Opinion //

Theology should be widely taught in Australian universities

The dire lack of knowledge about our major religions risks driving religious debate into a conservative silo.

It is no secret that the 2021 Census represented an important moment for people of faith; those who identified themselves as atheists rose from 30 to 38.9 per cent, nipping at the heels of Christianity’s diminished 43.9 per cent. Other faiths like Islam and Buddhism had an appreciable increase but the overall result was clear: religious identity is on the decline. 

Unlike Europe and Britain’s older universities, Australian universities generally eschew theology in their offerings, with only a handful of religiously-affiliated institutions such as the Australian Catholic University (ACU), Notre Dame, the nondenominational University of Divinity and the Uniting Church-affiliated Theology faculty of Charles Sturt University (CSU) having a dedicated Theology major. By contrast, the majority of Australian universities’ curriculums are modelled on the secular University College London (UCL) and Scotland’s ancient universities, where theology was largely left to religiously-affiliated theological colleges. 

In USyd’s Studies in Religion major, students are introduced to a broad range of religious beliefs and their inner workings. By contrast, theology delves deeply into the doctrinal reasoning of specific faiths, including Christianity. Think, diving into interreligious dialogue in the modern world, or perhaps ‘Love, Sex, Death and God’, Nancy Eiesland’s disabled theology, and Philosophy of Religion. These were all subjects that I was exposed to, and loved, as a theology student at Heythrop College and then Aberdeen. Theology is an incredibly liberating, critical experience (and that’s before one touches on Latin America’s liberation theology) that goes well beyond the stereotype of the old theologian forcing the Westminster Confession or Nicene Creed down one’s throat.

Over the past decade globally, a trend has been emerging where theology, like other subjects within the arts and humanities, has come under attack from austerity measures, closures and a steady decline in student number. What this leaves, however, is a diminished public debate where a lack of interest in religious literacy risks undermining our ability to debate the nuances of religious philosophy and belief.  

The key difference between theology taught within the context of the secular university and confined in a seminary is academic freedom. 

Unlike universities with theology faculties or hybrid institutions, seminaries and theological colleges are exclusively devoted to furthering the specific beliefs of their respective Christian (or other beliefs’) denomination. Further, their funding source, primarily drawing from that denomination’s coffers, means that academics in seminaries and theological colleges are ultimately subjected to their institution’s ideological persuasion.

One example of this is the former 400 year-old Heythrop College in London, originally founded as a seminary for aspiring Jesuit ecclesiastics in Louvain. Heythrop was crippled not only by England’s fee deregulations but also because of a reluctant Catholic Church unwilling to let its coexistence with secularism continue. 

Heythrop’s 50-year experiment with secularism was a daring act, it granted both pontifical degrees accredited by the Holy See and secular degrees from the University of London. Its Pride Society generated backlash from conservative quarters and accused of spreading “militant ideologies”, it had professors who were ex-priests and even housed atheist philosophers. 

Behind the scenes, another source of opposition was brewing. In short, England’s Catholic hierarchy was uncomfortable and displeased with the freedom that Heythrop enjoyed. The delicate balance between its identity as a seminary and university was broken by the English hierarchy’s intolerance for progressivism and academic freedom. 

One line stood out even after the past four years, and it encapsulates the tension that runs between progressive and conservative Christians in higher education. 

“Fundamentally, our task is not to run a university, it is to preach the good news,” Preston told The Tablet in 2018, in regards to the Jesuits’ decision to let the 400 year-old Heythrop die. 

Such is Preston’s prerogative as Provincial, however, it embodied a view that theology should retreat to the comforts of the seminary, safely insulated from public scrutiny and worldly worries.  

Nor is Heythrop the only example. Oxford’s progressive St Benet’s Hall, formerly headed by queer-affirming theologian Werner Jeanrond, is set to close its door in the near future in the background of theology departments closing in Sheffield, Lincoln and Bangor. Closer to home in Australia, Studies of Religion faces unprecedented pressure following the Coalition’s Job-Ready Graduates Packages in 2020. 

In other words, to confine theology to the seminary is to leave religious debate in the public square increasingly in the hands of dogma and, at worst, to religious conservatives. 

I am not suggesting that theology graduates hold the monopoly on religious literacy or progressive religiosity, rather, the increasing monopoly of seminaries’ hold on theological teaching means that the most radically conservative interests, backed by enormous financial endowments, will expand their grip on how religion is interpreted. Or more broadly, how religion interacts with the wider world. 

It would serve the public interest to expand theology into the secular academy. The debate we have on religion, not least the reckless sensationalism with which mainstream journalism treats Islam or an inadequate understanding of why multicultural communities live in large communities breaching COVID-19 rules. Indeed, some of these misguided views are propagated by atheists in the mould of New Atheism’s leading apocalyptic horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and A. C. Grayling. 

To continue to exclude theology from universities would risk driving the state of public debate on religious belief the sole preserve of seminaries, who are too often bound to the dogma of their respective Church and funder. Religious literacy is an asset with which we should embrace, one that enriches our understanding of the humane rather than shrug religion off to our detriment. 

Disclaimer: Khanh Tran is an alumni of Heythrop College, University of London