Teaching Religion and the Curriculum

As teachers, we will have content that we will have to teach.

I thought about naming this teaching religion non-apologetically, but that might be too narrow of an idea. So instead, I will take up the issue of what it means to teach according to a curriculum, and then apply that concept to my own field, the teaching of religion.

When we think about our role as academics, we spend a lot of time thinking and working toward a competency in our research skills and subsequently our writing skills. Our place in academia is defined for us in the simple phrase, though no less real, publish or die. But in order to write, we have to have content and content comes through research. So we read, we spend time in the lab, we spend time in the library – all with the goal of writing and publishing. It is our role as academics.

But, the reality for most of us in any academic field is that we will be working as teachers. Regardless of the number of classes that we end up teaching and how much time we are allotted for research and writing, we are university and college teachers. And as teachers, we will have content that we will have to teach. While as college professors, we are given a lot of latitude in how we structure the classes we teach, we are nevertheless teaching classes that have been created as part of an overall curriculum. Curriculum is Latin for race, or more specifically a race course. In education it is the course of study that comprises what is means to be educated. As such, we speak of a curriculum, not curricula – it is a singular course of study, not courses of study. The University should have some kind of unifying principle which makes a whole course of study. We are not just teaching a series of facts or even of courses which are unrelated. These courses are unified by the curriculum – our course of study.

In the teaching of our individual classes then, we participate in this greater curriculum which is supplied by the university. We teach classes in our discipline based on our expertise but this expertise is required of us because of the curriculum. All of us in this sense, teach the curriculum, not just what we want. We can lobby for additional classes to be added to the curriculum, or even to have the curriculum changed, but there is always a curriculum which guides the course of study.

I bring all of this up to answer the question which I often receive regarding the teaching of religion as an evangelical. I am sure that this is an issue in other disciplines, but I often encounter it when people find out that I not only study at a Catholic university, but I teach Catholic theology at the University. As Protestant evangelicals, with some kind of anti-Catholic leanings built into our American DNA (remember, JFK in 1960 had to make the case that a Catholic could be POTUS without being a slave to the Pope), we often have the idea that an evangelical teaching religion has an evangelistic obligation, or at least an apologetic obligation, to share the Gospel to everyone in the class or at least point out the errors of their religious assumptions. The question often is phrased in one of two ways – how can you teach Catholic theology or do they know that you are not Catholic? While I understand the question as well meaning, it fails to understand the nature of education. Catholic theology, like physics, or English literature, is a course of study which is prescribed by the curriculum. As a theologian, I might not be a Catholic, but I can know and understand Catholic theology as a course of study without feeling like I have to correct it in my teaching because it is a body of knowledge which can be understood. I think the same holds true to the study of other religions – I can be an evangelical and be a scholar in Islamic studies or Buddhist studies. I can present the details of a particular religion and how the religious groups think and present their own understanding.[1]

John Calvin (1509 – 1564)

I also think this has value for our understanding of the unity of truth. The relationship between faith and reason is one which evangelicals have struggled with in the last 50 years. Partially this is because we have neglected the understanding of education as liberal – creating a mind opened to truth. All intellectual pursuits are valuable in a liberal education because the entire world is created by God and infused with grace. Paraphrasing Abraham Kuyper, there is not one inch of the earth that God does not claim as his own. We study world religions because these are human beings reflecting back their created image of God – John Calvin called this the sense of divinity (sensus divinitatis) that is in all human beings. All humans are religious (man is in this sense a homo religionis) because this is how we have been created by God and the study of religion is the study of the truth about the world which God has created. Sin affects this sense of divinity, as Calvin reminds us, when it seeks the transcendent God in the created world. However, for Calvin the fact that there are world religions is evidence that this is how God has created man, as a worshipping creature. Presenting religious practice and belief as it really is to those who practice it and not as a series of doctrinal points to be challenged is doing justice to God’s creation, and specifically to his most special creation, mankind.

In follow-up: Apologetics – the What and the Why which explores the place and purpose of apologetics for university ministry.


    1. There is certainly a measure of connection to the religion which is lost because I am an outsider, but that is part of an ongoing debate in the religious studies field regarding the best way to know, understand and relate to any religion. I am not taking up this complex issue here in any way to resolve it, only acknowledging its existence.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Michael J. Stell, MATS

I am a PhD student in theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I am studying the theology of John Williamson Nevin, who taught in the seminary of the German Reformed Church in America in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also the president of Franklin and Marshall College and a friend to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. I am currently a teaching fellow at CUA, teaching undergraduate theology and Church History classes. My goal is to teach at a college or university after completing my degree program. I am also the current vice-president of the graduate student association at CUA. Before life as a grad student (if that were an acronym it would be BLaaGS) I was a teacher and principal in secondary education at various Christian schools in the Northeast. My family and I currently live in Hagerstown, MD.

More Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.