Thursday, January 08, 2004

Lately I've been thinking quite a bit about what it means to me to be a member of a theology department at a Catholic University. I was apprehensive when I first arrived here at Xavier, as previously in my life I avoided things related to the word theology. For example, although one of my B.A.s was in Religion, and I chose UCSD for my Ph.D. work because it was a degree in history, as opposed to theology or religion. I guess I always assumed theology was less rigorous academically, and had more to do with singing and praying than with real university erudite stuff. I was of course wrong. Though I feel very differently about theology now that I better understand how it uses critical thinking to try to understand some very lofty questions, I feel I have to fight daily to let others know that what I do is an academic discipline. Other faculty members, students who have not taken our courses, and members of the administration seem to believe that what we do in the theology department is pastoral, and we teach students how to remember the 10 commandments, how to have a nice Catholic marriage, and remind them that Jesus wants them to pray the Rosary. From what I understand the theology department here used to be that way. Thank God it isn't now. I don't feel I would have these problems if I was in a department of history, or even in a department of religious studies. I also wouldn't have this problem if I taught in Europe where people have a better understanding of the academic rigor involved in theology, or even in America 100 years ago. Unfortunately, at times I'm probably a more difficult professor than I should be because I'm trying to overcompensate for a false perception. How crazy is that? Also people think I'm holy because I'm a theology professor. People from New Orleans seem to be more spiritual than other cities in America where I've lived. And this association with theology=holy is a dangerous thing, as it is powerful and can work for or against you. For example, if a student attacked me, people would assume it was a greater crime because not only did they attack a professor, but a THEOLOGY professor, as if they attacked one of Jesus' disciples or something. But if I did something wrong, I would have greater distance to fall from my false pedestal of sacredness. Sort of like William Bennett or even Rush Limbaugh. However, they convinced themselves and others that their morality and they as people were better than others. Though, I make no such claims, and am held in this higher perception simply because I teach in a theology department. I also have students come to me with their personal problems because they think I have a direct hotline to heaven. Once I had a young man come to my office who said he grew up in New Orleans and was about to enter a hospice where he would most likely die from HIV/AIDS. He wanted to know about what would happen to him in the afterlife. I have no training in counseling about such matters, so I told him Jesus hated his guts and he would rot in hell. No I didn't. I told him to go to Campus Ministry as they were better suited to help him. Anyway, these are some thoughts I've been having about theology.

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