During fall semester 2014, Sarah Van Stralen enrolled in my section of Theo. 200: Christian Belief: Ancient and Contemporary. The course is an introduction to the discipline of systematic theology which, simply put, is about Christian doctrine. All sections of the course cover the Nicene Creed. In my section, we explore ancient Christian teachings about the human person, Christ, salvation, and the Holy Spirit, and then look at three different contemporary approaches to each doctrine under consideration. At the end of each unit, students are required to write a position paper explaining what Christians ought to be taught in relation to each doctrine, using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to support their viewpoint. One day when class was dismissed, one of my students, Sarah Van Stralen, stopped by my desk. We were about midway through the unit on soteriology, the study of salvation. After all of the other students had filed out, Sarah exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air: “What if I had not come to study at the University of St. Thomas? What if I had never studied theology?” Upon hearing more, I asked if she would be willing to sit down with me for an interview for theology matters.
At the beginning of the semester, how were you feeling about taking another theology course?
To be perfectly honest, I was dreading taking another theology course. My first course was really, really hard. When I went into it, I didn’t know anything about the Bible or about church history. Everyone else seemed to know everything about the Bible. They had already studied all these verses at home, in school, or at church. I had to read everything over and over about a billion times just to try to understand what the authors of the Bible were saying. I was completely lost. My professor told us that we had so much to pack into the first semester and I just sat there shaking my head and wondering, since I had not gone to a Catholic high school, if I had made the wrong choice by coming to St. Thomas. And so I came into Theo. 200 just dreading another semester of the same.
At what point in the semester were you pretty sure it was going to be okay for you?
Well, even on the first day, I heard you say that we were going to be looking at a bunch of different perspectives on different theological topics—and so we weren’t going to be hearing that this is the view, as in this is what Catholics have to believe, but rather I knew that we were going to be studying various things people have said about different theological topics, and that we were going to have to think about what people were saying and make a judgment about what we believed. I also remember that you brought up the Holocaust, and you seemed to say that there were beliefs that led up to it, and that you thought most Christians haven’t adequately wrestled with this. And I thought to myself, this class might be okay. I was still really worried about the amount of work and falling behind, but that fear disappeared, too, after the first week because of the daily sentences. They were a lot easier to spend my time on. I knew what I was reading for, and how to prepare for each day’s class.
Will you explain the daily sentence assignment, and tell me which one stands out to you?
Everyday, we had a reading assignment representing a particular theological perspective. We were asked to read a particular text and to be on the hunt for a particular thing, which made it easier to read the assignment. You figure out eventually that basically you are going to be reading a view from each standpoint, and that each reading will be challenging the one you just read and analyzed. So by the end of the semester, you really have to think about each perspective and figure out what you think. You learn the official teachings, and you learn about how theologians in the modern day are thinking about the tradition in light of advancements in biblical criticism, scientific understanding, neuroscience, and so on. And so you think about what the church ought to be teaching in relation to each doctrine today. We even read a person who had embraced three different heresies in the church, which was really interesting. Now I think that if I encountered someone holding such a view, I would recognize that they were not espousing the official teaching of the church. And I remember how, at the beginning of the semester, when we were talking about different approaches that exist in relation to reading the Bible, we read someone who was arguing that Genesis 1 is a historical chronology of the creation of the world. I remember reading the article and talking with my dad about it over the kitchen table. I remember thinking that it sounded so well-reasoned. The author was using a statistical analysis about verbs or something, and he was saying that only narratives in the Bible use this many verbs. So he proved it was a narrative. But, of course, just because it is a narrative doesn’t mean it is a historical chronology, so I answered that his argument was invalid. But when we covered it in class, I saw that there were so many other problems with his argument—problems that had never occurred to me when I was reading it. So if you hadn’t taken the class, you would have read it and you would have been that idiot who is convinced. And this stuff is available at local bookstores—it is having a real affect out there. You’d believe him, and you’d think you should just rule out evolution. He had like eight or nine points that seemed really convincing. The whole way through it, I was thinking, this is good! He really knows what he is talking about. Without this class, I could have been the idiot next door.
So really, what I’m hearing you say is that the class fostered critical thinking.
Yes. I would say that sums it up pretty well. The class taught me to think critically about what I am reading, and this translates to other things, too. I am thinking critically about what I’m hearing on TV, what I’m reading on Facebook, just everything.
The day you came up after class and said “What if I had never studied theology?”: What was that all about?
I think it was a couple of things. We had been talking about structural sin, I think. And I think we were talking about the Holocaust again. Yes, that’s right. We were talking about the structure of anti-Semitism. You outlined a chain of like eight points that got us from the first-century to Hitler. And I was like, “Oh my gosh! You’re right!” That was the first time I really started understanding what social structures are, and how they affect us. By this point in the semester, I wasn’t worried about the homework anymore—and I wasn’t nervous about falling behind. I was genuinely intrigued. I was curious about what we were talking about in class. I wanted to learn more. And I just feel that if people never take a class where they cover all these different views, it is almost unfair. At some point, I just felt so privileged that I was able to study like this, so I started to think, “What if? What if I hadn’t come to the University of St. Thomas? What if I had never studied theology?”
If you could try to say in a nutshell what you’re taking away from the course, what would you say it is?
I can’t say that I know everything about theology, but I know so much more now than I did at the beginning of the semester. And I feel like I can have discussions with people. I can be involved in theological discussions and be confident that I know what I’m talking about. I feel empowered, because I am able to defend my perspective. On a personal note, the things we learned have real relevance. We are facing an issue in my family, and people are advising us to go to church where we are hearing things like, “This is your cross to bear.” And whereas I may have, at one point in my life, believed that God wants us to endure what we’re enduring, I now have a vocabulary to say, “Wait a minute. If God is Love, I cannot believe that such a God would ever wish this upon us.” I can challenge people who are well intentioned but who are saying things that are quite terrible. I can counter with something that is more compelling. I can say, “Actually, I don’t think God wishes this upon us, but I do feel the presence of God beside us as we go through this.” Because I have studied different approaches to theology, I can recognize where people are coming from, and I am equipped to challenge what I am hearing on biblical, traditional, and rational grounds. Whereas before coming to St. Thomas, I didn’t realize there was a scholarly approach to religious questions, now I am an informed believer, and I can help others to discover the beauty at the core of Christianity, as well.
Sarah Van Stralen is a junior at the University of St. Thomas. She is completing a major in criminal justice.
From “theology matters,” a newsletter of the Department of Theology. Subscribe here.