team-teach has to help students bring the two disciplines into dialogue with each other. And no interdisciplinary team will be able to “cover” standard topics in the same way as a single-discipline course.

The benefits, however, make team teaching worth it. Psychology has helped this course avoid the mistake of seeing religions only as intellectual belief systems, and to instead see religious traditions more as comprehensive schools of living. Students get to see how people succeed or fail in living out their religious commitment, begin to understand why they succeed or fail, and propose effective plans to advance the common good.

Cara Anthony is a professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Thomas. She has been on faculty since 2001. Her current research examines walking as a spiritual, political, and ecological practice in Christian tradition.

Elise Amel is a professor of psychology and director of environmental studies. She has been teaching at the University of St. Thomas since 1997. She recently co-authored Psychology for Sustainability: 4th Edition.

From “theology matters,” a newsletter of the Department of Theology. Subscribe here.