Last Updated: Oct 7, 2013
If you have ever voiced your thoughts about majoring in theology or religious studies, you might have been greeted with, “What are you going to do with that?” In our results-oriented world, these majors might seem, at best, foolish or at worst a waste of your time or your family’s hard-earned money. But contrary to any stereotypes about majoring in theology as impractical or “too religious,” studying religion at the university level opens numerous opportunities, both practical and personal, for undergraduates at Catholic colleges and universities.
First, some definitions about theology and religious studies. Both of these ways of studying religion start in the idea that God, one’s religious faith, and the religious faith and practices of others are open to scholarly investigation, critical reflection, and sustained inquiry. “Theology” generally refers to the academic study of one’s own beliefs—the 11th century theologian and Doctor of the Church Anselm of Canterbury classically defined theology as fides quaerens intellectum—“faith seeking understanding.”
Theologians often start with their own faith and are using their reason, to the best of their ability, to understand that faith better. They often see their work as being of service to the academic/scholarly world, as well as to their church or other religious community. Unlike a childhood Sunday school or CCD class, however, part of the point of theology is to begin critically asking, while simultaneously starting to answer, your own questions about God and your relationship to God, with the help of your professor, your fellow students, and the long tradition of intellectual inquiry that characterizes Catholic higher education.
Religious studies is a broader term that encompasses the study of religion as a phenomenon of human life and history. To study religion in this way is to take a bit more distance from one’s own beliefs and to learn about the beliefs of others, their practices, and their values, and to look at broader similarities and differences across the spectrum of world religions. Religious studies was “interdisciplinary” long before scholars began using that term, drawing upon history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology as well as the work of theologians.
Every Catholic college or university has some courses in theology, religious studies, or, usually, both. Many times, students take some of these courses as part of a general liberal arts education, so that even if you major in chemistry or accounting, you will be exposed to the intellectual habits and methods of theologians and scholars of religion. But you might find, especially if you have never taken a theology or religion course before, that the questions that get raised in those courses are your questions too. If so, you might want to think about a religion major.
So what are some of those questions? One way of giving a sense of the breadth of these fields is to talk about some of the theology and religious studies courses typically offered at my university, and some of the questions they ask. All of our undergraduates get to take a general introduction to the field of theology and religious studies, a course we describe as studying “the perennial questions of human existence and the answers offered by the Christian faith.” After that, you are prepared to take courses in a number of areas. In the area of theology, some courses study the Jewish and Christian Scriptures more intensely, asking about the history of those texts and their meaning: Why are there four Gospels instead of just one? Where did the “10 Commandments” come from? How should Christians read the letters of Saint Paul today? Other courses focus more directly upon some of the “big questions” of human existence and the way theologians have discussed them across the centuries: Who is God, and what does it mean to say God is a “Trinity”? Who is Jesus, and how should we try to talk about him? Why does God allow tragedies in our lives? What happens when we die? Other courses focus more specifically upon ethics and morality: When does life begin and end, and how should medical professionals use this knowledge? Why does poverty exist, and what is the proper response to structures of injustice and oppression?
Religious studies courses are just as diverse and begin with just as many questions. Some study the phenomenon of human religious practice: Why do religions have so many rituals? What do people think they are doing when praying or meditating? Is being a huge Red Sox fan a religion—why or why not? Others focus more directly upon particular religious traditions that you may never have encountered before, or that you may know a little bit about already. What does Judaism believe about God, and why? How do Hindus pray? What are the different branches of Islam?
As you can tell, the fields of theology and religious studies are defined as much by their questions as by their answers, and you might find it exciting to think about asking those questions in a sustained, thoughtful way over four years of college.
But to return to the initial question, “What are you going to do with that?” There are lots of interesting and surprising ways that theology and religious studies majors use their knowledge and skills in their careers. For some students, majoring in theology or religion provides a foundation for future work directly in religious occupations or environments. Our students have gone on to work for churches or religious communities, to teach religion at the high school level, to work for nonprofit organizations doing community organizing, evangelization, and other forms of service to the church and to the world. Some of our students have gone on to graduate work in theology and religious studies, sometimes to teach at the university level and sometimes to work as lay pastoral ministers and, yes, as priests and religious sisters and brothers.
But there are also many opportunities to draw upon theology and religious studies in other non-religious contexts. Students sometimes do this by combining a theology major with another major, such as education, political science, or sociology. Putting their knowledge of religion together with their study of global politics or criminal justice can strengthen their overall appeal to employers. Other students find that the liberal arts skills of reading carefully, communicating well, and learning to interact with different ideas and people provide a solid foundation for jobs in entirely unrelated fields.
Majoring in theology and religious studies might also help one stand out in a pool of other applicants. Most applicants to, say, medical school will have excellent training in biology, but fewer will have combined that with sustained reflection upon biomedical ethics. Most applicants to public policy programs will have a strong background in political science, but fewer will be able to understand the relation of people’s religious culture and identity to their political life and choices.
Keeping in mind such practical realities, the main reason to major in theology or religious studies should be because you find theological and religious questions interesting, even exciting. Undergraduate education is a brief chance to follow your intellectual passions without hindrance—to pursue your questions about God, about your faith, and about the world, with wild abandon. If, in Anselm’s phrase, you are passionate about understanding your faith or the role of religion in the world, then a theology or religious studies major might be right for you.