It’s one of the oldest degrees on offer in the world, but from next September undergraduate theology students at Oxford University will no longer have to study Christianity beyond the first year of their degree. Instead they will be able to focus on “Feminist Approaches” or “Buddhism in Space and Time,” should they so choose.
The university says it is making the change in response to demand from students and tutors, who are increasingly interested in religions and theologies other than Christianity. Students will still have to study The Bible and the figure of Jesus in their first year, but in their second and third years will be free to completely avoid exploration of the Christian faith altogether, if they want to.
Instead they will be able to opt for courses such as “Islam in the Classical Period”, “Mysticism” and “Feminist Approaches to Theology and Religion”. First year students will also be able to avoid learning classical Hebrew, Greek or Latin and will instead be able to study Qur’anic Arabic or Pali, a language native to the Indian subcontinent in which many early Buddhist texts are written.
“We recognise that the people who come to study at Oxford come from a variety of different backgrounds and have legitimately different interests,” Johannes Zachhuber, board chairman of the theology faculty told the Times Higher Education magazine.
“They come from the respected communities of Britain,” he added.
And it’s not just the students who have changed. A “massive generational turnover” of lecturers saw a third of posts filled mainly with younger staff with ‘modern’ research interests.
“If you have a very rigid curriculum, there will be an increasing mismatch between what lecturers are doing in their research time and what they’re having to teach,” said Professor Zachhuber.
Consultation for the new course has been taking place for seven years, but Prof Zachhuber said the moment they decided to change the name of the course “was the moment we chose to recognise things really have become different.” It’s part of a drive by the humanities department to overhaul its offerings following a complaint from some students that their courses were too Anglo-centric.
“The major driver for change for theology and religion is the dramatic change in the way religion is seen and practised in the UK,” Prof Zachhuber said. “The dominance of the Church of England has been receding but at the same time religion hasn’t disappeared. We want to offer to potential students what is interesting for them and that has changed a lot in the last 30 years.”
The extent of the cultural change on university campuses is exemplified by the recent ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign at Oxford University. The protesters were ultimately unsuccessful in their demands to make Oriel College remove their statue of Cecil Rhodes for being a racist colonialist, but they have been vastly more successful in their campaign to “decolonise the space, the curriculum and…to fight intersectional oppression within Oxford”.
“With the Cecil Rhodes statue debate, this ‘decolonisation’ of the curriculum is now quite interesting,” said Dr Benjamin Thompson, associate professor of medieval history and co-ordinator of undergraduate history at Oxford.
He says similar changes have taken place within the history curriculum at Oxford in recent years.
“These changes are what students want, because a bigger world is affecting them,” said Dr Thompson. “The most obvious example is the rise of militant Islam, or how well the Chinese economy is doing.”
Therefore, if students are invited to study a medieval knight, “we might look at his uniform and trace its origins to the silk roads in the Far East”.
Dr Lucy Munro, a reader in early modern English literature at King’s College London agrees. She says the concept of learning history by nations has been cleared out of the curriculum to bring to the fore the oppressed and forgotten. “We do still teach the big canonical texts, but alongside that we’ve become interested in how they relate to alternative voices.”
“We’ve gone from asking the big philosophical questions to a problem-oriented, activist view,” said Edward Simpson, professor in social anthropology at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.