Professor’s quest: A closer dialogue between study of religion and other disciplines

By Ray Waddle

Teresa Morgan, the inaugural McDonald Agape Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at YDS, grew up in a “very churchy” English home that was also a very academic one.

To some that might sound like a clash of cultures, even a modern contradiction, but Morgan has moved freely between those two spheres since childhood. Today the dynamic defines her life’s work: the effort to bring about an ever closer dialogue between the study of religion and other disciplines, ensuring that her scholarship and her faith nourish each other with intellectual integrity and heart. At stake is the health of Christianity itself and the meaning of being human in the contemporary world.

“As a teenager I was against the study of theology—I thought it was intellectually disingenuous, an attempt to prove what people already believed was right, a circular argument,” she said in a recent interview. “So I went off to study history and classics instead. But I’ve grown up to realize that faith and intellectual life are in a creative and evolving dialogue, in which theology can evolve and offer new understandings of our relation to God. Ever since my student days I’ve been looking for ways to converge my life-steering sense of the divine and my equally life-steering academic interests. I’ve always wanted to bring them gradually closer together.”

A conversation with Teresa Morgan is a high-spirited jaunt that might range from the ancient church’s understanding of faith to the latest trepidations about A.I., or touch on her own training in violin and viola or her stirring experiences as a parish minister. She’s a fourth-generation Anglican priest, with a continuing appointment on staff at two parishes in Oxfordshire, England, where she lives in the summer. Her parents taught theology and religious studies at Oxford University.

She herself studied classics at Cambridge and theology at Oxford and went on to teach at Oxford for more than two decades, mostly focused on Greek and Roman history, before arriving at YDS in 2022. On the Quad she can give more attention to her passion for New Testament and Early Christianity.

“The teaching is very different,” she said, comparing Oxford with Yale. “Oxford has a fixed curriculum. You don’t get to design your own courses, whereas at Yale for the first time in my career I can design exactly what I want to teach and then teach it, which is enormous fun.”

Another difference, she said, is the breadth of American undergraduate degrees she encounters in the YDS classroom—Bible, theology, and classics, yes, but also engineering, business, and law.

“The students bring a great will to learn and a desire to combine their earlier studies with what they are now learning at YDS. That can lead them to undertake some extraordinary projects that I would never have taught at Oxford—the New Testament in dialogue with big business, for instance, or early Christian ethics and not-for-profit organizations. Very experimental, imaginative, and relevant.”

Acclaimed New Testament, early Christianity scholar Teresa Morgan joining YDS faculty: Read announcement of Morgan’s appointment

Dialogue across disciplines is crucial to her. Her work in the history of ideas—the moral world of antiquity, the ethics of early Christianity—has allowed her to ponder the differences between religious belief, the humanities, and the sciences, but also to find unexpected similarities.

“One thing I discovered early on was that the study of history was every bit as confessional as the study of theology,” she said. “We all bring all sorts of assumptions about the way the world is, the way people are, and the way societies work to all the subjects we study. We impose frameworks of assumptions, networks of preconceptions on everything—this is now well recognized in the sciences as well as the humanities. We’ve learned that every subject is confessional.”

This has freeing consequences for the study of Christianity and apologetics alongside putatively scientific fields of inquiry, she suggested. An outdated but persistent modernist habit of separating discourse about religious faith from the use of empirical evidence is simplistic and naïve, a distortion of all our experience of the world and of God.

“What is a defensible way to talk about the divine? Getting into a shouting competition about objective truth isn’t really helpful. I think we should go about defending the divine in the same way we approach the study of science or history or anything else: look at all our sources of understanding, examine all our evidence (which includes experience and testimony), look at how coherent it is, and look at how serviceable it has been as a way of understanding the world and helping people to operate in it. Those are exactly the sort of criteria I’d use for making an argument about history. If I want to understand what happened in the Peloponnesian War between classical Athens and Sparta, I look at the nature, weight, and coherence of the evidence, the tradition, and what happened afterward, the consequences. We can do similar things when we study the divine.”

Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021, Morgan is the author of Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge, 1998), Popular Morality in the Early Roman Empire (Cambridge, 2007), Roman Faith and Christian Faith (Oxford, 2015), and The New Testament and the Theology of Trust (Oxford, 2022). Among those she admires as scholars of early Christian history and theology are a previous generation of Yale faculty, including Leander Keck, Abraham Malherbe, and Wayne Meeks. Powered by a 2017 Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, she is working now on the last of a four-volume series of studies on the nature of Christian faith (Roman Faith and Christian Faith was the first).

Her research has lately thus focused on the nature of faith among early Christian believers, when the center of gravity of faith was relational trust and faithfulness to God and the sense of being trusted and entrusted by God, rather than a doctrinal package of beliefs (a theme she takes up in the latest Reflections issue). The conviction that trust in God and being trusted by God are foundational to Christian faith—this is an element often lost in descriptions of faith today.

“Occasionally, early Christians would use faith—Greek pistis, Latin fides, and their relatives in other languages—to mean belief,” she said. “They believed that Jesus was crucified, that he was raised from the dead, that he was exalted into heaven, and beliefs like these are reasons for becoming a Christian. But people could believe many things about many heavenly beings without making a life-changing commitment to them or worshiping them. What makes you a Christian and keeps you in the community, for very early Christians, is putting your trust in God and Christ, being faithful to them, and understanding yourself as entrusted by them with work for God. It’s also worth bearing in mind that belief in something like the resurrection was never based on objective proof. It is based on accepting your experience, accepting reports of others’ experience, interpreting experience in light of scripture and tradition, and seeing it as coherent with tradition.”

That sense of faith as trust has evolved across the centuries since, she said. Faith has also come to mean assent to particular doctrinal propositions, and a set of practices observed specifically in a church. By medieval times, people talked of “the eye of faith,” an ability to grasp something that isn’t self-evident to everyday understanding, and “the leap of faith,” by which a person makes a commitment in the very face of uncertainty or doubt.

Today, faith discourse is often tinged with anxiety to prove God exists “out there,” as if in laboratory conditions that would satisfy the culture of the hard sciences. Morgan thinks such an understanding of faith has put the conversation about belief on a wrong path.

“I don’t think we can prove things about God,” she said. “I don’t think the subject of belief can be an object in that way. We know God not as a fact but as a person: we trust in God as we trust in the experience of a relationship with a person.” A marriage or partnership is based not on belief that one’s partner exists but on belief in the relationship with the partner. “It’s not whether I can prove the existence of my partner but whether I love my partner. The basis for faith in God is not that we can prove God exists. It is our experience of our relationship with God, God’s love for us and our love for God.

At issue too in the discussion of the nature of faith is the prospect of staying in touch with our own humanity in a time of tech acceleration, social media pressure, and A.I. encroachment, she argued.

“Our faith is a way of exploring how to be more fully human—Christianity is a journey we embark on, a spiritual and intellectual journey, a faith experience in the real world that addresses people’s human condition,” she said. “I worry that our interacting with A.I. is allowing machines to dictate what humanity should be. How much of our humanity do we give away by interacting with machines as if they’re people? What I see is people allowing an algorithm to tell them what beauty is, how they should alter their faces on their social media accounts, dictating what’s valuable in their interactions with other people. In the humanities, we can contribute to this conversation by saying that our whole human nature is on the line—not just our mental health but the way we relate to the world and other people.”

A busy slate of YDS classes and book deadlines keeps her grounded in her focus on matters of faith and Christian ethics. So does her work as a parish priest—up to now, two congregations in the villages of Littlemore and Sandford on the edge of Oxford, where she has served as a part-time non-stipendiary minister for 21 years. What she sees at church is evidence of that historic coherence of experience, tradition, and community solidarity that gives Christianity staying power amid the turbulence of the decades and centuries.

“The reason I work in the parish is it keeps my feet on the ground in every possible sense, intellectually, religiously, humanly,” she said. “I’ve seen in my parishioners astonishing goodness, astonishing humanity. I’m very encouraged about it. I’ve had nonbelieving friends who’ve become regular churchgoers because they were amazed to encounter these parishioners who really do care about each other. I would never underestimate the difference the faith makes in people’s lives.”

June 23, 2023