The range of theological and religious postgraduate courses that span the country is receiving applicants in healthy numbers, and contrary to popular assumption, these applicants do not tend to be heading for the seminary but can originate from such backgrounds as teaching, journalism and even banking.
One course currently experiencing ‘extreme popularity’ is the Master of Arts in Christian Spirituality run at Mary Immaculate College Limerick. As Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, explains:
‘Many people nowadays are in search of spiritual fulfilment and are interested in the Christian tradition and Christian mystics. Walk into any bookshop and you will see shelves lined with self help books and books promoting spiritual growth. There is plainly a need out there and we want to meet that need.’
This course is provided in the evening time, twice a week, to meet the needs of students who work during the day. Dr Van Nieuwenhove explains that students frequently apply who do not have a degree in Theology, but if they can display an interest and knowledge of the subject they may gain admission to the course.
Also running part time at Mary Immaculate College is a Graduate Diploma/Masters Degree in Theology and Religious Studies. This programme consists of eight taught modules, including The Religious Quest: Phenomenon and Method and Contemporary Questions about God. Students gain the Graduate Diploma after two years’ study; those who achieve a 2:1 may transfer into the MA programme.
At the Milltown Institute in Dublin, the most popular taught postgraduate course at is the HDip/Master’s in Applied Christian Spirituality. Dr Michael O’Sullivan, programme director, says the course attracts around twenty students each year. Although their student profile is changing as the programme attracts more male students, Dr O’Sullivan categorises the students as ‘mostly mature female laypersons from a professional background, usually caring professions such as teaching, counselling or social work’.
Dr O’Sullivan observes that students gravitate towards this course because ‘they arrive at a stage in their lives where they have personal or professional issues that they want to work through. We do lots of self-development and lots of ‘inner work’ on this course, and we are very happy with the results’.
In the first year of the course, students are taught how to be reflective practitioners, better communicators and to ‘grow as people’. Students are encouraged to engage in peer learning, whereby they spend one day per week supporting and discussing elements of the course with each other, thus forming a strong support network.
In the second year, students undertake research in a relevant area. One such student, Carol Milton chose the subject of male suicide as her research topic. Ms Milton came to the Masters having always been interested in spirituality and saw her previous work with young people as the perfect jumping-off point. Having experienced the suicide of a close family member, she was keen to carry out research in the area.
‘I studied literature on suicide, looked at statistics, attended conferences given by the Irish Association of Suicidology and looked at the causes, such as mental illness, alcohol, sexual orientation and bullying. I wanted to examine low self esteem and how it can come from a lack of connectedness to society, a lack of purpose in the world’. The results of Ms Milton’s research are soon to be published by Veritas.
Research activity in the area of Theology continues elsewhere at a healthy pace. The School of Religions and Theology at Trinity College Dublin is a centre of such activity, encompassing four fields: Biblical Studies, Jewish Studies, Theology and Ethics. Students conduct supervised postgraduate research in each of these fields, leading to a Master of Letters (MLitt) or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).
Students at TCD undertake research that often shines a light into previously dark corners of theology. One MLitt student, Damian Bruce, published a thesis on ‘Sexual Identity and Representation in the Bible'. The thesis took as its aim the examination of the portrayal of female sexuality in the biblical text, and attempted to determine its effect upon the wider depiction of women characters. Other theses at TCD have included examinations of topics as diverse as ‘Religious Influences on Medical Thought and Practices in the Graeco-Roman World’ and ‘Angels in Apocalyptic Literature’.
All Hallows College runs postgraduate programmes in Theology and Religion with a particular focus on the pastoral area. The MA in Leadership and Pastoral Care provides holistic training in areas such as psychology, faith & culture, and human development. Students can also undertake research-based masters degrees whereby they conduct research that has its basis in the Christian tradition. All programmes run at All Hallows are DCU accredited.
Mater Dei Institute, a division of Dublin City University, runs several MAs in the religious area, including School Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care and Adult Religious Education. Mater Dei also provides a Graduate Diploma in Theological Studies. The Institute specialises in training Religion teachers for secondary school teaching in Ireland.
At St Patrick’s College Maynooth, perhaps the historical hub of theological education in Ireland, postgraduate options include a Masters Degree in Theology, Doctoral Degree in Theology (PhD) and a Masters Degree in Pastoral Studies (MPS). The Masters Degree in Theology involves at least a year of fulltime study, during which students choose from two modes. The first involves the study of moral, biblical or pastoral theology, followed by a minor thesis, which must be submitted within two years of completing the course. As part of the second mode, students complete a major thesis.
Graduates of such courses tend to find employment in areas such as healthcare chaplaincy, community development work, counselling, religious education and youth work. However, these courses are often sought as a means of personal and professional development, rather than as an explicit part of a career trajectory.
The array of courses in the theological and religious area attests to an increasing demand for education that stretches outside the strictly academic sphere and involves the holistic self. Areas such as spirituality have become accepted as academic subjects, and courses are reportedly experiencing healthy enrolment numbers, not only from laypersons but also from the odd atheist! In an Ireland that has shed the veneer of being a traditionally religious society, there is plainly a demand for a postgraduate education that reflects our religious heritage.