Should you take a religious studies course at a secular university?
When I was scheduling classes for the second semester of my junior year of college, I was caught in a dilemma. I had a number of credit requirements that needed fulfilling in order to graduate on time, and these credits could be completed by taking any class I wanted. At the time, my newfound Christian faith was deepening, and so my logical conclusion was to fulfill these requirements by taking three religious studies courses. But here is the dilemma: should I really take religious studies courses at a secular university?
I had many thoughts about what could go wrong. What if I was taught something that was incorrect? How would I know if I wasn’t being taught truth? What if I were led astray by something being presented as true? But despite these hesitancies, I went forward with the decision; and I was pleasantly surprised with how the Lord went on to use these classes in my life.
The First Lesson: Historical Relevancy of the Bible
Jerusalem. One of the oldest cities in the world. A “Mecca” for three of the world’s largest religions, and the topic of my first religious studies course. As a Christian, this is quite the relevant topic. This is where much of the Old Testament takes place, as well as the place where Jesus died and rose again.
Though I had grown up hearing Bible stories, I quickly realized how little I knew about Jerusalem. The Bible talks about the city quite a bit, but there is a lot to be learned about Jerusalem from outside of Scripture. The main thing I want to highlight from this class was an object called Sennacherib’s Prism.
During the reign of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria began a siege of Jerusalem. This story is detailed in the Bible in the book of 2 Kings, chapter 18, and in those verses, Sennacherib demands that Hezekiah pay him 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold, in exchange for the withdrawal of the Assyrians from Jerusalem. Hezekiah does this, and not only is this transaction detailed in the Bible, it is detailed in the Assyrian account on the prism as well. Two accounts, from two opposing sides, in agreement with one another.
I was astounded at this revelation, and I’m still thankful for it to this day. At the time, the Bible became more real to me than it ever had before. It isn’t that I saw the Bible as a collection of made up stories, but this added authenticity made the truth of Scripture clear to me; and to think that I learned this lesson from taking a religious studies course at a secular university! This is only one example, but nothing in this class contradicted my faith. In fact, it reinforced it.
The Second Lesson: Insight into other Religions
Christianity is not the only religion in the world. But sometimes as Christians, we like to pretend that it is. The “World Religions” class that I took at Penn State reminded me of this, as well as helping me come to the conclusion that I should seek to understand the way others think. Jesus understood the cultural and religious differences in the people he interacted with and he ministered to them differently based on his understanding.
Our professor made it very clear that we were partaking in the “academic study of religion”, and not making any claims about the legitimacy of the beliefs. I understood this, and agree that this is a good approach, but obviously disagreed as I have certain beliefs about what is right and what isn’t. We looked at things from the believer’s perspective, and learned about what they believe, why they believe it, and why they practice it in the ways that they do. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and finally Christianity were all covered.
What was helpful for me in taking this class was to look at what I was learning as a lesson in apologetics. Before taking this class, if I ended up in a conversation with a Buddhist, I would have had no idea what they believed. And with that, no idea how to minister to them. At the time, I was living on a college campus with a diverse student population, both ethnically and religiously. What I was learning was directly applicable to my ministry context; I just didn’t realize that I needed to learn it.
In learning about the world’s other religions, it was clear how Christianity was different from the rest. I never found out what religion my professor practiced, if any, but one thing he did mention when talking about Christianity was how it wasn’t about what we could do to get to God, but about what God did to get to us. To have the Gospel presently clearly in a religious studies course at a secular university? Praise God.
I knew that Christianity was different, but to have it presented in this way in this circumstance was, again, did not contradict my faith; but reinforced it.
The Third Lesson: New Testament Scholarship
The biggest challenge I faced in the religious studies courses I took at Penn State came in the last class I took. A new testament course should be easy enough, right? Especially when a number of my friends from other Christian fellowships on campus are in my class.
But when our professor told us that she was Jewish, things took a turn. Could I believe what she was teaching us? Yes, it’s an academic study of religion. But if she doesn’t believe in what the New Testament says, how would that affect her teaching?
And it did affect her teaching. There were a few times where our class engaged in debate over the legitimacy of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and at one point our professor made a claim that nowhere in the Old Testament is Jesus mentioned. Luckily, myself and other students brought up Isaiah 53 (certainly not the only Old Testament passage that points to Jesus, but perhaps the most common). Looking back on this, I’m thankful for these events. I was pleased to find that I was confident enough in my faith to not only recognize that I was being presented with something that was untrue, but also bold enough to confront it. Would I have had this opportunity to grow in this way if I had decided to not take this course? Probably.
Despite a few circumstances like the one I detailed above; I did learn a lot from this class. I had never memorized the order of the books of the New Testament before, and now I had. I learned about scholarship of the New Testament and what it has looked like over the years.
Though in this final class the teaching contradicted my faith, my faith was reinforced.
Should you take a religious studies course at a secular university?
Yes, you absolutely should. Though the three lessons I learned were based on my own experience, these are universal growth experiences for anyone taking a religious studies course at a secular university.
It was uncomfortable at times. It challenged me. But the opportunities these classes presented before me, and the realizations I made will have eternal implications for the kingdom of God.