Monday, June 09, 2014

skin in the theology game

Does the study of theology require more skin, more personal involvement, than other types of study?

Case study one: Claire is a second year university student. She has one optional subject and spots a summer school programme called “Bible and Popular Culture.”  She has a cousin who grew up religious and it makes for awkward pauses whenever the family get together. She enrols in “Bible and Popular Culture,” hoping to gain an easy credit and to help her talk with the “religious” side of her family.  Unknown to her, one of the classes will be on the subject of trauma.  The lecturer connects the Old Testament book of Lamentations with contemporary experiences of trauma. The lecture triggers for Claire a memory of a moment from her teenage years. Suddenly, in the midst of a university class ten years later, she is overwhelmed with painful memories.

Case study two: Bruce has a deep faith. Studying archeology, he notes an intensive called “Introduction to Theology.” It fits with his timetable.  More importantly, having faith, Bruce arrives at class expecting that this class will connect with what is important to his values.  Half way through the classs, he finds the faith he learnt from his church being disturbed by the content of the lecture.  In a small group, feeling slightly ruffled, he expresses his unease, only for a third person in the group to make a smart comment about the naivety of Christian belief.  Suddenly what Bruce has held dear is publicly exposed.

Case study three: Sue is a PhD candidate. She began theology study as a Catholic. But the more she has studied, the more she finds problematic the position of her denomination toward woman.  Intellectually bright, she enrols in post-graduate study, wanting to explore her questions in more depth.  But her topic – leadership and gender in the early church – is making folk from her home church increasingly uncomfortable.  She begins to realise that the results of her research might well result in her being marginalised within her church community.  Might she have to leave, either  to find a new church, or perhaps even a new denomination?

Each of these case studies are hypothetical, but each are a snapshot from conversations I’ve had with students in my classes in the last few years.

It seems to me that for each of these students, studying theology has meant the finding of some serious skin in a classroom setting.  Lectures have touched on significant personal experiences. Readings have raised questions about beliefs held dear.  Study has brought into into question existing relationships and raised the possibility that it might lead to damage of a person’s communities and identity outside the class.

All of these requires significant personal energy, the investment of soul and spirit above and beyond the learning outcomes and assessment set. I wonder if other areas of study demand as much skin? Does engineering or the history of the Middle Ages or the literature of Ireland impact on identity and experience in such areas?

I suspect that it does not, and as a result, the study of theology is not only a deeply demanding intellectual engagement, but also one that requires significant individual skin in the class.

I wonder what this means for students, for lecturers and for the higher education systems in which theology is taught?

Posted by steve at 09:27 PM


  1. Hi Steve,

    As someone who has studied in both the sciences and theology, I can say Christian beliefs bring skin into the game for students in those areas too (perhaps you could do pure mathematics and not touch on issues relating to creation or the nature of humanity).

    That being said, you have identified part of the nature of what it means to be a theological college or any community of genuine faith sharing – when we explore faith together we all enter vulnerable spaces. We all should have skin in the game. While we can try to make safe places for people to explore, we worship and follow God, the One who disturbs and challenges the norms of those around him and whose ways of working are anything but safe. No one can have more skin in the game than Christ incarnate, died and risen. I think that is where a commitment to journey together is so useful and important. If only one party puts skin in the game, that is when it can become abusive.

    Comment by David F — June 9, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

  2. tThanks David. I also did a horticulture degree, and yes, found some skin mostly around evolution.

    But not nearly as much in soil science and plant science as I did in theology.


    Comment by steve — June 9, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

  3. Learning to think about being human, the humanity of others, and how relationships work requires skin in the game, it is not unique to theology. Yes theology can do this, so can psychology and social work. Challenging presuppositions about ourselves and our relationships with others, the questions of power and authority, although not explicitly about God.

    Comment by Paul Foord — June 9, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

  4. Thanks Paul. That’s a helpful perspective.

    I would concur that my case study one – Claire is certainly likely in a psych or social work class. I’m not sure about the other two.

    Perhaps it is that there are different areas of humanity?


    Comment by steve — June 10, 2014 @ 10:31 am

  5. Perhaps ‘skin in the game’ is one of the signs of theology and theological education done well – we can choose to leave our skin out by choosing to focus on what the Bible or this theologian says about an abstract issue, but our skin is placed in when we start asking questions about where God is leading us (and the church we serve) in our lives.

    Comment by David F — June 10, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

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