In my previous post (Why study theology?) I wrote about why would one study theology as an academic discipline, regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs or absence of such. However I only provided a minimal definition of what is usually understood by theology. To make things bit more specific I’d like to introduce the subjects that make up the minimum mandatory part of the University of London qualifications in theology, namely the Old Testament, the New Testament, Christian Doctrine, and Philosophy of Religion. Knowledge of these subjects can be seen as the minimum “core” of theological education and I hope to introduce them later on this blog.
When it comes to religion or its antithesis, atheism, we usually have strong and deeply held beliefs; however what is less obvious is the extent to which these beliefs are based on knowledge and learning. The unfortunate situation we are in is that most people have only vague and far from perfect knowledge of even the basics of these subjects – despite the above-mentioned strong opinions of many. Few people without knowledge of chemistry for example would venture to express and defend strong views on questions of chemistry (at least in my experience!); however there is no shortage of people rushing to attack or defend religion or its absence. While everyone is of course entitled to having opinions, not everyone’s opinions have the same foundation or weight, and when it comes to theological questions (Is there God? What is right and wrong? Is there meaning or purpose to life?) opinions of those who have studied, researched and pondered these questions over years and centuries naturally have greater basis and weight than of someone who has not spent much time or energy on these questions.
There are different ways to study theology, just as there are different ways to approach other subjects. However, unlike with many other subjects, what approach you take to studying particular religious beliefs very much depends on whether, from the outset, you allow the possibility – even slightest – of those religious beliefs being at least partially true. So without even having started your studies, you are confronted with a fundamental question – what is truth? If from the very beginning of your studies you decide a priori that a particular belief is true or false you in fact decide on your approach which cannot but influence your subsequent studies and conclusions. Therefore it is particularly important to have an open but critical mind when it comes to studying theology and related disciplines such as philosophy of religion (of course an open mind helps elsewhere too!).
Other skills that are needed and developed when studying theology are ability to read and analyse long and complex texts, evaluate abstract concepts and arguments (often expressed in less than straightforward language!) and appreciate both the differences and similarities between societies and individuals living in very different historical contexts. Knowledge of languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German, in addition to English, can also advance your studies. Further theological studies may require knowledge of such diverse disciplines as philosophy, science, history, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and law just to name a few – enough to challenge even the most apt scholars! But all these studies ultimately aim to answer the most fundamental questions asked by humanity, such as what is truth?