How Many Times Do I Need to Read Genesis?

It seems appropriate that the Feast of St. Augustine, himself a scholar extraordinaire, falls in the midst of our first week of classes here at our university.  Granted, St. Augustine’s day, August 28th, was a Sunday this year.  But, in some schools I’ve experienced, a university-wide Mass is even held on St. Augustine’s day, as a way to inaugurate the new year in the light of the Christian tradition of study, of conversation, and of longing to more deeply understand the living God by celebrating a saint whose life’s work was driven by such seeking.

This noble quest to “seek to understand” God is, in our academic world, known as Theology.  Theology is a required subject at many Christian and Catholic schools, which is both a blessing and a curse for our many students.  Among the blessings they bring, courses in Theology allow a university to emphasize its Christian identity; such courses introduce students to a disciplined method of making sense of the Christian tradition and ask them to employ skills in critical reading of sources; Theology courses encourage dialogue about crucial aspects of being human; and, such courses both serve to cultivate and shape faith of those who identify as being persons of faith, as well as to provide an interesting insight into a large segment of humanity for those who do not identify as persons of faith, or of any faith whatsoever.

More grimly, Theology, and particularly, “Introduction to Theology” courses may also be deemed as the “curse of the first-year college student.”  Students who have had absolutely no Christian “theology or religion” courses whatsoever approach the subject (in my experience) with at least some nervousness, if not a pre-expectation that they will not do well.  On the other extreme, students who have had 12 years of Christian, or Catholic, education sometimes enter the classroom with a confident boredom which wonders at the logic of a school requiring them to take such clearly remedial courses.

As a teacher, I find nervousness far easier to assuage than boredom: I assure my students that, when one walks in without preconceptions, one may have a clearer vision, notice new things, and make connections which others in the room have never had opportunity to do, as they have already learned “Theology” by rote, or by some previous experience.  Personally, I am grateful when a student shares that he or she is from a faith background other than Christian; some of my most memorable classes were made so by the presence of a Jewish student who gave us a new perspective on the “heroes of the faith” in the Old Testament; a Muslim student who explained with passion that “Islam” is an Arabic word for “peace,” and an atheist student, whose logical way of reading texts provided an utterly clear presentation of the function of Jesus’ parables.

Far more difficult, though, is the student who feels that the rudiments of Christian Theology have already been adequately canvassed in the past and, having already read Genesis, feels that an Introductory course to Christian Theology is not useful.

While I recognize the value and, in fact, great need, for Christian and Catholic education through elementary and secondary school levels, such education does not satisfy the need to “introduce Christian Theology” on a collegiate level.  The college experience of Theology places students in a new context of adulthood, demands greater development and engagement of material, and requires a level of reading which does not merely seek to “report” the content, but to “exegete” the content, that is, explain, develop, and reflect upon the content discussed in light of the Christian tradition.  Even if a student has had an excellent theological education as a child and teenager (and many have!), one will always learn more and grow further, by picking up and reading again.

Certainly, in the theological world, it is impossible to say that one has completely and adequately described the living God.  Our engagement with revelation—from Genesis to the traditions of faith cultivated by the Christian churches—can never stop, rest, or cease, but only continue.  So, to the student with strong background who wonders “how many times to I need to read Genesis?” I wonder in return, “How many times do you suppose St. Augustine read Genesis?  I wonder if he ever felt that he fully understood the breadth and depth of God’s revelation in Creation?”  I suppose that part of Augustine’s ceaseless pursuit of knowledge, of reading and teaching the same passages of Genesis again and again, was paired with that ceaseless desire to know God, to teach others of God, and to live always in the City of God.

As we enter this new academic year, may our own hearts be restless—loving and seeking knowledge that might perfect our faith—until they rest in you, O God.

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6 comments

  1. If I remember correctly, Augustine himself wrote several commentaries on Genesis (one of them incomplete), did he not?

  2. I am sure these students can have no better teacher, and I only hope they don’t wear you down before the epiphanies start coming!

    Speaking as someone who, in my youth, found the study of religion boring but the practice of faith intensely interesting, I eventually discovered in Kierkegaard some clues as to why this might be so. There’s a tension embedded in the enterprise itself. If the matters treated in theology are true, they are of the utmost consequence. If they are not, it’s comparatively idle talk.

    Don’t get me wrong. For students to discover the way other people view the world is indeed a worthy and important undertaking. The study of religion is part of that, and it should be in curricula widely I believe. But the passion for faith is something else. That passion is what Augustine had.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Thanks, Rita! Yes, I agree, the study of religion, or theology, as an exciting academic pursuit, is both a noble endeavor in itself, and distinct from a desire to cultivate or feed faith by theological study. Thanks for the distinction.

      Part of my (somewhat unique) experience at my institution inspired this post–that I tend to have a lot of students who explicitly acknowledge and describe their “faith,” but are confident that they already have adequate knowledge in it. Part of my goal, in teaching “Intro to Theology,” is to remind all students, regardless of their level of experience, that “the Study of God” on the collegiate level is “doing a new thing” and will demand a new level of engagement, a new level of skill, and further “practice” (as Tim Brunk notes below, thanks for that note, too!).

  3. I found that the theology courses I was required to take as an undergraduate econ major awoke something in me. It wasn’t faith per se, but more like the excitement that faith and intellect intersected. Somehow I had missed that in the previous 18 years of my life.

    I’m all for the continued flourishing of the academic pursuit of theology, even though it is not a field I can call mine as a professor can, but I’m extremely interested in the continuing flourishing of our faith among young adults. If theology courses can contribute to that, I think it’s a wonderful thing.

  4. As someone who also regularly teaches Genesis to first-year students, I heartily endorse your perspective, Katie. Yet, asking students to compare themselves to Augustine invites a rejoinder like this: “Well, Augustine was a saint. All saints do is read the Bible, and pray and stuff like that.” I am not defending that view of saints but perhaps a comparison to sports would be better. People run (again and again) and throw (again and again) so that they can do these things with greater skill. The same applies to (re)reading Genesis or studying the Civil War, etc.

  5. “Our engagement with revelation—from Genesis to the traditions of faith cultivated by the Christian churches—can never stop, rest, or cease, but only continue.”

    I think a break now and then is good for one’s sanity.

    “So, to the student with strong background who wonders “how many times to I need to read Genesis?” I wonder in return, “How many times do you suppose St. Augustine read Genesis? I wonder if he ever felt that he fully understood the breadth and depth of God’s revelation in Creation?””

    But Augustine bored the hell out of the whole world with his endless brooding on the difference between the state of innocence and our current fallen state. Worse than that, he discouraged and dispirited us for centuries. He should have been intelligent enough to read Genesis as a legend but insisted on devoted huge amounts of ingenuity to a “literal” reading. This even clogged the advancement of science.

    ” I suppose that part of Augustine’s ceaseless pursuit of knowledge, of reading and teaching the same passages of Genesis again and again, was paired with that ceaseless desire to know God, to teach others of God, and to live always in the City of God.”

    Unfortunately, he saw the world around him in increasingly bleaker terms and confidently thought that the human race was a massa damnata from which only a few would be plucked out by divine predestination.

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