At times it is difficult to see where the sphere of one science ends, and another academic subject begins. This is totally normal in our era of interdisciplinary studies, but for the sake of clarity we can delineate the border between two similar, yet drastically different subjects that are especially prone to confusion. Here I refer to Religious Studies and Theology. Quite often upon learning that I did my graduate degrees in Religious Studies people would raise their eyebrows and ask me something like: “So are you a priest or a monk?” Since I am neither(in fact I'm not even particularly religious), this usually prodded me to offer a short explanation of the differences between Religious Studies and Theology.
To start with, you need not believe in anything to excel in Religious Studies. You may very well be a believer, that is fine, but you absolutely do not have to adhere to any religious faith or attend any church, mosque, or temple. You may be a Muslim, a Christian, an agnostic, an atheist, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and still be an exemplary scholar and a respected professor of Religious Studies. The academic subject of Religious Studies is supposed to look at religion from the academic standpoint, not from the standpoint of a religious doctrine or dogma. Of course, in real life personal convictions do influence your individual approach to what you study or teach. Yet the subject of Religious Studies investigates religion as a phenomenon of social life and an important aspect of human identity, but it does not teach you any truths about God or salvation. Instead, Religious Studies will explain and show how, where and why people of different faiths understand the idea of God(s) or salvation.
In its turn,Theology (the science of the divine, from the Greek theos God and logos word or teaching) is always denominational. In other words, there is no theology in general. Each faith, church and denomination has its very own theology, which they believe to be the final truth written in stone. Some of the theological differences between churches may appear to us now as insignificant, but from the vantage point of theology there is a real abyss. For example, the main theological difference between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, which caused the permanent split of those two branches of Christianity in 1054, is so called filioque. This Latin word literally means “and from the son.” The creed (declaration of faith) of the Catholic and the Orthodox faith is absolutely identical, with one exception. Where an Orthodox Christian says: “And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father,” a Catholic would recite: “Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Believe it or not, this seemingly tiny nuance led to a break-up of the Christian church in the 11th century and is still one of the main obstacles in the relationships between the Western and the Eastern branches of a once united church. Why? Because from the theological viewpoint this is a major difference. You cannot believe in two versions of the creed at the same time. If one is right, then the other must be wrong!
Naturally, to be a theologian, you are expected to believe in the rules and teachings of your faith as the ultimate truth. If you teach Theology, you will be teaching the truth, not simply opinions subject to a free inquiry, doubt, or rejection. Often these truths will be found in sacred books, in the church tradition, in the discourses and statements of church leaders, even in prophecies and visions. There is, of course, a space for debate and disagreement in theology as well. This, however, will all take place within the framework of a specific religious tradition considered the truth.
For the sake of argument, just one look at this welcome page of a Religious Studies Department of a U.S. University. A mix of the silhouettes of a mosque, a Buddhist pagoda and a Christian church will tell you right away that for Religious Studies all religions are of equal value, none truer than the other. By contrast, the illustrations at this website of a Theology Department reveal it is Roman Catholic right away.
Hopefully, this short article has helped to distinguish between these two religion-related disciplines as well as helping you to formulate your requests for tutoring more precisely, so that you can receive the most appropriate guidance for your specific topic. Even if you are not currently studying Religious Studies or Theology, you might find this has broadened your understanding of the courses in religion you may consider taking in the future.
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