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Secularism in Academe

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You often hear that Europe is much more secular than America. Just take a look at the Netherlands, for instance. How much more secular can you get?

But one place in which this stereotype rings false is in terms of academic institutions. You can pursue (as I currently am) a degree in theology at a European public university. Can you imagine that in the United States?

No, here we have departments of “religious studies” in public colleges and universities (if we cover religion there at all, and to be sure, “theology” and “religion” aren’t identical). My friend Hunter Baker might point to this difference not as secularism in a strict sense, but rather an institutional separation between state and church (for more on his definition of secularism, check out his book, The End of Secularism).

And thus from accounts of the institutional differences between the academic study of religion and theological study in America, you might easily get the impression of a kind of intellectual or academic secularism. After all, to study theology in America, you have to go to a private college or seminary (as I also am currently doing). This perspective from the Chronicle of Higher Education is representative, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” in which K.L. Noll writes, in part,

I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.

Meanwhile, in secular Europe, as ENI’s Stephen Brown reports, “European theology faculties warn of shift to religious studies.” Read the rest of Brown’s story after the break.

European theology faculties warn of shift to religious studies

By Stephen Brown
Geneva, 13 July (ENI)–Representatives of European theological faculties and church theological institutes have warned against universities dropping the teaching of theology in favour of religious studies that are seen as a more general approach.

“Theology has a major role to play within the university by countering stereotypes, demonstrating ways of dealing with religious conflict, and working out its own unique specificity in dialogue with other disciplines,” said Orthodox Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, the president of the Conference of European Churches.

He was speaking in the Austrian city of Graz at a meeting of theological faculties in Europe.

“Theology cannot be replaced by religious studies,” said Emmanuel, according to a 12 July release issued by CEC after the 7-10 July Graz meeting.

“The move to religious studies is in part a response to a decrease in student numbers, in part a reflection in the religious pluralism of Europe,” participants noted in a final statement.

“Because of increased financial pressures on universities, many theological faculties have been reduced in size, merged, or even closed,” the participants in Graz said. They said theology and religious studies could be “complementary disciplines” in a faculty.

The meeting, the third of its kind, was organized by CEC and the Catholic Theological Faculty of the Karl-Franzens University of Graz. CEC groups about 120 churches, principally Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant.

CEC’s acting general secretary, the Rev. Viorel Ionita, said the meeting aimed at encouraging cooperation between different networks of European theological faculties, as well as, “finding new ways for promoting theological research in Europe”.

Participants also warned that “the move to religious studies” is encouraging a trend by churches to send candidates for ordination to church theological institutes rather than to university theology faculties.

However, Austrian Lutheran Bishop Michael Bünker, the general secretary of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, said, “Education provided by theological faculties is essential and complements practical ministerial training.”

Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the Catholic bishop of Mainz, spoke about the relationship between theology, reason and faith saying, “Reason includes both listening and asking questions, and a thinking faith is necessary to interpret the Gospel in a way that a pluralistic world can hear and receive.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Hunter Baker

    This is the kind of thing that will happen more often in Europe. Through legal establishment, the church gained these kind of official acknowledgements (like the teaching of theology in state universities), but has lost influence with the people. Further down the road, the church will receive nothing from establishment and will have to rediscover what it means to be independent of the state. The question is whether the state will let the church go. In Sweden, they’ve been tied down despite being disestablished.

  • It further raises the question of whether and how the state ought to be funding and/or providing education at all.

  • Neal Lang

    “The question is whether the state will let the church go. In Sweden, they’ve been tied down despite being disestablished.”

    As Marx tells us, the collective State demands the minimalization of religion. If religion and the Church fulfills even some of the needs of the people, then the people can be more independent of the State. This creates a power shift from the State (government) to the community (Church). It is all about power and politics when the State is involved, results are secondary concerns.

  • Neal Lang

    “But one place in which this stereotype rings false is in terms of academic institutions. You can pursue (as I currently am) a degree in theology at a European public university. Can you imagine that in the United States?”

    No, because public education lead by Progressives such as John Dewey have carved out public education as a “religious free zone!”

  • Simon Kang’ethe Mwangi

    Secularization of Education
    The discussion on the secularization of academic is very interesting. It is unheard of in Kenya for churches to send their pastoral students to public universities for theological training. Theological training has become a preserve of private and mostly church owned universities. Let me give some examples to illustrate my point. University of Nairobi, the Kenya oldest and most prime university, had a thriving theology of department offering bachelor degrees in Divinity for potential pastors. However by late 1980s, this department had changed so much into the academic department of Religion, with little or no training for church related ministries or personnel. Indeed today it would sound funny for one to suggest that such key church leaders like Retired Rt. Rev David Gitari former head of Anglican Church, studied for their bachelor of divinity degree at University of Nairobi. The trend is repeated in all other public universities in Kenya with none having a department of theology specially equipped and planned to train church ministers. Consequently therefore a number of churches supported or initiated universities have been established to fill in the gap, hence establishment of such institutions such as Africa Nazarene University, Catholic University of Eastern Africa, St Paul United University, Pan Africa University, Presbyterian University of Kenya, and Daystar University among others.

    It might be necessary to research on the impact of this separation of theological training from the public universities, on the relationship of pastors and their members, many of who are products of public university, as well as to determine whether indeed these privately offered theological education, qualifies as pure academic department capable of engaging in intellectual discords. Finally it is important to note that in Kenyan public universities, the talk of secularization of education might not even be relevant given the fact that their foundation is secular in nature. Most of these public universities do not have departments of theology at their inception. Their nature and orientation is purely secular. But would it help to introduce theology department in them this late? Would such departments help reduce secularism in education? Would their orientation be acceptable to church workers? These are hard to tell. The other question that need examining is whether introduction of other none theology degree courses, in former pure theological colleges, will have negative impact on theological training, and eventual secularization of education in Kenya private universities. Signs are on the wall with decline in enrollment in theology departments.

    Simon K. Mwangi
    Lecturer at Africa Nazarene University and adjunct Lecturer at Egerton University.

  • Mary M.

    My thought is that the accomplishment of the teacher of theology requires deep expertise, immersion in the canon of her/his work, and a sharing, almost unsparing, to the student. If the doors of a theology school open to this, the complexion should change away from the secular to reparation of the theological venue.