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Religion to be required at Harvard

Kathleen McDonnell | Friday, October 13, 2006

While Notre Dame students are no strangers to required classes in religion, Harvard students will face a similar requirement for the first time in quite a while – a move which brings to light the growing importance of religious studies in American universities.

On Oct. 4, CNN reported that a faculty committee recommendation at Harvard University proposed requirements for undergraduates be expanded to include a course in “reason and faith.” The “surprisingly bold recommendation,” as CNN reported, aims to broaden Harvard’s core curriculum, whose narrow academic focus has been criticized in recent years.

Notre Dame has traditionally emphasized the importance of religious inquiry in undergraduate formation, most noted in the two theology requirements undergraduates must fulfill before graduation.

Taking into account the inclusion of religion in the core curricula of other Ivy League schools like Columbia and Dartmouth, Harvard’s reintroduction of religious material seems part of a possible trend amongst secular schools.

But while Harvard’s new classes include material on religion, its focus seems slightly different from that of a religiously affiliated institution like Notre Dame, said theology department chair John Cavadini.

While Harvard’s faculty recommendation calls for courses such as Religion and Democracy, Darwinism, or “Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t,” Notre Dame’s required courses focus instead on “faith seeking understanding,” he said.

“Instead of studying religion as if it were an object, we try to rearticulate it, to understand the parts of faith – articulating a tradition based in faith,” Cavadini said.

As far as the approach to religion is concerned, secular schools and Catholic institutes like Notre Dame seem to regard religion differently.

If secular institutions regard religion as a cultural artifact to examine and rationalize, questions of personal faith may not be appropriate for their classrooms, Cavadini said.

At Notre Dame, “the theology class subject is God,” he said. “Questions about students’ own faith are legitimate, they help students have a sophisticated understanding about what faith teaches.”

In a telephone interview with CNN, Harvard philosophy professor Alison Simmons said “as academics in a university we don’t have to confront religion if we’re not religious, but in the world they [students] will have to.”

Cavadini explained the difference between the secular and religious approach in response to Simmons’ quote.

“The way the sentence is set up implies religion is an uncomfortable reality we have to confront, to make sense of the irrational,” he said. “We don’t use the language of ‘confronting’ religion here. We talk about a dialect between faith and reason. You don’t have to leave your faith at the door to be reasonable, it’s not baggage that remains outside of the classroom. You can think within the faith commitment.”

According to the University-approved rationale for the core requirements of theology, the primary goal of these courses is to “contribute to a student’s disciplined reflection on what it means to think about God, God’s revelation, and everything else in light of God’s revelation.”

The first required course, Foundations of Theology, aims to help students understand the discipline of theology, to encounter the authoritative texts and to become aware of the constitution, transmission and interpretation of the texts as well as to acquire interpretive skills of one’s own. The focus is not only on the basics of Christian thought but also on improving interpretive skills that can be translated to other disciplines.

The second required course examines a major theme in the Christian theological tradition and explores its implications through an inquiry of Christian history.

A spring 2005 survey of students in the midst of the second theology requirement found the majority of students to be highly satisfied or satisfied with the foundations of theology course. The department, however, is always trying to improve the requirement classes, and often works off student feedback, Cavadini said.

As for the importance of religious study to the University, “Catholic intellectual life is inconceivable without theology,” Cavadini said.