Thinking about studying Theology at Uni?

Today and tomorrow are Open Days at the University of Nottingham – as I found out when I went in to the library this morning and found little gazebos up everywhere and applicants and student helpers. I was briefly roped in by a friend who was being a student helper to “demonstrate” the self-service library loans, which are hardly unique to Nottingham! If I were trying to sell convince people to come to Nottingham, I’d probably take them round through the campus, past some of the nicer halls of residence, and by the lake and Trent Building, especially in this weather. Across the Downs, too, if none of them had hayfever! But then I figure that a lot of people coming on the open day might never have seen any university before – so as well as the unique features of Nottingham, they want to see what it would be like to study at a university.

And I suppose some of those students might be thinking about studying theology at university; a subject with its own special things to think about and particular dimensions. I’ve been studying Theology at Nottingham for two years, and know a bit about some other Theology departments from friends and acquaintances. My experience of choosing to study Theology is pretty atypical as I transferred from German and History, so I will try not to generalise from my own experience too much. This post is going to be part one of a couple of posts, some of which will be more specific to Christian  prospective students. This one’s for everyone. Anyway, without further ado…

What kind of course?

Perhaps the biggest difference in courses and experiences of studying theology are to do with whether the course is primarily a Theology course or a Religious Studies course. The two are not the same thing. To oversimplify, Theology at a university department will usually (unless explicitly stated) focus on Christian theology; Religious Studies on a variety of different religions. Theology, while not necessarily done from an orthodox position, invites a position to be taken on issues, and requires engagement with whether things are true or not; Religious Studies is done from a very detached perspective, allows agnosticism as to the truth or falsity of the things studied, and (although it can be analytical) feels a lot more descriptive – almost sociological rather than theological. Finally, theology engages more with texts and doctrines; Religious Studies more with the phenomena of religion(s) and practises.

As may have come across in my lopsided analysis… I’m much more inclined to the Theology side of things. But I think it is fair to point out that Theology and Religious Studies are not the same, and that university courses with the same title (V600 Theology or whatever it is) may be entirely different depending on whether the focus is on Theology or Religious Studies. Ask about it when you visit the department!

Some universities have a modular system (Nottingham included) where you choose several modules per semester (or per year). Some will be compulsory, so ask about them, and some will be options you can choose – allowing you to weight a degree more to one or the other at Nottingham. For instance, in my next semester I could take the following (very different) combinations of options: (or indeed a lot of other permutations from around 12 choices, or, with permission, a module outside my department!)

Theology bias Religious Studies bias Mixed
New Testament Greek Readings in the Gospel of Mark Money, Sex and Power: Religion and Critical Theory Religion, War and Peace
The Trinity The Hindu Tradition Hermeneutics
The Gospel and Epistles of John Religion, War and Peace The Trinity
Dissertation Dissertation Dissertation

As you can see, a modular system allows some choice. However, in my first year, there were 10 out of 120 credits which were compulsory Religious Studies modules, and 60 out of 120 credits which were compulsory Theology modules – weighting Nottingham’s course more towards the Theology side of things. At universities with modular courses, it is worth asking about this kind of detail! For what it’s worth, I think the modular system has a lot going for it, but, by creating a “market” for modules as unpopular options get cancelled, relies on students choosing modules on good criteria rather than on whether the lecturer has a reputation for being a generous marker!

Is it like A-Level?

I’ll level with you – I didn’t do A-Level Religious Studies, Divinity or Theology… I did Philosophy (cue boos and hisses from the Theologians) at AS-Level. From what I’ve gathered from the two-thirds of my year who did do A-Level RS or RE, it is different both in content and in depth (University = broader, deeper). I think it also differs in approach and the value placed on your own views. Apparently at A-Level the way to write an essay is to gather as many different peoples’ views as you can, list them all, and (if you want an A) play them off against each other (“Schleiermacher thought that … but Barth disagreed with him, saying that … which has some strengths, but invites the objection that … as Brunner noted, by his claim that … In conclusion, different scholars have said different things about this topic.”) At degree level, it is OK to present what you think as the main argument of your essay. Of course you will want to interact with what other people have said, but your lecturer will already know about this… what (s)he wants to read is what conclusion you have come to based on your reading and thinking about the essay question.

Wait, I’m allowed to write what I believe… in an essay?


Does that mean I’ll get marked down if I disagree with the lecturer?

Hopefully not. I’ve got firsts on essays where I disagreed with the lecturer a lot, about methodology as well as the topic being discussed. I have heard other students express that they feel they have been marked down for disagreeing with lecturers… though I’m not sure this is what has actually happened. I think, however, it is fair to say that disagreement with the lecturer (or the lecturer’s favourite theologian!) requires some extra work on your part to justify what you think. It may also need you to undertake reading beyond the bibliography your lecturer gave to you. But that’s OK, because you have reasons for thinking what you think, and it is a good exercise for you to try and phrase those reasons in the most robust and convincing way you can.

Will I get to learn Biblical languages?

Some universities (Cambridge, St. Andrews, Durham(?)) will make you study at least one out of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin. Other universities will teach one or more Biblical Language, but make it optional – most universities offer Greek and Hebrew; not all of them offer Aramaic or Latin, which are less useful at undergraduate level. If you go to a university that offers a choice, my strong advice is to learn at least Greek if not both Hebrew and Greek. It will provide you with one of the best resources you can have in biblical studies… access to the Bible in its original languages. If the university you’re looking at doesn’t teach Greek or Hebrew, or only teaches it at an elementary level with no opportunity to go further… go somewhere else. I’ll be as blunt as that.

Won’t I be unemployable?

Probably, but less so than Philosophers. Theology graduates can do a surprising range of things when they leave university – some of course do the stereotype thing and become vicars or RE teachers, but this isn’t the only option. There’s postgraduate study, for a start. Further away from “Theology-specific” careers, there are the usual generic humanities-type jobs in business, or in the civil service. Theology graduates are particularly employable by the Home Office and the Police, so I’m told, because of their ability to read texts carefully, critically and sympathetically, and to understand religious motivations and concerns. Or something. Think DS Hathaway from Lewis – obviously identifiable as a theologian from the trendy shirt and skinny tie combo. Theology is as employable as the most employable humanities degrees – I’m not going to lie and say it’s better than Medicine and Law Joint Honours, but it is both versatile and no less employable than, say, History.


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3 Responses to “Thinking about studying Theology at Uni?”

  1. Thinking about studying Theology at Uni? (2) « Phil Whitehead Says:

    […] about studying Theology at Uni? (2) By agyapw Continuing from my first post on choosing a university Theology course I’ve had some more thoughts on choosing a university course as a Christian […]

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