At United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, one option of study is the concentration in Religion and Theology, available both for the MA and MDiv degrees. An MDiv can prepare students to become pastors, ministers or religious leaders whose ministerial focus is religious or theological education, while those pursuing an MA might become public theologians or teachers of religion/theology in private schools or churches. However, one of the most likely outcomes for either an MA or MDiv student in this concentration is moving on to a PhD in Religion or Theology in preparation for teaching.
“Teaching is enlivening, it’s exciting.” Cameron Williams is a first year MDiv student who intends to pursue a PhD in religious studies or theology after his time at United. “I have this thirst for knowledge. If you speak about something you’re passionate about, it continues the fervor. So I like being engaged with other people, especially in higher education. We’re here learning together, and students can teach you as much as research.”
Including theology courses like God, Public Theology, or Black Theology and religious studies courses like World Religions or What is Religion?, the concentration prepares students to analyze founding texts, major theological developments and cultural expressions in one or more religious traditions. Studying religion helps us make sense of ourselves and of the divine.
“Religion is the infrastructure in which one experiences the divine or expresses their spirituality,” explains WIliams. “Spirituality and religion are connected, but of course the common term is ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Religion is the ritual, the social and the dogmatic aspects of experiences the divine”
The concentration at United invites students to examine their own selves in relation to broader religious and theological contexts. Commenting on his experience in courses, Williams notes, “I am surrounded by people with a myriad of experiences from different places and who all bring incredible insights from their personal beliefs and about the beliefs they are studying. Religious studies can take you outside of your own box. Having your own theology or living, being grown in a specific religion, can kind of pigeonhole you a little bit. It can also broaden your understanding, but oftentimes people get stuck in what they know. A religious studies class like What is Religion? can give you different perspectives even into your own religion or belief system.”
Being a professor of religion or theology concentration can also provide a career path for people who are religiously fluid, spiritual or so-called “nones.”
“I’m not ordained or affiliated with any particular religious label,” explains Williams. “ I do consider myself religious in my own practices, but I don’t have a specific dogma or denomination.” Rather Williams describes himself as a hermeticist or occultist:“Hermeticism has its roots in the belief that there is one true and ultimate God or ultimate truth in that God, and different parts of the world see this God in different ways. So Hermeticism does its best to take all the pieces and create a coherent picture of who or what that God is. And the ultimate goal of Hermeticism would be to achieve union with that divine presence. It’s a kind of pluralistic belief. It’s probably the closest word I can find for my beliefs.”
Williams’s beliefs involve rigorous engagement with a variety of traditions. Weaving theology with the study of religion balances more personal, subjective commitments with those that are objective and analytical: “I’m not going to say that all professors of religious studies are this distant, ‘objective’ thing, because there are scholars in those areas who are spiritually or religiously inclined. But religious studies often looks at things from the outside whereas theology is taking a perspective from the inside. Most theological students have some religious or spiritual experience or are actively living within a particular tradition. Being spiritually aware in the way that I am is important. I would like to study with some kind of objectivity to figure it out, but it is also important to know the experiences that I am experiencing are real and what they mean.”
United's students study religions in a global perspective, become competent in disciplines related to religious studies and theology, and undertake rigorous academic research at the graduate level. At the same time, students learn about themselves as they prepare for a career that is communally engaged and personally fulfilling.
“I believe people, humans have an innate feeling that there is something more beyond what we can understand, perceive or sense. I think there is a desire to understand that essence,” says Williams. “Becoming a professor can create a structure for me to continue learning, and if you could get paid to learn, it’s kind of the best deal!”