Help me plan a course about Great Christian Thinkers

I like to think that there will come a point in my life where I will have time to think about something other than teaching, but I think I’m a little way off that yet. I’m just over a third of the way into Semester 1 and already Semester 2 is looming large. I’ll be teaching three courses next semester instead of the two I’m teaching this semester, and if I make it through alive I’ll be in danger of believing in miracles. I’ll probably post about all three courses separately over the course of syllabus design and redesign, but I’ll be teaching Great Christian Thinkers Part 2, the second half of my first year intro course, an Introduction to Political Philosophy, and a module on Marx, Hegel and Dialectical Thinking.

The idea behind Great Christian Thinkers Part 2 is to give students an overview of some major Christian thinkers so they get some familiarity with some of the Big Names of Christian theology, some initial sense of the development of Christian theology over time, as well as a general sense of how some of the core theological concepts we’ve looked at in semester 1 play out in later thinkers. Last time around they did St Paul, Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth.

This iteration of the course is themed around suffering, and in semester 1 we’ve been working through major Christian doctrines in relation to the idea of suffering as follows:

WEEK 1: What Matters Most
WEEK 2: Augustine, Theology, and the Problem of Suffering
WEEK 3: God, Evil and the Nature of Suffering
WEEK 4: The Fall
WEEK 5: Free to Suffer?
WEEK 6: The Devil
WEEK 7: ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 8: Suffering Desire, Desiring Suffering
WEEK 9: Suffering and the Ethics of Sacrifice
WEEK 10: Political Suffering: A Tale of Two Cities
WEEK 11: Political Suffering: War
WEEK 12: What Matters Most?

This is probably the only module on the course where the students will spend a lot of time with pre-20th century Big Name Theologians so I’m trying to work out which of those thinkers are most important for the students to have some familiarity with. I’m tempted to keep the line-up roughly the same but perhaps swap out Barth and add in Catherine of Siena so we can really spend some time thinking about the crucial shifts that happen in the medieval period. But I’m also not a specialist on any of those thinkers (maybe more so with Aquinas), so would gratefully appreciate any thoughts on the following:

  • Which are the most indispensable Big Theological Thinkers, especially pre-20th century?
  • What’s some good secondary reading on any of those Big Names that might help me find interesting ways into thinking about them, especially when it comes to the role of suffering in their work? I’d love to use the Aquinas section to think about the crucial role of Christian  encounters with Jewish and Muslim thought in forming systematic theology, for example.

Updated Critical Reading Worksheet

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last version of my close reading worksheet, now re-named a critical reading worksheet after it turned out that “close reading” is its own specific kind of thing, and tweaked a bit in response to suggestions from lots of people. In particular, I’ve added some questions to encourage my students to think about what they’re bringing to the text, and to notice their own reactions to it; and some questions which will hopefully get them thinking about the structure of the text and (where relevant) the argument. I think in future I might try to expand it to give some examples of paragraphs from academic texts which show the kinds of critical engagement that might result from asking each of these different questions, but this is the version I’ll be using in my teaching this year:

Continue reading “Updated Critical Reading Worksheet”

What’s the point of university?

I’m teaching my first Great Christian Thinkers class on Friday, and because it’s meant to be a course that orients my students to their degree as a whole and we’re opening on the theme of ‘What Matters Most?’, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the purpose of university; both what they want to get out of their degree and what a range of other people and institutions might want them to get out of it. I’ve pulled together some short extracts for them to discuss as part of the session, and thought they might be of interest to others: you are welcome to borrow and/or adapt these at will. Continue reading “What’s the point of university?”

A guide to close reading

I’m planning to give my first year undergraduates a worksheet designed to help them engage with the theological and philosophical texts we study during our course. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students struggle to find critical ways into the texts, and I’m hoping that giving them some fairly generic questions to work through will help them find ways in. I’m planning to talk through the list of questions when I hand them out then use them as a basis for some of our seminar discussions over the rest of the semester so that the students can get a handle on how to use them.

Here’s the list of questions I’ve drafted so far; I’d really appreciate any comments/suggestions/wisdom gleaned from other people’s teaching experience, and of course you’re welcome to appropriate these for yourself if they look like they’d help you in your own teaching:

Continue reading “A guide to close reading”

Gender, Sexuality and the Bible syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for the course I’m teaching this semester on Gender, Sexuality and the Bible. I’ve now finished the module handbook and am pretty excited about teaching it. At my institution we run a bunch of courses for both second and third year undergraduate, which means that everyone sits in on our weekly classes, and then the third year students get additional advanced seminars every other week. I’ve designed the main body of the course to run thematically, ranging across both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; the advanced seminar will focus in depth on the Song of Songs (special shout out to Jared Beverley whose advice on this was totally invaluable).

The course overview is as follows:

WEEK 1: Introducing the Bible, Gender and Sexuality
WEEK 2: Creating Gender: Eve and Her Daughters
WEEK 2 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Introducing the Song of Songs
WEEK 3: Reproducing Gender: Abraham and His Sons
WEEK 4: Troubling Gender: Bodily Fluids
WEEK 4 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Feminist Readings of the Song of Songs
WEEK 5: Questioning Binary Gender
WEEK 6: Homosexuality? Sodom and Leviticus
WEEK 6 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Constructing Gender in the Song of Songs
WEEK 7: Homosexuality? Sinners and Lovers
WEEK 7 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Queering the Song of Songs
WEEK 8: ALTERNATIVE ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 9: Marriage
WEEK 10: The Bible and Sexual Violence
WEEK 10 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Troubling Desire in the Song of Songs
WEEK 11: Sex Work and the Bible
WEEK 12: Oral exams

You can take a look at the complete module handbook here.

Great Christian Thinkers Syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for my Great Christian Thinkers course. It’s taken me a lot of work to figure out how to balance all the different elements I needed to incorporate: how to make it interesting to philosophers and theologians, how to balance introducing Augustine with introducing key concepts and problematics in Christian theology with taking my students through some basic study and essay writing skills. But I think I’ve cracked it, and am really excited to teach the course. I’ve decided to frame the course as a whole around Phillip Goodchild’s claim that that if, pace Plotinus, philosophy is ‘what matters most’, then what matters most is suffering. The course as a whole, then, is designed to take the students through key primary and secondary texts that will help them to write a formative essay on the topic: ‘Why and how does suffering matter in the work of Augustine?’ and because those essays will be due before the final class of the semester, we’ll spend that last class on a class debate which will give us a chance to talk about whether or not Augustine can help us in answering the question ‘what matters most?’ for ourselves. Then in Semester 2 we’ll spend time going through a range of key Christian thinkers (I’m still figuring out how to construct that canon) with an eye to how they deal with the question of suffering and what matters most.

I’m hoping that the focus on suffering will give us an interesting and focused way into the major themes of both Augustine’s work and Christian thought more broadly, so the course is structured as follows:

WEEK 1: What Matters Most
WEEK 2: Augustine, Theology, and the Problem of Suffering
WEEK 3: God, Evil and the Nature of Suffering
WEEK 4: The Fall
WEEK 5: Free to Suffer?
WEEK 6: The Devil
WEEK 7: ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 8: Suffering Desire, Desiring Suffering
WEEK 9: Suffering and the Ethics of Sacrifice
WEEK 10: Political Suffering: A Tale of Two Cities
WEEK 11: Political Suffering: War
WEEK 12: What Matters Most?

Here’s the complete module handbook, with weekly readings and overviews of what ground I hope to cover in each class.

Marxism without Marxists

Reading over some of my old work on the theme of divine and revolutionary violence in Žižek today it struck me how odd it is that although his discussion of these themes relies very heavily on Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, whose discussion of the different forms of violence revolves around the different forms of strike and the different types of state repression of strikes, nowhere in Žižek’s own work does he mention the strike as a form of political action. Probably the closest he comes is in his repeated invocation of Bartleby the Scrivener’s one-man strike which, despite Žižek’s repeated appeal to its political efficacy, results not in any general transformation of Bartleby’s workplace but simply the reordering of precisely the same system in a different location – that is to say, Bartleby fails to effect any meaningful change because while he as an individual worker in an individual office refuses to work or to leave the building, there remain plenty of other workers and other offices. The only form of collective action Žižek seems able to imagine is totally spontaneous and unorganised  – the fictional refusal of the characters in Saramago’s Seeing to fill out their ballots, various riots which always, on Žižek’s reading, emerge out of nowhere – or organised around a single charismatic leader – here Gandhi is one of Žižek’s favoured examples, and again he focuses on classically liberal terrain, ‘consumer boycotts’. When he writes about the organised political action of the demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown he can’t recognise the role of collective organising at work, describing them in the face of evidence to the contrary as ‘“irrational” violent demonstrations with no concrete programmatic demands, sustained by just a vague call for justice’, and comparing them to divine violence in Benjamin’s sense as ‘means without ends, not part of a long-term strategy’ – suggesting that he doesn’t really understand the idea of the general strike which is so central to Benjamin’s discussion. As his use of Benjamin indicates, it’s clearly not that Žižek doesn’t read the work of actually existing Marxists, though he’s much less interested in Marxists in general than he is in Lacanians and Hegelians. But it’s a striking lacuna in his work, and more generally indicative of his limitations as a political theorist, especially of his inability to imagine the use of deliberate and organised collective action.