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At Dutch university, the study of religion leaves room for doubt

Published: 30 December 2009 | By Herman Amelink
25 January 2010

At Groningen University, a new professor of theology is instructing his students in the questioning of faith.

The theological faculty of Groningen was hard hit five years ago when the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN, the one of the largest religious denomination in the Netherlands counting over 2.3 million congregants) decided to stop training ministers there. After suffering a decline in membership the church was forced to make some cutbacks. Similar schools in Amsterdam were robbed of their official status or closed entirely, leaving only Leiden, Kampen and Utrecht as places for aspiring ministers to turn to. “As a result was many thought studying theology in Groningen was impossible altogether,” said the dean of the theological faculty, professor Geurt Henk van Kooten. “The number of students began to recede slowly.”

But his faculty is now well on the road to recovery.

“A substantial demand still exists in our region for a theological faculty. Our post-academic continued education has been particularly successful,” Van Kooten said. According to the dean, a lot of ministers from the northern part of the Netherlands attend his school, feeling the only other institution offering similar courses, located near Utrecht, is too far away.

The number of “normal” students is also on the rise. This year, 16 students registered for the university’s full-blown theology program and 43 students did the same for religious studies. “A 20 percent increase over 2008,” according to Van Kooten.

The university has also created a new teaching position, charged with the teaching of the “Protestant church, theology and culture,” in an attempt to restore ties between the faculty and regional churches to their former glory. Reverend Rudolf Oostdijk was the driving force behind the creation of the new teaching position. His proposal quickly drew support from colleagues, church councils and private individuals. The regional governing bodies of churches in Groningen and Drenthe offered financial support.

“The creation of this position send two clear messages,” Oosterdijk said. “One is for the PKN: it should not abandon the northern parts of the Netherlands. The other is for the theological faculty: it should not stray to far from protestant practice.” Oosterdijk cited the presence of other specialised professors at the theological faculty dedicated to a single religious denomination. “Protestant theology should have at least one professor as well, so students are able to familiarise themselves with it at an early stage,” Oosterdijk said. Protestantism traditionally is most prevalent in the northern parts of the Netherlands, whereas the south has been a traditional Catholic stronghold.

Wouter Slob, a minister who already teaches philosophy in Groningen, will be filling the position. He hopes to kick off his new job by teaching a class on questioning faith.

Ministers are often confronted with religious doubts in pastoral practice. Slob thinks these doubts need not necessarily lead people to give up their faith, on the contrary, they might bring one closer to it. “By asking questions like these I hope to bring academic theology closer to real practice,” Slob said. The reverend said he hoped the course would help his colleagues find new ways of interacting with their questioning flocks. “The church currently has a tendency to dig its heels in the sand when old truths come under fire. I don’t want the church to oppose modern culture. I want it to be a part of it,” Slob said.

Dean Van Kooten said he was “happily surprised” by the church’s imitative “Teaching positions financed by third parties are bridgeheads between the society and academia. The church is also part of society. A part our students can now learn about.”

©  NRC Handelsblad International

Last modified:04 July 2014 9.18 p.m.

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