Interview with a Theology Student
Meet Emily Wilt, a former religious studies student who offers a fascinating insight into what it’s like to study theology in today’s world. Learn more about how her interest in religion started at a young age and what advice she has for prospective theology students.
- What is your background in theology?
- Why did you decide to pursue a degree in this field?
- What interests you most about studying religion and why is it worth studying, in your opinion?
- What was your favorite course while studying religion?
- Where do you see yourself after you’ve completed your PhD?
- What should a prospective theology student look for in a degree program?
- Do you have any advice for students interested in studying theology?
- What changes, if any, are currently taking place in the study of theology?
- What was the biggest takeaway from your experience studying religion?
- For fun! What are you currently reading?
I have a BA in Religious Studies from Kenyon College, and I spent a semester at Victoria University in Wellington, NZ while earning that degree.
Since I was about eight, I’ve been fascinated by religion of all sorts, but it was a casual fascination. When I was looking at colleges, I was actually thinking of majoring in English and minoring in RS because writing seemed more practical, but once I started classes I realized I was much more passionate about my Religious Studies classes than the literary analysis of the English coursework.
On the surface religions seem incredibly different, and rightly so- the rituals, practices, and traditions entwined in each have evolved over many hundreds of years and are deeply rooted in the cultures of the people who observe them. In many ways, religions are inextricably linked to the fabric of all societies and inform our decisions, from what clothing to wear and food to eat all the way to which nations we feel sympathy for. This is what interests me most, and why I think religions are worth studying- when we have a wider knowledge of motivations and desires, we have better understanding of our fellow human beings. And the most intriguing thing I’ve learned in my studies is what keeps me coming back: while the world’s religions may look different, at their hearts they seem to be the same, promoting love and trying to provide us guidance on how to live in times of confusion and strife.
My favorite course, the one that really opened my eyes the most, was Approaches to the Study of Religion, which was my first comparative religions course at Kenyon. Up to that point my classes had been focused on learning about one religion at a time in an in-depth way. The comparative course then sort of zoomed out and allowed me to look at the broader picture of religions as a uniquely human phenomenon, to examine the very existence of these systems through sociological and anthropological lenses and try to get at the heart of why people, regardless of geographic location and cultural background, have a tendency to cling to these traditions and practices that are associated with the supernatural. It also made me aware of the striking similarities that lie at the hearts of various world religions, and vastly increased my compassion for my fellow human beings.
I also really loved one of the classes I took at Victoria University in Wellington, which was called the Evolution of Religion. It was another comparative course that examined religions through the lens of evolutionary adaptiveness and tried to determine why, in spite of the distance and lack of communication between early human settlements, these similar systems of ritual and belief had arisen. I guess I enjoyed both of these classes so much because they strove toward discovering the why of religion instead of just the what.
I have thought about going back to school for further RS work with the end goal of becoming a professor at a small school not unlike Kenyon. But for now, as mentioned, I am looking at earning a Master’s in Library and Information Sciences (probably from University of Alabama or Kent State; both have good online programs that offer the flexibility I desire) with the hope of working in a public library in some capacity.
Course offerings that excite passion and pique curiosity; get ahold of a course catalog and peruse names and descriptions. Hopefully that will serve to whet your appetite! It’s so much more difficult to learn and stay engaged when you’re bored.
Faculty is also hugely important. I don’t know if people are still using it, but ratemyprofessors.com was a useful tool for me. Word of mouth is also a great tool!
Pursue it if you have a passion for it. If not, figure out where your passion does lie, and follow that course. Try to approach the study of religions with patience and an open mind. Be aware that it will not just be bullet-pointed lists of differences and similarities; there will be lots of history to wade through that will help make sense of how rituals and traditions emerged. And do not expect your studies to reveal to you the answers to the universal questions! If anything, studying religion merely reinforces how vast the mysteries of life truly are.
When I was in school about five years ago, one of the things that interested me most was the new(ish) merging of Religious Studies and neuroscience. I wish I had a better biological background so I could make better sense of what I was learning, but the idea of studying the internal mechanisms at work within us during religious experiences fascinates me to no end.
My biggest takeaway from studying religion was this: all the world’s religions, it seems to me, boil down to a message of love, humility, patience, and compassion. The fact that this lies at the heart of so many traditions provides me with a sense of peace and hope for the future.
Out of Oz, by Gregory Maguire. It’s the fourth book in his Oz Years series that began way back when with Wicked. I’m utterly engrossed and about 90 pages from the end. The writing is easy and occasionally witty, the world rich, and the socio-political commentary thought-provoking, and there is something about the way Maguire writes about the inner world of his protagonists that strikes a deep chord in me.