Hazard of RELS
Why Trinity should require more Theology, not just RELS.
If Trinity Western University actually wants to be a faith-affirming and intellectually rigorous community, students need better access to actual theology. More than just information about the various textual sources of biblical scripture, we need formative theological grounding to give us traction for incorporating challenging ideas from our various disciplines into a live-giving practice of faith.
Many students come to Trinity expecting transformative, faith-affirming education, especially when they enroll in classes like RELS 102, “Introduction to the New Testament.”
Instead, they are at the mercy of whatever perspective on their professor happens to tote. Far too often students are exposed to challenging forms of biblical criticism and then left to work out the implications for Christian faith and practice mostly on their own and in the margins of their other coursework.
In the best case, students are challenged and come out stronger. But in the worse case, their faith is fractured too deeply to repair. And I have heard way too many stories of this happening.
Take my own experience for example. In my first year, I was pumped to learn about the New Testament in RELS 102. Instead, I was dragged through a rather unhelpful quagmire of redaction criticism. I learned a lot of facts about the formation of the New Testament canon, but was given little to help me incorporate what I was learning into a meaningful practice of faith. By second year
I had recovered enough to enroll in RELS 101, the other core-required biblical survey. Yet the experience was radically different. I not only learned more about the Old Testament in one semester than I had in twenty years of churchgoing, but also grew in faith.
The difference was theology. The first professor offered us little to no theology in and the second, a generous helping. Whether or not I still agree with the exact perspective offered by my Old Testament professor, I was given something to stand on while I worked through the difficult issues any serious student encounters, and for that I am thankful.
I am not against Biblical Studies. These approaches yield important insights that I hope every student at Trinity comes to wrestle with. But I also hope that those insights lead the students to a stronger, more mature and vibrant faith. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case in courses taught from perspectives such as form criticism or redaction criticism.
Currently, every undergraduate student at Trinity must take at least three Biblical studies courses, and can even get away with all of their RELS credit from the Biblical Studies type courses. And this could quite possibly leave them theologically emaciated, unable to rebuild a deconstructed faith.
A simple change to the core requirements to include more classes with more theological content could help students integrate the challenging material from the rest of our studies into our practice of faith.
And where else should students be able to get this necessary grounding if not from the department of Religious Studies?
In the joking words of one Business student, his RELS requirements were his “one shot at saving his soul.” But there is some truth behind the jest. If students are not getting theology from the RELS department, from where are we getting it? We have to glean it from the edges of our own disciplines, which is at best difficult. Sometimes there is a major-specific “IDIS” course, but even then, the theological grounding is not certain or broad enough. From the lives and practices of our professors? Thankfully we are even able to do so! But its something that must be earnestly pursued and it is not always available. Student Life? Despite the excellent job it does of fostering Christian community and providing opportunities for serving and ministry experience, Student Life simply does not go deep enough to adequately equip students to deal with intellectual challenges to the faith that often arise in their studies.
Hopefully, we are getting theologically robust teaching at church. But I know from experience that this also simply isn’t the case as much as it should be—whether on the church’s end or the student’s. Sometimes it’s just hard to get up on Sunday after a long week of class.
But if Trinity actually wants to be a faith-affirming university, where our faith in Christ informs how we explore every discipline, then we need to supply students with some form of theological grounding to give them traction. We need to incorporate more actual theology into the core requirements for every student.