By Micah Kiel
During the 2018-19 academic year at St. Ambrose University, the Theology Department engaged in a five-year review of its mission statement, outcomes, and curriculum. I was in my final year as department chair during this process, which is required of all departments, and I thought it might be interesting and helpful to give a summary of those changes for the diocesan paper.
We are in an era where “Theology” departments are increasingly rare. Many theology departments have become “religious studies” departments. There is a vast difference between these two. “Theology” seeks to understand the tradition from the inside, to be part of the tradition even as one studies it. A “religious studies” disposition approaches the topics from the outside, with little to no personal faith involvement. At St. Ambrose, we take being a “Theology” department seriously. This does not mean that we are doing catechetical work. We certainly teach the tenets of the faith, but we do more than that. A theologian’s job is to think critically, to ask hard questions, and to scrutinize the relationship between faith and reason. We ask hard questions and ask our students to do the same, so that we all may find a way to mature faith. The tradition is alive and we want to understand how God has spoken, and continues to speak, in our modern world.
Toward that end, we re-wrote our department mission statement to be the following:
“The mission of the Theology Department is to equip students with the skills necessary to pursue a critical understanding of faith through the examination of diverse sources in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, including Scripture, tradition, and experience. The Theology Department empowers students to enrich their relationship with God, the Church, and other faith traditions, seeking engagement with the world and justice for all God’s creation.”
I’m quite proud of this mission statement and the fact that all seven of our full-time theologians agreed to it! I hope it will set a clear agenda for our department.
Because St. Ambrose is a diocesan university, we do not have a “charism” like some Catholic universities do. St. Ambrose does, however, have a charism of sorts in the emphasis on social justice that has been in the institution’s DNA since its inception. The church’s social teachings are given particular emphasis here. Because of that, our department tried to be intentional in having that charism be reflected in what we do and how we do it.
Taking this charism seriously during our review process resulted in a new course, one that almost all freshmen at St. Ambrose will take. It’s called “Just Theology.” While some students may have misunderstood this title and thought it means there wouldn’t be any math, sociology or philosophy mixed in, what it really means is an introduction to theology with a particular emphasis on the importance of justice, in keeping with the mission of St. Ambrose University.
Designed as a student’s first theology course, “Just Theology” introduces Christian Scripture and theological disciplines through the lens of justice. It will focus on the relationship between God and just action in the world as emphasized in the mission of St. Ambrose University. It will highlight contributions to the Catholic Intellectual Tradition from racial and ethnic minorities, women and global voices.
All members of the department will teach this course, often multiple sections of it, each semester. While we each have freedom to assign our own readings and structure the course how we see fit, we have all agreed to the same description and outcomes.
Given the importance we will place on this new course, we thought it would be a good idea to offer some insights from what we are teaching. Once a month throughout this academic year, faculty members from our department will each write about an idea, insight or core reading that they are highlighting in this course. That way the lay people of the diocese can learn along with us as we work to implement and teach this new course.
(Micah Kiel is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)