Meagher Lecture to Look at Emotional Engagement with Scripture

In her own student days, Dr. Colleen Shantz would occasionally find herself hung up on a phrase sometimes heard in classrooms: “Scholars used to say…”

Her response? If past theories on a subject could be superseded or dismissed, “what makes this one more reliable?”

Now an associate professor of Christian Origins and Biblical Studies in the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College, Dr. Shantz has taken those thoughts and applied them to her chosen field. Much of her research focuses on how experience, whether emotional, ritual, or social, helped to form early Christian communities.

While confessing that she values the historical-critical method of Scripture study, which sees scholars work to place a text in its original context in an attempt to glean further information, she argues that relying solely on one method to learn about the Bible runs the risk of putting a box around the subject, confining it.

Instead of thinking of Scripture study strictly as a trajectory, with progress toward greater and greater truth, she argues we also need to engage with “what aches, what’s messy” in order to answer the questions of our own time.

“Instead of progress measured, we should be asking what we need to be in richer relationship with subjects,” she says.

This is precisely the approach Dr. Shantz will use when she delivers the 10th annual Meagher Lecture on Thursday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. in Charbonnel Lounge.

Her paper, titled “Did Early Christians Believe the Bible?’ will look at the early Church and how its members’ experiences can help us understand how to be Christian in a more meaningful way today.

“Religion is more than doctrinal statements. Systematics is the captain of the theology ship with its rational, propositional approach but religion is also far more – imagination and affect, for example,” she says. “Doctrine alone doesn’t help us to understand why people are religious—either in the ancient world or now.“

As an example, she cites St. Paul’s reference to the “parousia”, a term that would have had significantly different symbolism to the early Church than it would today. Where, she asks, is the common ground, the field of play that brings Scripture alive to those engaging with it today? A key part of the answer, she argues, comes from the transfer of emotion, allowing modern readers and listeners a sense of what early Christians took away from Scripture.

Dr. Shantz describes herself as having “lived my way in” to her current field. She began her post-secondary studies in medical science, with thoughts of pursuing physiotherapy or a related career, but the religious studies electives she took during her B.A. were a powerful influence, leading her to switch her focus and pursue a Master of Divinity degree at what was then Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.

Having decided on a career in youth ministry – “I had this ongoing sense I wanted to be helpful” –  she found that professors were encouraging her to carry on her studies. In time, she realized that “there are always more questions to ask” and opted instead to pursue her doctorate at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, focusing on the role of feeling and meaning as a way to connect modern Christians with an ancient document.

Today, as well as a member of St. Mike’s Faculty, Dr. Shantz also serves as Director of the Graduate Centre for Theological Studies at the Toronto School of Theology.

In explaining her choice of topic for the Meagher Lecture, she notes a decrease in active engagement with the Bible, citing, for example, a documented drop in applications to do doctoral work in Scripture.

But the Bible is living, breathing document, she argues, and we need to offer different modes of engagement to ensure the transfer of feeling – and thus, understanding.

“We need to reframe the field of play to make space for meaningful questions,” she says.

The Meagher Lecture takes place Thursday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. in Charbonnel Lounge, 81 St. Mary St., Toronto. The lecture is open to all. Refreshments to follow.