Students at the Duke Divinity School learn how to be preachers and professors, taking both professional and theoretical approaches to theology.
Sophia Palenberg / Chronicle File Photo
Students at the Duke Divinity School learn how to be preachers and professors, taking both professional and theoretical approaches to theology.

Although some might assume that theology is an antiquated field of study, Duke Divinity students and administrators are adamant that this kind of education is more than just blind faith.

The Divinity School—where students learn to become both pastors and scholars of theology—plays an important role in a well-rounded liberal arts education, said Divinity School Dean Richard Hays. At a university constantly praised for its scientific advancements, the Duke Divinity School enhances secular education with an alternate but compatible perspective.

“Honestly, there aren’t a whole lot of other places in the academic world that teach us to ask, ‘Is this good?’” said Brandon Walsh, a master of divinity candidate.

Students in the Divinity graduate programs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but all of them come to seek further study in the field of faith. Each come having accepted the fundamentals of their Christian faith—just as a mathematics graduate student accepts the concept of numbers, or a medical student accepts chemistry, Hays said.

Some people might consider these assumptions illogical because they are accepted on blind faith, leading them to believe that a divinity school does not belong in a modern university, said Brian Myers, a master of divinity candidate studying to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He noted, however, that there are flaws with this argument.

“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions,” Myers said. “I don’t think the argument should be about the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”

There is no system of ranking for divinity schools, Hays said, but Duke was ranked number one for doctoral programs in religion by U.S. News and World Report. As such, Divinity School students are held to a high level of academic standards.

Christina Carnes, a master of theological studies candidate, noted that Divinity School students bring more to the University than what others may perceive.

“Everyone is guilty of making blanket statements, but if people really took time to come to the Divinity School and see the beautiful and diverse people here, they would see that we are so much more than what you can fit into a box of stereotypes of what a Christian is,” she said.

The people behind the perceptions

Walsh said students sometimes have the wrong perception of the true nature of the Divinity School because they often base their perceptions on conservative Christian stereotypes.

“Like every other area of study, our views on the world and ethics are critically engaged. We aren’t stuck in 1950s suburbia,” Walsh said. “Most students and people in general think they know a lot about the fundamentals of Christianity, and most people really have no idea.”

When Myers entered Virginia Tech as a freshman, he was an atheist who saw himself becoming a doctor or lawyer. When he graduated cum laude, Myers chose to go to divinity school because of the transformation that he saw in people’s lives when they accepted God.

Myers added that contrary to secular assumptions about Christians, he believes in scientific theories like the big bang and evolution, and they do not cloud his faith in the teachings of Jesus.

“I agree with every scientific theory out there,” Myers said. “Nothing can prove or disprove God. That is a faith decision, not a logical decision.”

Hays noted that the concept of a modern university grew out of the Christian desire for a better understanding of human purpose and the world that God created, adding that faith and learning go hand in hand. Science is an extension of humans’ attempt to come closer to God through explaining the natural world, he said.

“Science seeks to describe empirical phenomena in a material world,” Hays said. “It describes how things work. Science cannot answer questions about why it exists or for what purposes or how it came to be. Those are the questions that theology tries to address.”

Part of the University

The liberal arts education spans many approaches to understanding the world, and the field of religion offers an integral part of a complete humanities education at a university that also pursues science, math and technology, Hays said.

These different areas of knowledge can work together effectively. Currently, there are faculty collaborations between Divinity and Duke School of Medicine scholars as well as a dual degree program between the School of Law and the Divinity School.

The study of what it means to be human is at the heart of humanities studies, and that is where religion plays a role, said Carnes, who wants to become a theology professor.

“Humanities in general have something to do with what it means to be a human in a way that math and science can’t fully address,” she said.

Carnes said she is most interested in the influence of theology in modern contemporary visual art. At Duke, Carnes has taken an array of undergraduate classes, mostly in the art history department, that have given her the opportunity to connect with students outside of the Divinity School.

“Some students have some frame of reference as to how other disciplines touch on Christianity or are influenced by Christianity, but when I am there, I am a living resource of the mind of a Christian and how everything in the world can be seen through the lens of living a Christian life,” she said.

Many aspects of the Duke experience that students have come to love were initially implemented in the Divinity School, Hays noted. For example, he compared DukeEngage to international missionary work rooted in service rather than spreading religion.

“We are very committed to the ideals of communities of service,” Hays said. “The Divinity School has been doing DukeEngage since its inception.”

As many Duke students continue pushing for increased social equality, some Divinity School students have heard from others on campus that the conservative ideals of some Christians do not belong at a university that largely advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

But if a student spent a day at the Divinity School, they would realize that the debate about sexual orientation is not what defines the school, Carnes said. Hays said when students critically examine the teachings of the Bible in context to modern social movements, it allows for ethical and moral development.

“The questions that we ask ourselves are not simple, but we believe above all else that all humans are loved equally by God, no matter previous sexual experience,” Hays said. “What that means is that this is a community where we hope to have respectful, serious conversations about what sorts of sexual practices and concerns God would want us to have.”