Studying Faith: Why People Take the Academic Dive

By Brooke Folliot (Guest Contributor)

College-level theology and religion courses, whether offered as part of a degree program or on a per-course basis, have long been popular with those seeking to understand a particular faith. Increasingly, however, people who already hold certain beliefs to be true are choosing to study them in more formal academic settings. There are even those that choose to pursue it once they have already completed an undergraduate degree in another area of study and decide to embark upon a Master’s level of study on the subject. As many colleges now hold both classroom-instructed and online graduate degrees in theology and religion studies, flexibility can intersect with faith as students complete the program.  Many students are seeking a more robust view of their faith’s core literature, traditions, and criticism. Some are looking for answers to lingering questions or doubts, and still others find a renewed connection to their faith by understanding its history and influences.

Religious beliefs tend to be deeply personal: they have generally been informed by a combination of individual experiences, upbringing, and internal conviction. Intellectually minded people who hold religious tenets to be true often want to understand why their faiths are true, and often grapple with how to justify their beliefs to the secular world. A university course devoted to faith may be a way for religious students to find answers, and in many cases to strengthen their beliefs. “Students who major in Theology become perceptive, critical readers of the biblical text and of theological literature,” the Colorado Christian College says in its academic catalog. “They are able to interpret the Bible for themselves and for others confidently.”

Other religious students look for college courses in their religious tradition as a means of pursuing something they already enjoy, and taking their knowledge to a higher, more informed level. “Prior to having settled on a major, I was actually kind of wary of the theology major because I wasn’t sure if it would enjoy looking at my faith through an academic lens,” Courtney Kimball, a theology major from the College of Saint Benedict at Saint John’s University, said in an interview posted on the theology department’s webpage. After getting into the material, however, she had a change of heart. “I thought to myself, ‘why would I not want to spend the next four years studying this?’”

Still other students pursue faith-based courses as a means of connecting with a faith that is theirs by tradition, but perhaps has not been rigorously practiced. This type of student is often looking to strengthen his or her connection with family and cultural heritage. Rutgers University’s Jewish Studies program is one of many that caters to students in this category. “The approach to Jewish Studies at Rutgers University teaches students how to bring analytical skills to a topic to which they may have a distinct personal attachment or perspective,” the program’s goals state. “By its very nature, Jewish Studies allows students to explore many aspects of the Jewish experience through a variety of methodologies.” Smith College’s Buddhist Studies Center, which offers “many programs for students in both the study and practice of Buddhism,” is another, albeit less formal, means through which students can take an academic approach to faith.

Not all students are comfortable delving into their faith in public, much less defending it. Some will naturally find the community and intellectual society of the classroom invigorating, but those who do not—as well as those who may lack the time for a full course load—often explore the growing realm of online religious education. Many schools offer degrees, programs, and faith-centered courses over the internet, a significant number of which can be tailored to individual timelines and specific interests. Taking this approach can be very cost-effective, and also allows students access to course resources while journeying through religious texts and literature at their own pace.

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