Teaching for Intellectual Conversion: Introductory Theology at the Level of Our Times

The last several years of teaching collegiate introductory Catholic theology courses at multiple universities have convinced me that the very rationale of a mandatory theology course at a Catholic university, as well as the material typically studied in such courses, are largely unintelligible to many students. If my experience is representative to any degree, it indicates a significant crisis for collegiate theological education. And this crisis extends beyond the theology classroom. It touches the entire liberal arts enterprise and concerns the crisis facing the humanities as whole. More on that anon. In what follows, I present some of my own experience in the classroom along with my own developing pedagogical approach to addressing the problem I have encountered. For I have become convinced that theological education cannot flourish in its apostolic aim in our current cultural moment without fostering in students what Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan called intellectual conversion.

Intellectual conversion can be understood as a philosophical conversion, for it deals with basic philosophical positions that, knowingly or not, orient a person’s thinking, feeling, and living in the world. Intellectual conversion is not fundamentally the replacement of one intellectual viewpoint with another but rather, as the name indicates, a radical change in the subject who holds those views. It is becoming a different sort of person, with all the implications in thinking and living that such a change can bring. Fundamentally, intellectual conversion concerns the subject’s grasp of herself as a self-transcending reality, one who is radically open to and inescapably oriented towards the universe of being and towards the transcendent, precisely through her intellectual and volitional nature.[1] To undergo intellectual conversion is thus to know oneself as ineluctably concerned with reality and so with God, whether or not one has yet knowingly affirmed the existence of God or encountered God in a religious conversion.

Such a conversion represents what I believe to be the solution to one of the problems that prevents successful study of theology in the university classroom in our secular age: the problem of relativism.


Charles Taylor characterizes a secular age as one distinguished not only by the evacuation of the religious from the public sphere or by declining participation in traditional religious institutions and forms of life. Rather, his definition centers on the conditions of belief, the ‘what it’s like’ to believe—or not to believe—in religious truth, however defined.[2] As Taylor tells it, what the religious believer and the secular non-believer share is the deeply felt sense that, in regard to fundamental human questions, others see the world differently than they do, and that these others are neither moral monsters nor ignorant rubes but decent and thoughtful people whom we know, respect, and love. This felt sense, Taylor argues, fundamentally shifts how religious belief or non-belief is experienced and held, creating a spectrum in which some, at one end, may hold their beliefs in the nervous posture of “looking-over-one’s-shoulder,”[3] while at the other end, some simply hold things more lightly, perhaps with less evangelical fervor. It is Taylor’s account that has returned to my mind several times in my few years of teaching, for I see it confirmed time and again in my students.

Many of my students find the notion of a required theology course simply morally and practically unintelligible. Even students who were happy for the opportunity to study Catholic theology could offer no persuasive rationale for why it should be a mandatory course. Religion is a matter of personal preference and choice; to mandate the study of a religion, while not quite religious persecution, bears a family resemblance to the latter. When pressed, several students in class conversation acknowledged that they had willingly chosen to come to a Catholic university with theology requirements, but this fact did not much assuage their annoyance at being forced to take “Bible” class. (Indeed, this is how most of the students understood a required theology course, as something on the order of a more sophisticated catechism course or Sunday school lesson). It made sense, they reported, that a Catholic university would want to share Catholicism with its students. But for the sake of fairness, all other religions should also be taught: none should get preferential treatment. Chauvinism is to be expected, they seemed to say, but its effects should at least be mitigated.

But what if any particular religious tradition considers its theological claims to be true in some meaningful sense? Here is where the rubber hit the road. As our classroom conversations on the desirability of mandatory college theology education developed, I decided to zoom out to ask the ten-thousand-foot-view question: is objective religious knowledge even possible? Only a tiny minority of students answered yes; overwhelmingly the answer was no. What was particularly striking was that most of my students consider themselves religious. Nonetheless, they affirmed reflexively along with their non-religious classmates that “objective” and “religious knowledge” are mutually exclusive, something on the order of a square circle. How can one possibly verify religious claims? No one, after all, has seen “God”—whatever “God” might mean. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that no such objectivity is possible, for if such objective knowledge could be had, it certainly would have been had by now! Instead, we find total religious disagreement among the peoples of the world. Everyone is “biased,” as my students put it; Il n'y a pas de hors-préjugé. The same issue attends objective moral knowledge. While the students readily conceded that it would not be good to enslave another human person or to commit genocide, few felt comfortable declaring that the enslaver or genocidal maniac were truly objectively wrong in their perspectives. “Hitler had his own truth.” Most disturbing to me was the topsy-turvy moment when one black student defended against a white student the perspective of the white slave-owner, for according to the slaver’s view, what he was doing was right: and how can we adjudicate between opposing moral points of view? The abyss—once a place of horror from which to recoil—is now, it seems, a welcoming and warm lagoon for those ready to plunge in headfirst.

The point of relating these anecdotes is not to shock but to make visible the intellectual and felt conditions under which the study of Catholic theology is taking place among students today in Catholic universities. Even for many devout students, it is a possibility difficult to conceive that one might find stability in any religious convictions as objectively true and knowable as such. And this same sense of standing on unstable ground attends philosophical and ethical study as well. When asked whether they find it odd that their university forces them to take a course in which there is no possibility of knowledge, my students’ wry smiles expressed their bemusement at such a strange state of affairs.

Disagreement: An Existential Ultimate

What is at the core of their incomprehension? It lies, I suggest, in the sharp awareness of difference that students bring with them. Christian Smith’s and Patricia Snell’s description of this current state of affairs resonates deeply with the worldview I discover in my own students (and which they agree describes them fairly accurately):

It apparently has not required the taking of multiple anthropology, sociology, and postmodern humanities classes for most emerging adults to have arrived at this view. For many, it appears that the sheer impact of the simple realization of the particularity of the conditions in which they were raised drives them to assume this de facto social constructionism. When they were younger, as for everybody, their personally experienced reality was, for them, simply reality. Now that they have grown older, have met some different people, and maybe have seen some of the world, they seem keenly aware that they were raised in a very particular way that is different from the way others were raised. Sociology and anthropology show that human cultures are indeed significantly socially constructed and vary in certain ways across time and space. That awareness by most emerging adults presses them—for better or worse—to relativize their own perspectives.[4]

While Smith and Snell write of millennials here, their analysis applies equally well to the current generation. Let us call what Smith and Snell describe the “Law of Difference and Relativism”: to the extent that persons with an empirical notion of culture encounter profound difference on questions of fundamental importance, to that degree will they hold their convictions more lightly, and, in the limit case, consider that all convictions on such fundamental questions are ultimately rationally unjustifiable, being simply relatively “true.”[5]

This Law of Difference and Relativism has helped me understand why the mere fact of disagreement on basic human questions proves such an intellectual and moral scandal to my students. They simply take it for granted that if persons disagree about anything, there is likely no truth about the matter. This basic conviction of theirs also explains why the presentation of religious or moral truth in any normative fashion provokes moral protest. When disagreement is basic, and when there is no possibility of rationally adjudicating a matter, any appeal to normativity on the issue can only be classed as naiveté or bigotry. Tertium non datur.

This “law” I have articulated is tightly connected to Taylor’s operational definition of secularity: to relate to one’s own fundamental beliefs with an understanding that others see it differently. We know ourselves as we see ourselves, but we also know ourselves as the other sees us, and it is these two together in a highly pluralistic society that create unique conditions for belief in our day. We know our convictions, therefore, as fundamentally contestable, and to that extent they cease to become “convictions” in the traditional sense and transform instead into something like irrational habits of thought and feeling, the unavoidable products of being raised in this time, and in this place, with these people, and so on.

That this context creates particular challenges for collegiate (and not just collegiate) theological education today should be apparent. The student of theology who goes into such a course believing that there is no way objectively to resolve questions such as whether the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures exists, whether there is an objective moral order or a true ‘good life’ that the life of Christ could make known to us, whether it is morally perverse for Christians to consider themselves in possession of truths uniquely valuable and worth sharing, whether the Gospel authors are, because committed believers, “biased” and thus untrustworthy in their reports of Christ’s life—that student will find what she learns in such a course baffling at best or boring at worst.

Theology of Middle Earth

The foregoing raises a serious question as to what purpose an introductory course in Catholic theology, in this secular moment, ought to serve. Here I relate my own failures in teaching, derived from what I call the “Salvation History” approach to introducing Catholic theology. In this course, my main objectives were to make attractive and relatively intelligible some key theological doctrines, as well as to show students how such doctrines are derived from a sophisticated reading of the Christian scriptures. To that end, students are introduced to historical-critical methods of reading the Scriptures, as well as to major narrative moments in the story of salvation history: creation, fall, the calling of Israel, Exodus, Temple, prophets, all with the aim of preparing students to encounter the life of Christ as the answer to the longings of Old Testament religious faith. Then, after the life of Christ is taught, the dogmatic questions and conciliar answers following in the wake of the Christ event are articulated, along with the fundaments of Catholic ecclesiology and sacramentology. Assignments often included exegetical papers, in which students worked with biblical commentaries for the first time, or papers asking students to confront the challenge of Marcionism and articulate the answer given to it by the early orthodox tradition.

Such an approach to teaching introductory theology has significant merits. It deconstructs naive readings of Scripture that many students (religious or otherwise), formed in the “religion vs. science” zeitgeist, bring with them to reading texts such as Genesis. It teaches appreciation for biblical genre and disabuses readers of the notion that “the Bible” is one book. For the first time, many of them encounter the richness of Scriptural texts, a richness made more brilliant by comparison with other ancient near eastern texts contemporaneous to them. They can grasp that Jewish faith, and Christian faith afterwards, was a progressing reality expressed by religious communities “on the move.” Furthermore, the interconnection between the Old Testament and New Testament becomes apparent in a way few had experienced before, and the fact that dogmas are not straightforwardly “in” Scriptural texts—but are instead communal answers to questions posed to those texts in light of a religious community’s continuing development—can be understood by students if the professor carefully explicates the hermeneutical efforts of the early conciliar tradition. Many students benefit from such courses, particularly those who already have some basic commitment to their faith but are largely scripturally illiterate.

Despite these strengths, however, I believe that such an approach to teaching introductory theology fails to be adequate to the level of our times. At least, that is what I experienced in my own attempts at teaching it. Whatever degree of sophistication a student might achieve in grasping connections between the Old Testament and the New, or in employing biblical commentaries to enter more deeply into the meaning a biblical text likely had for its first readers, such theological knowledge will often fail to have any significant impact on the religious questions of students themselves. This fact became obvious to me when teaching the books of Genesis and Exodus from within the Salvation History paradigm. As I proceeded along with my lesson plans, I noted that demonstrating the literary artistry of the redactors of Genesis in the creation story, or clarifying what the plagues of Exodus would have meant in light of the Egyptian pantheon, failed to address any of the actual questions my students continually raised about such texts.

Tell them that Genesis is not a science textbook, and not to look for a literal account of cosmological or human origins there. Very well. But then how is this text useful religiously? It is useful for those who believe that God has spoken through these texts to communicate lessons about theological anthropology and the character of God. Very well once more. But why believe YHWH/Elohim exists, or that any god does? Explain how God’s violent destruction of the earth in the flood is simply a response to the violence humans are already visiting upon each other. Very well. But then is God a violent and angry deity? No, for God also shows mercy in sparing Noah and his family. Very well again. But is “God” then simply an uneasy alliance of competing attributes, justice and mercy? (All who have taught the Flood narrative will know what I am talking about: the text is a moral scandal to nearly all contemporary students). If they have heard that the God of the New Testament is kinder, show them that divine judgment abounds in the New Testament as well; Marcion, with his editorial scissors, was no better a reader of Scriptures than Thomas Jefferson was with his own.

But then what actually is being revealed about this God, other than that we cannot presume to know which of God’s two faces will be manifested at any moment? Teach them the story of the Exodus, and they will ask whether miracles are even possible or whether biblical accounts of miracles simply betray the ignorance of credulous ancient peoples unschooled in the scientific method. Tell them that to focus on how the Red Sea could be split is to miss the echoes of Genesis’ “Spirit of God” hovering over the waters and bringing dry land up from them. Is the purpose of this theology course, then, to become more adept at catching literary allusions and understanding ancient mindsets, or is it to encounter divine revelation? But how can that revelation be mediated through these texts if the revelation cannot be heard over the din of self-evident objections that render these texts distant and foreign?

In other words: tell students that their questions are missing the point, or are the result of their operating from a “scientistic” culture, and we risk confirming in them their suspicion that these questions are simply unanswerable. The reason that my students seem to consider their theology classes as nothing more than “Bible stories” is because to them theology is not legible as a discipline. They know what a literature class is; they know what a history class is; they know what a biology class is; they (perhaps) know what a philosophy class is. But what is theology? Is it a literature class, a history class, a science class, or something else? Tell them that it is an introduction to a language game for a community with these particular boundaries, and teach them the “rules” of the “game”: which biblical and magisterial texts can be appealed to for grounding theological arguments, the relationship between personal experience and the givenness of these aforementioned revelatory texts, and the possibility of doctrinal development. Very well. But by understanding this about Catholic theology, they will at the same moment grasp that every other theology is just another language game. There the phenomenon articulated above recurs: plurality without epistemological foundations nearly inevitably produces relativism in the untrained mind. What links this particular Catholic language game to reality? Why is studying the Scriptures, or Catholic theology, any different from becoming extremely expert in and mastering the richness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth? Is theology in fact simply a mythology class by another name?

My thesis is that unless the problem of relativism is addressed head on, the mandatory study of theology will be perceived as completely disconnected from the formation in knowledge that students are receiving in their other courses of study. It will remain for the nonbelieving a (hopefully) fascinating study of mythology and for the devout an invigorating semester of Sunday school, but it will not serve its integrating function of uniting faith and reason and providing a compelling universal vision in which diverse disciplines of inquiry find their ultimate raison d'être.[6] It will not, most importantly, challenge the existentially baleful effects of living in a secular age.

Many Catholic students will, soon after college, quit the practice of their childhood faith, if they have not already.[7] And part of the explanation for their walking—or more likely drifting—away from faith will have to do with their judgment that the faith is an unintelligible tack-on to “real life.” Their mandatory theology courses at their Catholic university may be the last serious sustained religious instruction they receive in their lives. If their questions are not allowed to be asked there, and if they do not receive intelligible answers, where and when will these be answered? Theological instruction that does not address these core issues but instead simply initiates students into the methods of the discipline (e.g., writing exegetical papers, surveying the history of doctrine) or shows them the beauty of the tradition’s aesthetic heritage will not staunch the flow of young people leaving the faith.

[1] Cf. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §130.

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 3ff.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 50-51.

[5] Cf. Pope John Paul II’s reflections on this state of affairs in Fides et Ratio (Introduction, §5) .

[6] Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Part I, A, §16-19.

[7] See Ryan Burge, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), and Stephen Bullivant, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).


Featured Image: Painting by Gliserfuentes, The Forbidden Fruit; Source: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0


Roberto J. De La Noval

Roberto De La Noval is assistant professor of theology at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD. A systematic theologian and scholar of Russian religious thought, his publications include a translation of Sergius Bulgakov: Spiritual Diary and other translations and essays in academic and popular journals.

Read more by Roberto J. De La Noval