In one scene of the movie A Mighty Wind, two of the characters describe their religious beliefs.

As members of WINC, Witches in Nature’s Colors, they believe that color is alive, that humans are “materialized color,” and that colors send them psychic messages which they then use to guide their clothing purchases.

In one religious ritual, they hold lighted candles while reverently singing the names of colors, beginning with red and ending with violet.

The scene was comical but also thought-provoking. Wasn’t that, after all, how any religious faith must seem to the outsider? Religion, any religion to the outsider, is little more than impenetrably odd beliefs, idiosyncratic behavioral norms, and obscure ritual practices. Religious beliefs have the same intellectual depth and coherence as newspaper horoscopes, and thus studying religion requires nothing more than memorizing facts.

If true, no serious exchange of ideas between different religious traditions is possible.

“I worship the gods of color.”

“Oh, really? That’s nice. I worship the sun and believe the moon is a demon from a trans-orthogonal dimension of heaven.”

“Wow. Your religion is nice too.”

“Thanks.”

“Same to you.”

Stick to the surface facts. Don’t probe too deeply; there’s nothing there.

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I believe I have picked up hints of such a view among some students. And, of course, I want to challenge it.

Religious traditions have developed ways of interpreting the world that have their own forms of complexity, rational sophistication, and intellectual coherence.

They include belief systems which offer time tested insights into the “big questions” – e.g., the meaning of suffering, the beginning and ultimate destiny of human existence, the moral uses and abuses of power, and the innate value of nature and the environment.

They have developed their respective views not simply through private meditations and prayers, but also through lived experience and historical encounters with the thoughts and ideas of other religions, philosophical systems and cultures.

These encounters not only enrich the religious traditions. They also fashion within them intellectual doorways to the world “outside,” openings through which outsiders can approach with their own set of questions and outlooks and hope to find meaningful, even if finally unconvincing, responses.

Thus, studying Catholicism (or Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) demands more than memorization. It requires intellectual seriousness, engaged questioning, and work.

It requires an appreciative respect that we stand before a body of human wisdom that would take more than a lifetime to fully comprehend.

It requires that we learn enough to become humbled by how little we know.

It’s part of Georgetown’s greatness that it invites its students to share in this scholarly study of faith traditions. The invitation, however, has not always been extended.

Sometime ago, long before Fr. Hentz’s head had achieved its shiny top, studying religion here on the Hilltop all too often aligned with the “memorize things about religion” model.

The religion to be learned at the time was, of course, Catholicism, and you learned it by learning things about it. Often absent were the moments of critical questioning, the dialogues with other interpretations of human existence, the intellectual space for genuine and free exploration of alternative positions – in short, the very things that would characterize an academically healthy engagement of the Catholic faith.

About 40 years ago, Georgetown’s Theology Department revamped its program. At the center of this transformed curriculum was a new course for first year students, the oddly named “Problem of God.”

The course was to engage the students existentially (i.e., speak to the student’s own spiritual struggles). It was to include a free and open discussion of a diverse array of religious and anti-religious figures. And it was to offer students the intellectual space to develop their own answers and conclusions.

Problem of God has since then developed into one of the most stimulating and effective courses on campus. I believe its effectiveness is due in part because it treats religious thought with the academic respect it deserves, neither coddling it as sacrosanct nor dismissing it as child’s play.

An alumnus recently told me how lucky he thought today’s Hoyas were. A “good” Catholic himself today, he lamented that he never had a chance to ask questions about his faith; he was “taught what to believe and told to believe it.” The lack of “play” (his word) in theology coursework left him feeling “intellectual stunted” on religious matters.

The man clearly had learned a lot about the basics of his faith – an enviable achievement, I like to tell students, in a society of growing religious illiteracy.

Yet I left that conversation with renewed hope in what Georgetown provides to its students: not only the “facts,” but also the critical tools needed for a faith that is mature, engaging of today’s world and well capable of thriving within it.

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