The Gift of Teaching in Diverse Contexts

Teaching is central to my role as principal of the college. Every semester I find myself teaching a different combination of courses. I’ve been reflecting lately on the diversity of this semester’s teaching and how it testifies to the breadth of the work of the college. At the School of Religious Studies at McGill University, I’m teaching a new, introductory survey course called, simply, “World Christianity.” It’s designed to introduce students to the reality of Christianity as a world religion. We’ve covered an immense amount of material: the history of European mission, liberation theology, the prosperity gospel, popular religion, and so much more. 

Teaching at the School of Religious Studies is a vital part of our relationship with McGill. In my role as principal, it’s important to be engaged in the daily life and work of our close institutional partner. What’s interesting about this new course is that it is oriented towards a general student population and not just towards students preparing for ministry. In this new course, I have students from across the university and from an immense array of disciplines: economics, political science, social work, pharmacology, to name just a few. Some of the students have some background in Christianity but many do not. When teaching about liberation theology, I found I needed to spend a few moments explaining what the Exodus was before I could teach about how liberation theologians found inspiration for their work in it. Some of the students, like others of their generation, have a distrust or suspicion of anything related to Christianity. Many others, however, are full of questions. They might not want to call themselves Christian and the idea of going to church might be foreign to them, but they come to see me with questions that aren’t just about the next assignment or exam but are of a deeper and more existential nature: who was this Jesus of Nazareth anyway and why do I find myself drawn to learning more about him? 

I’ve also been teaching an online course this semester called “The Christian Gospel and Popular Culture.” This is the latest in our popular series of open enrolment courses, oriented towards lay people across the church and across the continent. We have congregations joining to learn together, as well as individuals from up and down the eastern seaboard and across time zones. In each session, I’ve been keying in on big theological words, like law, grace, judgment, reconciliation, or hope and exploring how these themes are worked out—or not—in music, movies, books, and other cultural products of our time. The musical Les Misérables, for instance, is an extended meditation on the relationship between law and grace. Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck helps us grapple with the notion of judgment. P.D. James’ The Children of Men depicts a world without a future and thus a world without hope. 

I am quite clear that the central calling of the college is the preparation of faithful and creative leaders for the work of the church in the world. Historically—and still today—we understand that work as preparing people for ordained ministry in the church.

But the college is constantly pressing in new directions to make its resources available as widely as possible. The popularity and success of our online open enrolment courses demonstrates how interested people in the church are to learn more about their faith and its application in the world. I am also increasingly understanding how the college’s historic relationship with McGill gives us an opportunity that is unique in Canadian theological education today. It is a gift to stand in a classroom full of students who are skeptical, disinterested, or ignorant of the Christian tradition. In my teaching, I hope I can bear witness to the integration of academics and faith and to demonstrate that Christians live their lives in the world like everyone else. In so doing, we provide the space for the deep questions so many students have and yet struggle to voice. 

The gift of learning is not one we want to keep to ourselves in the college. With your help and support, we are continuing to expand the ways we share this gift. Thank you!