Sunday morning isn’t the only time to crack open your Bible.

And you don’t have to wait until Shabbat service to hear a lesson from the Torah.

Every day, thousands of students at Georgetown study theology. While it is primarily taught from an academic standpoint, some Georgetown students find it closely related to their personal faith and values.

Theology involves the study of religion and the study of God. But don’t expect there to be a singular definition of the subject.

It varies among professors and students alike, as do their reasons for studying it. While it can be seen as purely academic, for Georgetown students, theology is often a way for students to academically engage in faith and spirituality.

Rick Elgendy (COL `05) knows no other way. Once an atheist, Elgendy describes his entrance into Christianity as an intellectual conversion.

“It was rational to believe,” he said.

For the Chicago native, critical analysis of religion is important because “from the beginning, it’s been the primary way I relate to God.”

Drawn in by his introductory theology classes, he switched his ambitions of a government and economics double major to theology. Studying theology is what keeps him engaged.

That’s one goal of the theology department, according to Chester Gillis, the department chair. The diverse groups of students who take theology courses present a challenge and an opportunity, Gillis explained.

“The challenge is to draw them into theological thinking and thinking about religion . in ways that capture their intellectual acumen. The opportunity is a chance to shape their critical understanding of religion in ways they probably weren’t exposed to before coming to Georgetown,” he said.

As a Catholic and Jesuit institution, “We privilege the study of theology in our curriculum,” Gillis said. Therefore, Georgetown aims to introduce students to critical thinking about religion and how religion plays out in society.

At Georgetown, students take theology courses for several reasons. For one, all students are required to take at least two courses as a part of the core curriculum. The most popular in number and reputation is the 40-year-old Problem of God course, usually taken in freshman year.

Grunting and complaining, some students aren’t thrilled to find out that theology courses are required. Coming from all sorts of backgrounds, some students may be atheist or agnostic, indifferent or devout. And there’s a combination of all types in almost every theology classroom.

Not all students, however, take theology courses just because they’re required.

Though there are only about sixteen theology majors in the class of 2005, about 4,000 students register for theology classes each year. Eighteen percent of those are registering for a third or fourth theology class, according to the June 2004 Theology Newsletter.

Reaching for deeper understanding, students often take these classes to learn more about their faith and spirituality. For these students, theology is inextricably influential in their faith even if they don’t identify with a specific spiritual tradition. It allows for critical academic study, but also enlightenment about the beliefs and values they hold.

Such is the case for Sahil Warsi (SFS `05). Warsi, like other students, took Problem of God during his freshmen year. The course examined the notion of God as understood through various religious and non-religious perspectives.

But his next theology course was Islamic Religious Thought and Practice. As a Muslim, Warsi said the course helped him understand more about his faith and why he believed in it.

“It was very helpful to me in that it really made me go through and figure out what I

believed, why I believe what I believe,” Warsi said.

Warsi has taken his initial interest a step further and is pursuing a certificate in Islam and Christian-Muslim Understanding.

Students also take classes outside their personal faith traditions. Cara Sklar (COL `05), who is Jewish, said “I enjoy learning about other faiths and feel that in order to understand the world today it is important to take the opportunity to gain knowledge about what is a motivating factor in many realms in the U.S. and abroad.”

She feels that studying theology allows her to understand how religion affects society. Being Jewish, Sklar said she appreciates it when professors teach “with open minds and pluralistic viewpoints.”

In fact, Georgetown has a growing reputation for its pluralistic outlook. Strides the university has taken to incorporate other beliefs into the framework of its academia and ministry are not shared by other Catholic and Jesuit institutions.

In 1999, Georgetown became the first Catholic school to have a uslim Imam on its campus ministry staff.

In addition, on-campus centers such as the Center for uslim-Christian Understanding seek “to improve relations between the Muslim world and the West and enhance understanding of uslims in the West,” according to the center’s Web site. The center, like Georgetown, has gained international attention for its efforts, and is one of the extensive examples of pluralism is the theology curricula.

Gillis points out that Georgetown is “rooted in Catholic and Jesuit tradition, [but] as scholars what we all study is the wider world of religion.” This includes other major traditions of the world and social theories about religion, he explained.

The department, therefore, has classes about Catholicism, but also offers courses on subjects ranging from Islam to Judaism, Buddhism, Science and Religion and more.

While some may be appreciative of this approach, not everyone is. Gillis explained that Georgetown has been criticized for not focusing more on Catholic studies and being dedicated to critical study of religion.

Unlike what some might imagine, theology at Georgetown is not like seminary or divinity school. Those types of institutions train students for ministry. Rather, theology is taught in a critically analytical and academic manner.

Indeed, some students also take issue with how theology is taught at Georgetown.

For Yvonne Elosiebo (COL `07), that method has been a challenging and disappointing one.

She said that in one of her classes, she felt her professor made “statements about the Bible that, according to Christianity, can only be made by the Holy Spirit.”

Elosiebo felt like she always had to defend her religion in the class instead of it being respected. “He tried to be funny sometimes, but it was offensive. I’m offended when people say `God or Jesus are lying when they say things in the Bible.’ That’s blaspheming God, to me anyways.”

Elosiebo said she isn’t expecting everyone to believe what she believes or that professors shouldn’t bring up other viewpoints. Instead, the manner in which it is done is important when dealing with matters of faith, even in an academic setting.

“He could have said them differently … He could have said people `think the Bible is contradictory’ versus making concrete statements,” she said.

For all who teach theology and all who take it, theology usually serves a different purpose in their academic and spiritual lives.

Many Georgetown students often find some part of their spiritual lives – whether active or nonexistent – intertwined with the courses they take.

And for Elgendy, there isn’t necessarily a reason to always separate the two.

“Theology can’t be all you do,” he said. “But it is a great tool for examining what you do and why you do it.”

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