“The Cry of the Scholar: From ‘Religious Studies’ to Catholic Theology”
by Paul Thigpen
(Lay Witness, March 1999)
Paul Thigpen, a fellow in theology at the College of St. Thomas More in Fort Worth, Texas, writes: “I came across a simple petition of St. Thomas Aquinas [which] captured the longing of my heart.”
The prayer of Aquinas: Lord my God, bestow upon me an understanding that knows you, diligence in seeking you, wisdom in finding you, and confidence that I shall embrace you at the last.
“I knew as soon as I read those words that I had to pray them every day. But … I was teaching at a secular state university, and since my office was government property, there were limits on what I could display there.
“I posted the words in large letters on the back of my office door. Whenever it was closed and I was alone, I could read and ponder St. Thomas’ petition. But the door always remained open and back against the wall whenever I had visitors, so no one else knew it was there.
“That hidden prayer symbolized for me all the joys and frustrations of teaching religious studies in a large state school. To speak of God in my classroom setting was a joy for me, even if I was limited in what I could say. … And I was happy to relieve my students of the common misconception that all religions are basically the same and all are somehow true in their own ways, despite the differences in their beliefs and practices.
“At the same time, however, I felt considerable frustration. Many of my students were ‘seekers’ who flocked to religious studies courses in search of faith. I longed to present a sustained apologetic for the Catholic faith that could address their most profound questions and longings.
“My faith couldn't always be stuffed in a closet without a corner left sticking out the door. I remember the student who whined that I referred to God as ‘He, ‘the student course evaluation complaining that I once called Jesus ‘Christ’ while describing Christian doctrine.
“Just as I couldn't advocate a particular religious belief in class, I couldn't offer even a mild critique of particular religious traditions. Day after day, I had to portray a sampling of the wide array of religions in our nation as if they were simply equivalent choices in a spiritual cafeteria line, waiting to be selected according to individual tastes.
“I knew I was making a significant difference in the spiritual lives of at least some of the students, because they often told me so. … Nevertheless, the impact I had on these young lives took place ‘beyond’ my job, or even ‘in spite of’ my job, rather than ‘because of’ my job.
“I once had an attorney friend who lamented the fact that, in all his years in law school, the focus of his courses was on legality. The more primary issue — What is justice? — never seemed to be considered. In a similar way, it seems to me that religious studies in the secular state classroom works hard to focus on religious diversity. The more fundamental question — Which religion is true? — is shunned as improper or even impossible to answer.
“My experience led me to the same conclusion reached well over a century ago by John Cardinal Newman, that a merely secular education is inevitably a false education: false not just because it leaves out the subject that is most critical, but also because no other subject can be rightly understood except in the light of that all-important reality. Ultimately, a secular education can never answer the question ‘What is true?’ It can only ask — and not always correctly — ‘What works?’
“One day a colleague told me that a student from a Christian background … had been experiencing spiritual turmoil. But then something he had learned about Buddhism in our classes attracted him, and now he had decided to convert to that religion.
“That night, in turmoil myself, I sought God in prayer. How could I continue in good conscience in a position that required me to introduce students to religious teachings I knew to be untrue without allowing me to challenge those teachings?
“I applied [to] The College of St. Thomas More … [Now, t]ogether with my students … we pray with one voice the timeless cry of the scholar who seeks the Lord above all else.”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.