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Prospectus for Doctoral Programs in Theology at Boston University School of Theology
(a.k.a. constantly updated, hyperlinked "Red Book")

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1. Description of the Doctoral Degree Program in Theology

1.1. General Description

The doctoral program in theology at Boston University School of Theology is designed to prepare students to understand and assess theological issues, and to pursue truth concerning them, in conversation with religious or secular traditions that might take an interest in such issues, or in which students might be interested. The theological task is an integrative assessment of received belief and a quest for truth informed by scriptures, traditions, personal and cultural experience, and reason in many forms. Traditions of theological inquiry, so understood, are found in many religions of the world; thus theological activity in this sense is the prerogative of no single religious tradition. Theological study at Boston University School of Theology looks forward to the situation, already upon us in many areas, in which the relevant public for theological truth claims has global dimensions. The doctoral program as well as the research and teaching of many faculty express the ongoing attempt to extend traditional theological languages to expressions that can be debated as true or false, discerning or evasive, in the broad context of cross-traditional discussion.

The doctoral program emphasizes mastery of the texts and ideas of at least one theological tradition—at least two in the case of degrees specializing in comparative theology. Moreover, the ThD degree can support a special orientation to Christian religious communities and their concerns. This involves a degree of engagement in the symbolic resources of that tradition to which all theology students are encouraged to aspire; profound engagement with theological symbols facilitates theological inquiry.

The doctoral program in different ways also has an interdisciplinary aspect. All candidates are encouraged to engage the core texts and motifs of other traditions in depth sufficient for engaging in dialogue (courses exist to support such learning). Moreover, all ThD students pursue a major and a minor discipline in their coursework and dissertation.

This approach to theology is not the rule in the academy or in Christian theological education. This indicates a need for the reformation of contemporary theological education in the academy and in religious communities, and the conceptions and structures of the ThD program are intended to address this need.

The doctoral program in theology at Boston University School of Theology is designed with a forward-looking historical perspective, namely, one that assumes that we have entered a period in which the development, expression, and criticism of theological assertions require a broader public than can be furnished by the symbols, practices, sacred texts, and theological traditions of any one religious heritage. In this new situation, theologians from any tradition need to engage theologians from other traditions in order to discern, formulate, and justify theological truth claims; such engagement is also a prerequisite for giving adequate critical assessments and reconstructions of their own religious heritages. Furthermore, some serious students of theology do not identify themselves as representatives of any one tradition but as heirs of several, or of none; such theologians will have important roles to play in a theological environment of unprecedented breadth. The doctoral program in theology prepares students to enter the theological world of the 21st century with discipline, erudition, a responsible grasp in depth of at least one tradition, the discernment and facility to investigate theological problems using resources from multiple traditions, and knowledge of and engagement with the specific concerns of Christian religious communities.

1.1.1. Theology as a Normative Discipline

The hallmark of the Boston University School of Theology doctoral program in theology is the focus on normative issues; that is, discussion of the truth, fitness, applicability, and value of theological assertions. The topics that demand normative responses arise both from within religious traditions as they face changing circumstances, and from a world that in some respects is not particularly cognizant of religious traditions but is grappling with theologically laden problems such as ecological responsibility and transnational distributive justice.

During some historical periods it might have been possible to focus these issues within the context of a single religious community. Now, however, it is obvious that many religious traditions approach the normative issues but with different practices, symbol systems, and intellectual traditions. The doctoral program assumes that attending to multiple traditions will prove helpful in carrying on the normative task of theology.

Like the Wei-Chin period in China when Confucianism had shaky authority, Taoism was developing both metaphysical and popular mystical expressions, and Buddhism was the new theologically interesting religion; like the same period in India (3rd to 5th centuries CE) when Buddhism was distinguishing its major divisions and Hinduism was developing its orthodox schools in response to Buddhism and to each other; like that same time in the ancient Mediterranean world when Judaism and Christianity were defining themselves over against one another and the competing movements of paganism, Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, and Zoroastrianism: ours is a time when theologians, who seek to know the truth as nearly as possible, recognize that there are competing expressions of that truth in traditions besides their own. As Thomas Aquinas took Islamic theology seriously when he wrote the Summa contra Gentles, theologians of all traditions today need to have the discipline and erudition, as well as the will, to take one another seriously. Moreover, the normative topics of our time are sufficiently complex and comprehensive as to require help from as many religious traditions as have insights to offer.

Similarly, at some times in the past it might have been possible to pursue normative theological inquiry within the Christian tradition using only traditional theological tools and procedures, narrowly conceived. Now, however, it has become clear that other disciplines within the general ambit of theological studies have indispensable insights to offer normative theological inquiry. The ThD program adopts an interdisciplinary approach, accordingly.

1.1.2. Theology as a Common Task across Religious Traditions

This proposal for broad theological conversation assumes that intellectual work in various religious traditions deals with at least some common topics, however differently identified and approached. This assumption is problematic because, just as questions have been raised by many scholars about the universal applicability of "religion" as a descriptive term, much the same concerns apply to the term "theology." Two considerations support the wisdom of this assumption, in spite of these challenges.

First, the fact that the intellectual traditions of many religions have taken radically different forms forces recognition of the extreme difficulty of focusing theological issues across traditions. Nevertheless, it still is the case that nearly every strand of every religion claims to be responding to reality, not merely to its conventional history. Moreover, theologians in nearly every tradition aim to be right about reality, not merely faithful to tradition, and faithfulness to tradition is itself prized because of the tradition’s perceived claim on reality. The cross-traditional concern for truth and adequacy suggests that theology can rightly be thought of as a cross-traditional task.

Second, the state of scholarship in comparative studies today leaves many questions open concerning whether different religious traditions are even commensurable with one another, let alone in agreement or disagreement, consonant or dissonant. Yet, intellectual reflection on the meaning and validity of the symbols and practices of any religious tradition as a matter of fact does seem to prompt questions that are relevant to other religious traditions. Moreover, if the religious traditions are not in agreement—even if they are incommensurable—then they present alternatives to one another in some respects. Pressing claims of incommensurability, conceptual conflict, and thematic affinities across traditions requires a cross-traditional, interdisciplinary, normative intellectual activity in which these issues can be framed, investigated and, if possible, resolved. Theology as it is defined here purports to answer to this description.

1.1.3. Theology as a Western, Christian Conception

A word from some tradition or other, which in its own history is too parochial, will have to be generalized and transformed by its use to describe this global discussion. "Theology" is the English word that presents itself for generalization. "Theology" is of course a Western word, invented by ancient Greek philosophers and used by early Christian theologians when they wanted to explain themselves to pagans. For many Christians in our time the word has come to mean only the internal explication of Christian faith for other Christians. Yet within Christianity even from the beginning it has been the word for the discipline of dialogue with others about topics of mutual concern and contention. There is ample precedent, therefore, for pressing "theology" into service to designate the global discussion in view here.

The reference to gods in the root of theology makes the word appropriate for the religions of West Asia that are theistic. There are gods in South Asian religions, too, in most forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in Chinese Taoism; but they play less "ultimate" roles than does divinity in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In other forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and especially in Confucianism, talk of gods is off the serious religious point. Yet some word is necessary to indicate the intellectual activity within which the nature and virtues of theism and its various alternatives can be discussed, and that word will have to be used in such a way as to include the intellectual commitments of non-theistic religions, such as Confucianism and some forms of Buddhism, as well as theistic religions.

The chief problem with using "theology" to designate this global discussion has to do with the danger of surreptitiously introducing a Western, Christian bias into normative discussions of topics with cross-traditional significance. Specifically, there is a legitimate concern that the very different forms of intellectual reflection in other religious traditions will be distorted or suppressed by the intellectual agenda suggested by the Western provenance and history of the word "theology." The concern is valid, and there is only one method of dealing with it: traces of potential bias need to be specifically identified and controlled for as much as possible. Vigilance against bias must be one of the ongoing tasks of theology.

It is fair to ask whether another word would help avoid the introduction of bias into cross-traditional normative inquiries. Apart from the fact that there do not appear to be any candidates better suited for the job than "theology," a general observation is in order: Just as terminology different from "theology" would not automatically address the deeper question of whether "theological reflection" is a viable conception when interpreted in the cross-traditional way it is here, neither would a switch to another Western word deflect the charge that such a global conception of theology is merely another totalizing Western pseudo-reduction of an actually irreducible plurality of forms of religious reflection. The danger of bias must not, therefore, obscure the need to name a meaningful and important task. Furthermore, the meaning of "theology" is ripe for enlargement, for theology cannot continue to be conceived as the province of the West or of Christianity alone, if it is to remain an intellectually viable discipline by its own standards, and a legitimate academic pursuit within the contemporary University.

An aspect of identifying and controlling for Western distortions of other religious traditions is the frank acknowledgement that the concern for a cross-cultural public for theology at the present time is largely of Western inspiration, though other traditions, notably the Kyoto School of Japanese Buddhism, have similar interests. Moreover, the standards of research and argument employed in the Boston University School of Theology doctoral program are those of the Western academy.

1.1.4. Using Traditions to Study Theology

Because theology—even defined as broadly as it is here—can scarcely be studied apart from the religious traditions that have sponsored it, the doctoral program in theology requires that students work with one or two traditions (depending on the focus) for intensive study. No matter which traditions are used, it is important to realize that it is theology in the broad sense that is being studied, and not merely "Christian theology" or "Hindu theology"; a tradition of specialization serves as a general guide to the complex theological landscape, and a starting point for investigating theological questions across traditional lines. Candidates may select Christianity as their tradition of study, or they may study two traditions if their specialization is in comparative theology (traditions of study in the comparative theology program may be selected as faculty resources are available; see below). The study of these religious traditions themselves, as against the study of theology with these traditions as primary guides, is not supported (in other words, the doctoral program is not an area studies program but a program in theology).

The focus on one or two religious traditions for the study of theology is also intended to do justice to the fact that theological inquiry typically requires a profound engagement with the potentially transformative religious symbols that guide many types of theological exploration. Objectivity in inquiry is not compromised but rather enhanced by the recognition that religious symbols can entail the transformation of those wielding them. Moreover, competence in the theological handling of religious symbols increases with self-conscious appreciation for the potency and internal connectedness of systems of religious symbols. The demand for such engagement stands as a challenge to all students of theology, especially those for whom the interests of religious communities are among the guiding concerns.

1.1.5. Theology and Neighboring Intellectual Activities

Because this conception of theological activity is somewhat unusual, and perhaps controversial, it should be described by means of comparisons and contrasts with neighboring intellectual activities.

Philosophy of Religion is a close companion of theology as described here (i.e. theology with a global public) because many of the points of contact between religious traditions can be expressed philosophically so as to bypass vastly alien symbol systems. But the bypassing of symbol systems is precisely what should be avoided when theologians from any living tradition meet each other. The real dialogue for theology, the contention as well as the possibility of cooperation, requires theologians to embody, interpret, and put forward their symbol systems and the historical practices of their traditions. Only by means of the programmatic incorporation into theological discussion of the details of religious traditions as critical living entities can theologians engage the relevant issues and one another’s arguments in a theological way.

One of the major differences between viable contemporary theology and the Christian theology of a previous generation is the importance of building upon anthropological and hermeneutical analyses and appropriations of religious communities and practices. Philosophy of religion, even when it includes phenomenology, has habits of prescinding from the very stuff of religion with which theology needs to grapple on the way to viable insights. Besides, academic philosophy as practiced in America is decades behind religious studies in matters of comparative cultures: philosophy of religion imports a wholly Western and mainly Christian or secular European philosophical agenda. Philosophy of religion is a proper part of theology but not the whole.

Comparative Theology is another close neighbor because it attends both to the conditions of dialogue and to the erudition concerning "other" traditions necessary for the dialogue to be possible. Like philosophy of religion, comparative theology is a vital part of theology. Yet in common usage it does not connote the concern to transcend the descriptive issues of comparison to the normative issues with which theologians from all traditions are fundamentally concerned. As the term is used here, however, comparative theology does presuppose this normative dimension.

Phenomenology of Religion thought of as an interpretative tool is an important part of theology because it is indispensable to any descriptive, and so comparative, enterprise. It is also vital as a philosophical approach because it offers a powerful argument to the effect that diverse appearances manifest essences susceptible of description using a single, albeit complex, language—a corollary of which would be the viability of theological activity as it is understood here. However, in its classical expressions, phenomenology systematically brackets questions of truth and value. Theology does not.

Hermeneutics is systematic reflection on practices of interpretation. Its mediating clarifications are of great value throughout theological activity, especially respecting the requirement of dialogue not to impose one tradition’s assumptions on another. Furthermore, hermeneutics is essential in bringing the symbols of traditional religions to bear upon common topics that call for theological response, such as concerns for ecology and distributive justice. But hermeneutics, like phenomenology, brackets normative judgment save regarding faithfulness of meaning. Once again, theology must fully engage normative questions.

Intellectually Guided Religious Practice has been identified by the cultural-linguistic approach to theology as having intellectual integrity and normative value when operative within a living religious tradition. Indeed, for the cultural-linguistic approach, intellectually guided religious practice is the very stuff of theology, for it aims to be faithful to the founding symbols and commitments of the tradition, and develops competence among the faithful to understand their world in terms of those symbols and commitments. Whatever its entitlement to the word "theology," intellectually guided religious practice does not raise the question of truth as that might come from outside the tradition of practice.

Systematic Theology often means theology that assumes both an exclusively Christian audience and a sure deposit of revealed truth; on this view, the business of systematic theology is to elaborate and systematize the tradition’s symbols. Roman Catholicism customarily distinguishes systematic theology from fundamental theology, of which the latter raises philosophical issues that can conceivably be engaged by inquirers beyond the community that is constituted by acceptance of the tradition and its symbols. "Theology" in the sense of the Boston University School of Theology doctoral program assumes that systematic theology, fundamental theology, and comparative theology all have a clear commitment and sense of accountability to both the community of religious involvement and the larger public, which includes secular thought and all religions.

When systematic theology takes as its task not only the elaboration of doctrinal truth but also the justification of theological truth claims, as it does in the method of some contemporary Christian theologians, then there is a strong potential affinity with theology in the sense it has here. This affinity will be strong in actuality whenever the intersubjective context for the debating of Christian truth claims includes secular thought and the intellectual traditions of other religions. Furthermore, the concrete practices and religious symbols, and not merely the philosophical ideas, of other traditions need to be engaged in the discussion.

Confessional or Dogmatic or Kerygmatic Theology functions in certain Protestant circles somewhat analogously to systematic theology for Roman Catholics. It is sometimes coupled, however, with hostility to philosophy or natural theology uncommon in Roman Catholicism. Such theology has little to say in conversation with a larger public in respect of making itself vulnerable to correction and improvement. Nevertheless, the great contribution of this approach is to call attention to the importance of practice and of commitment to participation and perfection in religious cultic life; here, in liturgies, sacred texts, songs, and customs is where theological symbols have their flesh. What Neo-orthodox Protestants have claimed to be true in this regard of Christianity is true also of other religious traditions. Therefore it can be said that confessional theology as the enactment of a tradition’s own intellectual and symbolic life is an important and perhaps necessary element in theology in the broader sense, even if by itself it does not take up the posture of dialogue.

1.1.6. Kinds of Theological Activity

The Theology Faculty recognize that theological inquiry in this broad sense is an emerging phenomenon, whose nature and meaning will be better understood only after years of engaging in it. The provisionality of the resulting understanding of theology notwithstanding, the doctoral programs in theology are formed by an interpretation of the theological task that emphasizes a number of types of theological activity—including scriptural theology, systematic theology, fundamental theology, philosophical theology, and advocacy theology—and several methodological modes—including historical, constructive, and comparative. Each type of theological activity can be carried out in any of the methodological modes. Though individual research interests usually require specialization, and students in the doctoral degree program in theology vary in their emphases, a firm grasp of all these theological tasks and methodological modes is expected of students by the time of the qualifying examinations.

The five kinds of theological activity mentioned can be interpreted as follows: scriptural theology attends most directly to the sacred writings of religious traditions; systematic theology develops theological systems out of, and often in critically reconstructive dialogue with, the world’s theological traditions; fundamental theology deals with questions of theological method and the use of theological sources; philosophical theology addresses theologically relevant philosophical concerns; and advocacy theology engages specific aspects of culture and experience by using theological resources as a basis for advocating transforming action (e.g. theological advocacy of feminist and liberation concerns within the Christian tradition; or theological advocacy of caste system reform within the Hindu tradition). Practical theology, which is a sixth form of theological activity oriented to the interpretation and guidance of practical matters within religious traditions, is not emphasized in the doctoral program in theology, though some dimensions of practical theology fit smoothly within the theology degree program.

The three methodological modes emphasized in the theology doctoral programs can be interpreted as follows: theology in the historical mode emphasizes understanding the character and development of traditions of theological reflection, as represented by their most significant exponents; theology in the constructive mode aims to build theories about theological themes in such a way as to do justice to considerations from history, present-day contexts, and multiple disciplines; and theology in the comparative mode seeks to conduct theological inquiry in the context of the study of multiple religious traditions using tools that facilitate inter-traditional comparisons.

1.2. Theology Faculty

Many Boston University faculty have some direct interest in theology, and an even larger number of faculty possess expertise in areas closely connected to theology. Consulting the sources listed in the section "Where to Get More Information" (section 1.3) will guide candidates to these professors.

1.2.1 Core Faculty in Theology

The Core Theology Faculty teach most theology courses and set policies and procedures for the theology doctoral program.

John H. Berthrong
Comparative theology; contemporary theories of interreligious relation; Chinese intellectual and religious history

Ray L. Hart
Philosophy of religion; philosophical theology; systematic theology; theological aesthetics

Mary Elizabeth Moore
Practical theology, process theology, feminist theology

Robert C. Neville
Philosophical theology; systematic theology; comparative theology (Western and Chinese); metaphysics; American philosophy

Shelly Rambo
Systematic theology, theology and literature

Bryan P. Stone
Practical theology, liberation theology, process theology, Wesleyan theology

Kirk Wegter-McNelly
Systematic theology, theology and science

Wesley J. Wildman
Constructive theology; history of modern Christian theology; philosophy of religion; religion and science; comparative theology

1.2.2 Faculty Resources who may be able to assist Theology Students

Some affiliated faculty work in religious thought. Others are historians or area studies specialists who may be able to help students working in comparative theology.

Kecia Ali
Islamic studies

Christopher B. Brown
History of Christianity in the Rennaissance through the Reformation and counter-Reformation to Pietism

Hee An Choi
Practical theology, feminist theology, Korean theology

Gina Cogan
Asian religions

Marthinus L. Daneel
Missiology, comparative theology

M. David Eckel
Hindu and Buddhist philosophy; inter-religious dialogue; comparative theology

Christopher Evans
History of modern Christianity

Walter Fluker
Ethical leadership, black theology, King and Thurman

John Hart
Christian ethics, ecological ethics, Latin-American liberation theology

Emily Hudson
Religion and literature

Steven Katz
Philosophy of religion

Deeana Klepper
History of Christianity, medieval and early modern European religious history

Frank Korom
South Asian, Carribbean, and Diaspora studies

Christopher Lehrich
Theory of religion, early modern Europe, magic in relation to science and religion

Hillel Levine
Sociology and religion

Diana Lobel
Classical and medieval Jewish studies, comparative philosophy and religious thought

Thomas Michael
Chinese religions and literature

Alan M. Olson
Philosophy of religion, religion and literature

Elizabeth Parsons
Theology of mission, world Christianity

Rodney L. Petersen
Ecumenical theology, world Christianity

Stephen Prothero
Religion and culture in the United States

Teena Purohit
South Asian studies

Dana L. Robert
Theology of mission, global Christianity

Rady Roldan-Figueroa
History of early modern Christianity, history of Spanish Christianity

C. Allen Speight
Philosophy of religion

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker
History of Christianity, liturgical theology, Wesleyan theology

Claire Wolfteich
Practical theology, theology and spirituality

Michael Zank
Modern Jewish thought

1.3. Where to Get More Information

This document contains the most specific published information about the ThD degree in theology, and is not relevant to other specializations or degrees. Information about the ThD program in general, including requirements and timetables not discussed here, may be found in the following sources.

1.3.1. The STH Bulletin

The STH Bulletin is the official source of information about all degree programs offered by STH and is updated annually.

1.3.2. The STH "Doctor of Theology Degree Handbook"

The Advanced Studies Committee of STH, which administers the ThD program, publishes the procedures for the ThD program in the ASC Handbook, which is updated periodically.

1.3.3. Common Wisdom

Some of the handiest information for doctoral candidates is not written down, partly because no one has ever undertaken such a task, and partly because some of it cannot be expressed conveniently. Getting to know other students already in the doctoral program and sharing insights with one another is an excellent way to pick up this sort of information.

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