“Is this the right chapel?” a tourist asked me at the West Campus bus stop, standing in the shadow of the 210-foot-tall tower. It was one of those moments life just doesn’t prepare you for. The building’s dominance over Duke’s campus made me wonder about the way the University reconciles its “historical, formal, on-going and symbolic ties with Methodism” with its status as a non-sectarian and independent institution. With a renowned divinity school enrolling some 550 students, it is hard to judge whether Duke’s religious affiliation is more historic than on-going. As a contemporary educational institution, Duke has yet to answer some conceptual questions about its academic profile. Does theology have a place in a 21st-century university? Is teaching theology in the Divinity School compatible with the premises of scholarly inquiry an academic institution’s work is based on? Should the University try to reassess the role of the Divinity School within its structure?
Teaching theology as an academic discipline is incompatible with the goals of a modern university; furthermore, it is a legacy of the very thing a post-Enlightenment university is meant to abolish. It is not theology’s subject that disqualifies it from being an academic discipline. Indeed, there are many fields of natural and social sciences that study the nature of God and religious belief. It is the theological method or, rather, the assumptions on which its inquiry is based, which oppose the basic principle of rational inquiry: that is, constructing hypotheses from systematic observations using some kind of logical reasoning. We use this method outside scholarly work, in our daily lives—we notice things, analyze them critically and draw some kind of conclusion about them. Theology starts with a priori acceptance of religious doctrine found in the Scripture. These adopted presumptions are either unprovable (like the existence of a deity) or plainly false (like much of Genesis). Following this “leap of faith,” theology may construct elaborate arguments employing scientific methods and proper Aristotelian logic, but its whole theoretical body hinges on an initial, baselessly adopted premise. The “void of rationality” implicit in this leap of faith discredits any subsequent theological inquiry as unscientific and makes theology irreconcilable with the modern concept of an academic discipline. And Duke should not treat it like one.
The Duke University Divinity School’s proclaimed mission is to teach theology through Scripture and to prepare students for Christian ministry. Historically, its “truly catholic, truly evangelical and truly reformed” educational policy seeks to cultivate the life of worship. For all its merits as a potentially beneficial out-of-classroom activity, worship has no academic value. Furthermore, it—by definition—excludes critical thought, a crucial feature of analytic thinking and education in general. If a modern university seeks to empower its students through education, how can its graduate school’s program include such an essentially uncritical and disempowering activity as worship? Central to the Divinity School’s curriculum (as stated in its bulletin) are its spiritual formation groups, whose members meet weekly to pray and discuss how to be faithful in one’s religious life. The spiritual formation retreats organized each semester involve prophetic worship and transformative prayers—and they are a graduation requirement for Masters of Divinity students. Another graduation requirement for prospective Masters of Divinity students is “field education,” a program where one of the goals is for students to “spend time discerning God’s call upon their life and future vocation.” The notion that worship, prayer and gospel should be requirements for obtaining a Master’s degree from Duke University is downright unacceptable and directly contradictory to any sort of academic standards a modern institution of higher learning may have. It shows that the Divinity School is fundamentally misplaced within a contemporary research university such as our own.
Throughout its history, Duke has changed quite a bit. It has transformed its institutional structure, admission policies, campus architecture and student life. All of these changes took time—and we are presently witnessing how even implementing a new housing agenda can be a lengthy and difficult process. Reevaluating the role of the Divinity School will, understandably, be one of the most challenging endeavors for a university with such a rich religious history. In fact, it goes without saying that, given theology’s pivotal historical role in the creation of Western academia, any sort of debate on this matter would enlighten a tremendously complex issue. But if Duke plans to remain at the front lines of modern academia and free thought, perhaps this is a sort of debate we need to have.
Fedja Pavlovic is a Trinity sophomore.