If you’ve 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 foolish at best a waste of time and money at worst. But contrary to any stereotypes about it being impractical or “too religious,” studying religion at the university level opens numerous opportunities, both practical and personal, for undergraduates at Christian and Catholic colleges and universities.
What are Theology and Religious Studies?
First, some definitions about Theology and Religious Studies. Both paths of studying religion start in the idea that God and religious faith 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, which means 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 or Christian college or university has some courses in theology, religious studies, or 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 if you find, yourself more curious about the topics explored in those courses, you might want to think about a religion major.
A look at potential college courses
To get a sense of the breadth of these fields and course options, let’s use my school Marymount University as an example. All our undergraduates take a general introduction to the fields 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’ll be 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 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 and asks further questions.
Religious Studies courses
Religious studies courses are just as diverse and begin with just as many questions. Some study the phenomenon of human religious practice, including the unconventional ones: 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 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.
Using your degree in the working world
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, Theology or Religious Studies provides a foundation for future work directly in religious occupations or environments. Students go 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 world. Some students go on to graduate work in Theology or Religious Studies, teach at the university level, and priests and religious sisters and brothers.
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 knowledge of religion together with study of global politics or criminal justice can strengthen 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. It might also help one stand out in a pool of other applicants for jobs and graduate schools. Most applicants to 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’re 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.
Find a great college or university to study in the fields of theology and religion using our College Search tool.