Miroslav Volf, Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, recently appeared on the ABC's Q & A discussion program this past Monday evening. As usual they discussed a range of social and political issues, but there was a particular interest in religious questions as well. Again and again, Volf made the case for religious groups to participate in public debate and the promotion of a healthy multi-religious society. A key component of this proposal is unhinging religious groups from power, and avoiding theocratic impulses. Plural democracies should not exclude faith, but no one faith can rule. At a key moment, he was asked about the need for more interfaith dialogue, to which he responded in two ways. Firstly, to note that the twentieth century was marked by secular ideology pinned against particular religious groups. Secondly, he completely agreed and talked about an example of a course he teaches at Yale which asks students to compare the conceptions of the good life promoted by the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, John Stewart Mill and Nietzsche. You can watch the program here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/
A few points which came to mind:
- It is always positive to see a professional Christian theologian speak in public in a way that evokes cheers and agreement among other reasonable people. Volf's work is utterly exemplary amongst theologians, and he provides crucial leadership for the field at Yale. His recent books on Islam as well as the nature of the public sphere push forward on one of the key issues of our times: religion in political life.
- I don't know how often people in Australia watch these programs, but Volf pitched the issues in a way almost entirely consistent with how we teach religion and theology at the University of Newcastle, and our research programs on Religion in Political Life. This is important because the politicians on the program asked for this kind of education to be expanded in schools. We completely agree and provide the tertiary examples and training to do so. Our courses feature in the University of Newcastle's Bachelor of Education program and Bachelor of Arts. Most importantly, the Bachelor of Theology now includes core compulsory courses on world religions, comparative theology, interfaith dialogue and key processes of secularisation. All of our core courses are focused on helping students learn how to think theologically about the key issues discussed in this Q & A program. Our research has produced a series of edited collections on religion and radicalism, gender, colonial legacies and secularization, the capstone of which Religion in Australian Political Life should be available early next year.
- There are two main waves coming towards theological education today: 1) the need to demonstrate the link between deep faith in particular traditions amidst a sophisticated ability to converse and dialogue with others in humility; 2) digital online learning which allows flexible delivery and interactive engagement with the learning experience. In Australia, the University of Newcastle is well ahead of both of these waves. The Bachelor of Theology is now completely online this year in a way that mirrors and echoes the face to face learning at the Newcastle campus. The last few years of student feedback on our online courses is amongst the highest in the university. This year, record numbers of students are enrolled in our courses, World Religions (RELT1020), Theology: Searching the Spiritual (RELT1010), Buddhist and Other Contemplative Practices (RELT1022), and The Many Faces of Jesus (RELT2010).
In any case, I'm always encouraged when an international theologian visits to speaks so eloquently on matters of public debate, and can be heard online by as many people as possible.