Our concept of the divine and the ways we worship is shaped and formed by where we live, how we are raised, and who’s doing the raising—even within the same faith traditions, and even within a small geographic region. A practicing Catholic in the Bay Area looks very different than a Catholic in Guatemala who looks different than a Catholic in Tanzania. But, also, a practicing Catholic in Oakland can look different than a Catholic across the bridge in San Francisco.
It’s a premise that’s embedded in the core values and learning goals at Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology (JST). And it’s now being inscribed into JST’s curricula.
For the first time, all students are required to complete a course in sociology. Interim Dean Alison Benders says though the requirement is new this quarter, it’s really just a formality under Learning Goal III (out of five): “Students will recognize the interplay between faith and culture in addressing theological and/or pastoral issues that emerge in diverse cultural contexts.”
At JST, faculty have been teaching “culturally contextualized theology” for the last 20 years. The “cumbersome mouthful” is just fancy terminology for examining theology through a sociological lens. In the JST faculty book Doing Theology as If People Mattered: Encounters in Contextual Theology published this past April, Benders explains the JST approach like this: “It recognizes that there is no single, universally normative ‘Theology-with-a-capital-T,’ but that all theology is local or contextual in that it emerges and lives in a particular local church community.”
One of only two Jesuit theologates in the U.S., JST is more about doing theology out in the world than producing content about it in gilded chambers. Theologizing, in its estimation, is about participating in the current culture and can look different based on factors like time and geographic location. This worldly view is reflected in JST students who come from all over the world to study here.
Jerome Baggett, the Ignacio Ellacuria Professor for Jesuit Studies Endowed Chair, teaches the required course, titled Culture, Context and Lived Religion at JST’s Berkeley campus. As described in the syllabus, students will investigate how the ways in which culture is perceived and interpreted shape understanding of religion “as it is actually lived out.”
Discussions and projects are intended to get participants to break out of the classroom walls and into the world where a vast number of religious convictions, identities, and dilemmas crash into each other daily, even within the same denomination of Catholicism. This is all part of being a current, effective theologian.
In his book Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith, Baggett illustrates how six different Catholic parishes in the Bay Area vary from one to the next based on the “lived realities” of their members.
For example, Saint Louis Bertrand Catholic Church caters to a predominantly Latino population in an economically-depressed neighborhood in East Oakland. Its outreach is shaped by the area’s most pressing needs, including a food pantry and youth mentoring program. Contrast that to Saint Monica, just 13 miles east in the affluent, largely white town of Moraga. The well-funded, sprawling parish offers a wide range of fellowship activities such as a cancer support group and weekly adult education lectures.
“Parishes engender their own religious style—their own ways of construing and enacting the Catholic faith,” Baggett writes. “They valorize some components of Catholic culture as more central than others.”
Effective theologians and ministerial leaders recognize that these “styles” are based on the needs of the specific populations they’re serving.
“I’ve always felt that if, 200 years ago, you wanted to be a successful minister, you should know how to ride a horse. And, 100 years ago? You should probably learn some German to keep up with the day’s cutting edge biblical scholarship,” Baggett says. “Today I think a nimble understanding of culture and of how it shapes people’s actual religious lives is just as critical.”