The Gustavian Weekly

Reshaping religious education at Gustavus | The Gustavian Weekly

By Emily Seppelt - Opinion Columnist | March 13, 2020 | Opinion

One of Gustavus’ proud traditions is its strong commitment to faith and its Lutheran affiliation. In fact, a significant number of students that choose to attend Gustavus value that Gustavus, as a private school, has this religious affiliation. With Faith serving as one of our five core values, it makes sense that as a Gustavus student, you should take a theology credit to graduate. These classes are valuable for all sorts of reasons, and I highly recommend that students explore the religion department more.
However, the current guidelines that a student must meet in order to earn a “Biblical and Theological Studies (THEOL)” credit is exclusive and limiting. Currently, in order for a class to qualify as a THEOL credit, it must be based “substantially in the Christian tradition,” according to the Academic Catalog. Excluding other religions prevents students from having the opportunity to expand their knowledge about other religions.
“…The current THEOL language doesn’t exclude the possibility of engaging traditions in addition to Christianity, it just doesn’t make it mandatory,” Associate Professor of Religion Sarah Ruble said. In the Fall of 2020, a new liberal arts curriculum will be put in place that changes this language after many years of rewriting and collaboration from faculty and administrators across campus. “In the new curriculum, that engagement in mandatory. Faculty certainly agreed that mandating that engagement was crucial and in line with current practice,” Ruble said.
Because Gustavus is affiliated as a Lutheran college, it is inevitable that a large portion of the students who chose to attend either actively claim the Lutheran or Christian label or were at least acquainted with it throughout their lifetimes. Requiring students to then come to college and take a class on a topic that they are already acquainted with is counterintuitive. It keeps them in their comfort zone and creates an echo chamber of people who all agree with each other.
According to the current Academic Catalog, the requirement is restricted to Christian based classes in order to “…foster in students a mature understanding of the Christian faith, including the role of religion in human life, [and] encourage an understanding of the importance of religion as part of a liberal arts education through a biblical and theological study of the Christian tradition…”
This outdated language is just plain hypocritical. I find it incredibly difficult to see how limiting our required understanding of religion to only one faith system can help us to “encourage an understanding of the importance of religion as part of a liberal arts education” when we only study what we like and feel comfortable with. The entire point of a liberal arts education is to gain a varied amount of knowledge to create a college graduate that is a wholly rounded person, with understanding of the world around them, not just what they grew up with.
“In the new curriculum, Theological Studies courses (new name) must engage at least one religious tradition other than Christianity in addition to substantively engaging Christianity. All members of the Religion Department as well as colleagues in other departments who teach THEOL courses supported that language. Indeed, the new language encodes what has long been the practice of people who teach THEOL” Ruble said.
In the new THEOL requirement, the language will be revised to require that students “critically analyze the religious beliefs and ethical commitments of Christians as well as those adherents of at least one other religious tradition, and consider how those traditions have engaged politics, culture and society,” Ruble said. Ruble stressed that while the new requirements still require a mature understanding of the Christian faith, having a mature understanding is not the same thing as identifying as a Christian. “Understanding is not the same thing as accepting or professing the Christian faith. You can understand something and not believe it or adhere to it,” Ruble said.
The whole point of coming to college is to expand your horizons, learn new things and meet new people who are different than you. By opening up the THEOL requirement to cover other religions, students will have the opportunity to learn something about other people that they may have otherwise ever had to the chance to do. “It [the new curriculum] also honors the reality of religious diversity and the import of religious literacy and understanding that is good liberal arts work–considering how beliefs and commitments fit together, where they come from, what their implications are, how they have affected and been affected by context, and what, if anything, they might have to offer people today,” Ruble said.

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