Scholars and instructors have several ways of describing the commonalities and differences between theology and religious studies--the two fields contained in the title of our department, and which our courses explore. Here is how I would express it:
The study of theology and the study of religion both examine human beliefs and ideas about what is sacred--a realm which is different from the visible, empirical world, and of ultimate importance and value to those who consider it to be real. Both fields address questions such as whether this sacred realm exists and, if so, what its nature is; its relationship to the material universe we all can see and to the various religions that are evident in human history; and the significance and consequences of these answers for many things humans care about, such as ethics, culture and philosophy.
Of course, scholars in the fields of theology and religious studies often differ in their answers to such questions--not only between these two groups, but even among the participants in each group. Nevertheless, it is possible to characterize the general differences between the study of theology and the study of religion in terms of the scope, perspective and methods that are evident in each discipline:
- The study of theology is traditionally the expression, study and affirmation of one religion, Christianity, by means of its beliefs about God and God's relationship to the world. Today, some also use the word theology to describe the patterns of thinking which characterize each religious community, although this is a broader and different conception of theology than what is found in Christianity. Either way, theology expresses the perspective of an 'insider,' one who affirms or seeks to support the validity of certain beliefs, or who explores the consequences and applications of those beliefs for other topics.
- The study of religion is the study of any particular religion, and of the common patterns and distinctive differences evident in all religions, solely by means of evidence and reasoning that everyone can assess. Since it is evident that there is no consensus, in the world or among scholars, as to the existence or nature of the sacred, such study of religion does not assume the validity of any religious belief, and the validity of such beliefs is neither affirmed nor rejected. Consequently, works in the field of religious studies are sometimes described as expressing the perspective of an 'outsider,' of one who, for instance, reports what others say about the sacred but reserves judgment about those reports. Research in this discipline seeks, within the limits of its methods, to understand the content, nature and functions of religious beliefs, rituals, values and groups, to examine their causes and consequences, and to explore their significance for human life and history.
These two fields are often explored separately and in different courses. But it can also be fruitful, and even necessary, to consider them together in the same course. Creative openness to and respect for both fields of study, and to dialogue between them, is both a valid expression of academic standards of inquiry and a vital expression of the Dominican, Catholic and Christian heritage of Molloy College.