Theology Courses


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Spring 2019

Courses are for Purdue credit. Some may be used to fulfill Ecclesial Lay Ministry requirements.

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History of the Christian Afterlife

(A Guided Tour through Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, & Limbo)
REL 250
MWF: 10:30-11:20 AM, REC 308
Dr. Thomas Ryba

Purpose of the course: Since its earliest formulation, the Christian idea of the afterlife has been in a process of continuous theological development. This development has depended—to a large extent—on how Christians have interpreted those scriptures dealing with the afterlife, but it has also depended on extra-scriptural cultural legacies. The diverse metaphors Christians have selected to convey their ideas of post-mortem enjoyment of God’s presence (and the misery of separation from it) have also been a matter of historical location. Many of the differences between historic formulations were rooted in the way Christians understood cosmology—the way the universe was structured and the kinds of beings inhabiting it—and religious achievement, that is, whether they thought the afterlife had degrees, levels, or “altitudes” corresponding to states of holiness and reprobation or whether they thought it had a flattened topography appropriate to a single fate. Respective notions of religious achievement (and their “topographies”) were often a gauge of both: changing ideas of God’s love and righteousness as well as changing cultural expectations about punishment and reward.

Course content: In this course, we will explore pre-Christian antecedents, New Testament descriptions of heaven as a banquet and hell as Gehenna, Apocryphal notions of celestial and infernal voyages, the Patristic tripartite formulations (of heaven, purgatory and hell), Medieval visionary writings, the “simplification” of the Christian notion of the afterlife in the Reformation, mystical and 19th century descriptions of heaven as sexual union and hell as separation from the beloved, and the typical 20th century abandonment of perpetual punishment in favor of the afterlife as a “process of education.” This exploration will be accomplished through readings of original and secondary sources, and its emphasis will be on relating the various historical formulations to social, theological, and philosophical assumptions that gave rise to them.

Requirements: Reports on selected models of the afterlife. Take-home essay midterm and final.

Texts: Colleen McDannell & Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. 2nd Edition. Nota Bene, 2001; Alan Segal. Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West. Doubleday, 2004 [Kindle edition available]; original sources posted on Blackboard; & two viewings of (the movie) What Dreams May Come.

Religions of the West

PHIL/REL 231
MWF 11:30-12:20
Dr. Thomas Ryba

The purpose of this course is to provide a systematic survey of those religions variously described, in the West, as ‘Western Religions’ or ‘Religions of the West.’  Immediately, a problem arises because the adjective, ‘Western,’ is questionable. The descriptions ‘Western’ or ‘of the West’ have been understood as designating a problematic geo-cultural location—but also a homogeneous style of religious thought because of their common origins as Abrahamic monotheisms.  Contemporary scholars of religion, and indigenous believers, often contest this imputed homogeneity and have pointed to the incredible complexity and fluidity of these traditions, characteristics which resist simplistic classification.  Well aware of the challenges such descriptions present, we, in this course, will engage in a comparative study of the systems of belief and thought traditionally termed ‘Religions of the West’ by Western scholars of religions. This will be accomplished through a series of readings on these systems’ histories, philosophies, and scriptures.

Required texts: (1) F. E. Peters, The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, (2) Thomas Ryba, The Abrahamic Traditions: A Comparative Structures Approach, and (3) Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004. Also, background readings on BLACKBOARD will be posted.

Requirements: (1) Four objective exams, (2) regular attendance and participation. Significant supplementary extra credit will be available.

Directed Readings

PHIL / IDIS 590: (To be arranged by student and professor) This course provides the student with an opportunity to explore individually tailored research topics.  The emphasis is upon initiative, independence, and creativity, within limits agreed upon by instructor and student.  Topics and meeting schedule are subject to instructor’s approval.  

Prerequisites: one course in theology, or in philosophy, or instructor’s approval.