Studying Religion for the First Time

By Atéha Bailly MDiv ’23

Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Mitchell

Given the many paths that lead students to HDS, it is not uncommon for some of them to come without any experience studying religion in an academic environment. This blogpost will give prospective students an understanding of what it means to study religion for the first time. 

The study of religion can take many forms. While it is not a perfect distinction, it can be helpful to organize them along the lines of ministerial and critical approaches. Ministerial approaches are geared towards serving a religious or spiritual community. Critical approaches tend to focus on addressing theoretical considerations of studying religion. These categories loosely map onto the MDiv and MTS programs respectively, however, students in both programs are encouraged to explore religion through ministerial and critical lens.  A helpful way to further elucidate these approaches is to look at the two introductory courses, Introduction to Ministry Studies and Theories and Methods

Introduction to Ministry Studies is a class that all Master of Divinity students must take. When I took it, we read books about people serving communities of various types in order to think about the many forms ministry can take in the world. Additionally, we were tasked with designing programming for a community to which we belonged that would put these ideas around service and ministry into practice. People’s projects took several forms, from guided meditations to church retreats—for my project, I created a listening exercise designed to facilitate collaboration amongst my musician friends.  

Theories and Methods is an introductory class that all incoming students take. It surveys the theorists and theories that have impacted how religion is studied in the academy. Whereas Introduction to Ministry Studies focuses on how religion and spirituality can serve communities, Theories and Methods critically investigates what religion and spirituality are and how they became categories we recognize in the world. It charts the history of these concepts and unpacks the assumptions embedded within their construction. 

Regardless of which approach you find most pertinent to your work, pursuing either of these paths is unique at HDS because of its multi-faith community. The diversity of faith traditions are represented in community events like Noon Service and Tuesday Eucharist as well as in classroom discussions. Engaging with students from various religious backgrounds when studying religion deepens the experience; it offers opportunities to practice talking about religion in ways that respect the differences people bring to these conversations and the vulnerability it can take to have them. 

The study of religion may seem new or daunting but at its core it is a field preoccupied with understanding the many ways people experience the world. Religious studies can offer prospective students interested in social justice, ethics, and a peaceful, inclusive world new avenues to explore their academic, ministerial, and/or professional aspirations.

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