The True Value of Religious Studies

Anyone who decides to pursue a degree in Religious Studies becomes familiar with answering the question, “What do you do with a degree in that?” In this post, Nyssa introduces her column and explains why she believes her degree in Religious Studies is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her life.

Anyone who decides to pursue a degree in Religious Studies becomes familiar with answering the question, “What do you do with a degree in that?” Through my years of studying religion, I found I almost had to compose a defensive strategy and create an argument that my decision seemed worthwhile in this profit-driven culture. I never really worried about what sort of job I might find, partly because I already had a vocational license in massage therapy. I didn’t know how exactly, but I believed I was being pulled on a specific path that no one could have anticipated and would soon incorporate what I learned in both fields. I had faith that it would all work out. With a passion for poetry and a background in creative writing, my short-hand answer was that I was studying religion to be inspired to write more poetry. That answer certainly did not satisfy anyone concerned for my inevitable debt and dead-end career because we all know that poets don’t make much money either; however, honestly, and obviously, I didn’t care.

There is one conversation on this subject that is still quite vivid in my memory. I was offering chair massage services at a local farmer’s market sometime during my later undergraduate years. As many clients do, one gentleman started to ask about me: am I in school, what am I studying, etc. I had already become accustomed to this conversation and was getting ready to defend my decision to study religion when his response threw me for a loop: “Oh, religion. There’s a lot of money in that!”

I remember having to pause in that moment, asking him to repeat himself because I must have misheard him. That response was so opposite to anything I had heard, even from the professors in the department. But no, he had really said what I thought, so I figured he must be joking. The more we talked, I realized he was absolutely serious. At first I thought I had found the answer to this dilemma that all Religious Studies students face. Then I saw that he was speaking of a very specific aspect of the field of religion, very far removed from my interests, and I’m assuming most students’ intentions as well.

“Just open one of those mega-churches,” he said. “It’s really not too hard, you start to get a following, tax exemption, take collections, you can really make it big.” He spoke almost as if he had done this before or seen someone else do it. The odd part for me was that he really didn’t seem bitter or angry about religious leaders being money-grubbing, power-seeking weasels. He genuinely seemed to perceive this as a great business opportunity.

This is not the perspective of the majority of students and professors in the field. No one I knew was studying religion for the money. Some, I think, were like me in that we felt mysteriously and undeniably drawn to the study of the intangible, leaving the ultimate career outcome to work itself out along the way.

At some point during my first few years in Religious Studies, a letter appeared on the bulletin board in the department hallway. It was an e-mail that someone had printed out, disguised the identity of the sender, and highlighted a particular portion of the text. The non-highlighted part seemed to be explaining why someone would want to get a degree in Religious Studies. The highlighted part said, “If I have learned anything from studying religion, it’s that what I really should do is go sit on a stump in the woods.”

I found this statement encouraging because I was at odds with my decision to study religion. I realized halfway through my degree that I had come to study it for all the wrong reasons. What I really wanted was to learn more about my own spirituality, to understand my own journey better, to be inspired by learning all the various forms through which others do this. What I found truly fed my “constant yearning,” as Rumi would say, but applying what one discovers in this manner is not really what we are supposed to do in the academic world. Still, it became difficult for me not to explore this personal side of scholarship. I even wrote papers arguing that personal scholarship should be valid and valued.

So, seeing this letter printed out, posted, and highlighted, I felt like there was an inside joke that we all shared. It’s as if on the outside we are continuing the pursuit of objective scholarship, but on the inside we “just think it’s neat,” as one of my Biblical Studies professors said about studying multiple versions of the New Testament in its original Greek. The letter in the hallway was like an arrow pointing to the truth of why many come to study religion.

In my first Religious Studies class, I would listen to the variety of ways other cultures had interpreted the interconnectedness of things and it would spill over into my own perceptions. I’d leave class and the world would look different. I was experiencing a new appreciation for the world and my place in it.

But the ultimate result of it all is that I felt more joyful, and besides the tuition, this shift was free of charge. What was really happening was that I was becoming more present and more engaged with my life in each moment. My studies started to function in my life in ways that a religious or spiritual practice does; I had access to knowledge of the unseen, a community of similarly-minded individuals, and what felt like special stories and practices that bound us together.

Some students would joke about how one of the most brilliant, inspirational, and successful professors in our department drove the most beat-up 1980s Datsun anyone had ever seen. In one story, the door handle would fall off and he’d just laugh. Who knows whether or not it was actually true, but like any successful myth, it’s the metaphor that matters. He was not concerned with affluence and status; he was concerned with inspiring students to ponder “questions of ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich calls them.

Reflecting on this, I guess the next time somebody asks me why I studied religion, I should respond that I wanted to learn more about myself and the world and what’s really important. I cannot put a value on this education, and I see now why one anonymous professor confessed to wanting to sit on a stump in the woods.

Welcome to my woods. That’s an invaluable education.

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