The Importance of Believers in Religious Studies

When considering where to pursue graduate-level education in religion a significant factor was how “friendly” the program was to religious believers. Some of the programs I looked at were, by reputation and by their own admission, biased against belief; against faith. I eventually chose Yale Divinity School because of its academic reputation but also because of the vibrancy its community of believers.

Every morning at 10am worship services were held in Marquand Chapel where students from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds gathered to sing hymns, listen to sermons (by faculty, MDiv students, or invited guests), and most importantly, hold fellowship together.

In my various classes (which mostly consisted of seminars) I studied the basics of Biblical interpretation utilizing “scientific” or academic methods or theories such as the Documentary Hypothesis. Study of the New Testament included analyzing the theoretical Q source and identifying the biases inherent in each of the Gospel narratives. Yet, through all of this, part of each discussion was the importance of the text in religious practice and faith. Discussions of belief were not forced or obligatory additions to an otherwise strictly academic discussion. Rather, elements of faith, religious practice, and belief were interwoven and sprung organically from student and professor interaction.

Lest I paint a misleading picture, allow me to say that Yale Divinity School is not the Fuller Theological Seminary; a school much more conservative in its theology and Biblical approach than YDS. Fuller appeals to a more conservative (theologically) students or individuals seeking ordination. This is not to say, of course, that YDS was in any way an unwelcoming place for religious conservatives. Mormons and Evangelicals were a vibrant part of the community and their perspectives were always welcomed as part of the larger dialogue.

The presence of believers in religious studies is essential because it helps prevent religious studies from becoming a form of anthropology. With the presence of believers, religious studies explores not only the “what and why” of religion, but also its meaning to individuals, communities, and nations.

Of course, believers who choose to pursue religious studies should not view the experience as one to meant to simply confirm what they already believe. Rather, the academic study of religion does not  destroy faith, but challenges it; forcing students to examine why religious belief is (or is not) important. If a believer exits religious studies with the same understanding of their own faith as when the began, they have missed out on an important aspect of the academic study of religion; building and enhancing faith.

I entered YDS a believer and left YDS a believer. Many of my core assumptions has been challenged and, as a result, refined. Some beliefs were dropped altogether while others were adopted to take their place. In the end, I left YDS a more committed Christian than when I had entered.

Of course, given that the academic study of religion plays by the “rules” of academia meaning that answers or explanations such as “God said/did it” simply don’t hold up. I recall that my first paper at Yale dealt with the question of how moral questions should be discussed in the public square by religious believers and non-belivers alike. I struggled with the paper for weeks trying, in one way or another, to find a rational basis for “legislating morality.” I eventually found my answer — albeit not the one I originally expected — in the writings of Hebrew Bible pertaining to covenant formation.

I have heard some express concern that religious studies should be avoided by true religious believers because it will challenge and undermine their faith. While I certainly agree that faith will be challenged, I believe that religious studies can serve to strengthen faith and religious conviction by forcing believers to develop a defense which outlines the reasons for their religious faith (1 Peter 3).

For believers to withdraw from religious studies would also rob this academic exercise of vibrancy and relevance. Believers keep the study of religion firmly grounded in practical issues of pastoral care and practical theology.