The following is an address by Dr. Michael Maloney to the new members of Seton Hall’s chapter of Theta Alpha Kappa, the National Honor Society for Religious Studies and Theology. These remarks were delivered on May 5, 2015, to students and faculty at Seton Hall. Dr. Maloney is a systematic theologian in the Department of Religion. His address is a thoughtful and challenging account of why studying religion matters. Check it out!
“The Study of Religion: A Gift Received and Given”
By Dr. Michael Maloney, Seton Hall University
We gather together here today to celebrate the accomplishments of these students and in witness to their induction into Theta Alpha Kappa, the National Honor Society for Religious Studies and Theology.
In an age dominated by technical knowledge, and the predominance of an analytical approach to reality resulting in an increased differentiation and specialization of areas of study, the study of religion, and thus these students, provide a unique service both to the university and to the larger society.
1. The study of religion is an act of faith: the receipt of a gift from God – The movement to study religion can itself be understood as a witness to faith, and, as an extension of the Church’s mission of evangelization, of bringing the “good news” to the world. Whether those undertaking these studies understand them in this way, conceptualize and thematize the meaning of their actions in this way, is largely immaterial. The movement to investigate reality is itself an affirmation of the intelligibility of that reality: to pose a question is to trust that an answer will be forthcoming. In this light, the movement to investigate theology and religion is itself the manifestation of a trust not only in the meaning of one’s own existence but in the meaning of reality as a whole in which that existence is grounded, and, ultimately, in the source of that reality, God. In a word, to undertake investigations into theology and religion is to trust that answers to one’s questions will be forthcoming, from no less than God Himself. Thus, the intellectual study of religion and theology can be understood as an act of faith. It is an affirmation of the reality of God as holy mystery and a commitment to this mystery in an act of trust: it is a movement of love, the activity of faith seeking understanding.
2. The study of religion is a gift given to the university and to the world –Those who undertake these studies are a gift to the world. The labor of your studies can be understood as a response to your first being loved by God: as a witness to this act of primordial love. As a living witness and testimony to this love, you provide a singular function to both the university and the larger society. What is this? Well, in an age marked by the increasing differentiation and specialization of knowledge, by an increasingly analytical approach to reality, and by the factionalization of society into different interest groups, the study of religion and theology, which has as its object not the knowledge of a dimension of being, but knowledge of the ground of being itself, the living God: He Who Is, can serve as a reminder of the desire of the human heart for unity. Thus, those who undertake these studies remind us that analysis, however good and useful, is not enough, that the human heart longs for unity, for synthesis, for a vision of the whole as Plato put it, in which we can find that rest the desire for which has been so eloquently described by Augustine: a rest in which we can find respite from a world marked not only by increasing differentiation and factionalization, but by the sin of absurdity, violence, and general stupidity.
Your studies, viewed by much of the world as wholly without utility, as a question mark spoken to the world, at least if this world, as it increasingly is, is equated with the marketplace, bring a real gift to the world. The very act of donating yourself to this area of study is itself a witness to the emptiness of much of what the world unthinkingly offers to us as meaningful: it is a provocation to the world. You stand as witnesses to a secret, hidden behind the appearance of the world, and one the world, though perhaps unaware of it, desperately longs to know, this being that the world is indeed grounded, and that this grounding ground is not a thing, but a gracious and loving person, one who invites us to enter into relationship with Him and call him Father.
So, I congratulate you all on your past accomplishments, for the path you have undertaken to travel, and wish you fortune and grace in your future endeavors.