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Graduate Program Details

Social, Religious, and Academic Contexts

For several years now, the Department of Theology at Georgetown University has been exploring the desirability and feasibility of a doctoral program in theology to foster the mission of both the University and the Department. The necessity and urgency of such a program are now made evident by recent movements and events external to the academy as well as by the intellectual challenges posed by contemporary society and culture to religious studies and theology as academic disciplines. These movements and events as well as challenges shape the special focus, approach, and methodology of the proposed doctoral program.

  • Social and Religious Factors.  Thanks to globalization and immigration, the West in general, and the American society in particular, are becoming increasingly multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious. As a result, being religious today means, even in the United States, being interreligious and calls for intercultural and interreligious understanding and collaboration on both national and international levels. This need was made dramatically evident by the 9/11 event and its aftermath. Furthermore, there has been a massive demographic shift in Christianity from the North to the South, in which almost two thirds of its membership will reside in the so-called “Third World” Africa, Asia, and Latin America) in the next few decades. This shift of the Christian population to the South, where Christians and followers of other religions rub shoulders with one another, presents Christians and others with an urgent need for dialogue.

    The urgent need for intercultural and interreligious dialogue for the sake of religious harmony, world peace, and justice has been recognized by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council and by Pope John Paul II. In 1995, the Society of Jesus embraced interreligious dialogue as an essential element of its mission at its thirty-fourth general congregation, stating that “to be religious today is to be interreligious in the sense that a positive relationship with believers of other faiths is a requirement in a world of religious pluralism.” This need was ividly brought home to us by His Grace Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his address to Georgetown University in which he said that “one of the darkest and most tragic parts of our history in relation to other faiths (‘our’ history being, for these purposes, the history of all the Abrahamic faiths) is the construction of the other as the opposite. We have to put behind us a picture of the world of faiths in which each is seen as answering the same questions, so that the respective ‘performance’ of  different traditions can be categorized in terms of right and wrong to these questions. Binary oppositions do not serve us at all here.”

    The doctoral program, with its particular focus and approach, is designed to help Georgetown University meet this urgent need for intercultural and interreligious understanding and fulfill its mission as a Catholic and Jesuit institution. Indeed, the proposed doctoral program is consonant with the goals of the recently proposed “Institute for Religion, Politics and Peace: An Interdisciplinary Initiative at Georgetown University to Promote Interreligious Understanding” and is designed both to draw from, and to contribute, to this institute.

  • Academic Challenges.  Besides these social, political, cultural, and religious factors, there have been serious challenges to the intellectual coherence of religious studies and theology as academic disciplines.  With regard to religious studies, it has been argued that “religion” is a concept developed by Western scholars during the time of European imperialism and subsequently imposed as a category to explain the behaviors of other peoples. It has also been argued that “religion” does not refer to anything distinctive that is not already subsumed under the notion of “culture.”  Accordingly, religious studies as an academic discipline seems not to have a specific object of study and a coherent method.  There is the need, then, to examine the nature of religion and to explore the possibility of establishing religious studies as a legitimate discipline in itself and in conversation with other academic disciplines.

    As for theology, religious pluralism means that the shape of Christian theology will be influenced by dialogue with other religions and that the claims of Christian theology will be understood in a context in which similar claims are made by other religions.  In other words, comparative theology will help to define and shape confessional theology.  This will not require surrendering particular claims, but it will mean reinterpreting some of them.  This should be done in a spirit of openness to the truth from whatever quarter it may emerge.

Program Rationale

In light of this need for intercultural and interreligious understanding, and of the challenges to religious studies and theology, the Department of Theology at Georgetown University proposes a doctoral program that focuses on the contemporary phenomenon of religious pluralism. This program will foster a comparative approach and a multidisciplinary methodology to the study of religion and theological studies. The Department has faculty resources in both religious studies and theology. Both disciplines have methods and discourses concerning the comparative study of religion and theology, and each will be represented in the program. This comparative approach provides a broad intellectual agenda to expand the study of religious pluralism into a robust curriculum for a doctoral program. Students will do course work and comprehensive exams in both a primary and secondary religious tradition. They are expected to achieve a mastery of both traditions sufficient for conducting comparative research and teaching at the university level. The program investigates the implications of religious pluralism by promoting a comparative and multidisciplinary approach in three areas, namely, theology, ethics, and culture, and between at least two religious traditions, normally but not exclusively between Christianity and another religion. The program is predicated on the principle that detailed study of more than one religious tradition and of more than one academic area—theology, ethics, and culture—is of great value for the understanding of human religiousness in general.   

Religious Pluralism as the Central Focus

By religious pluralism is not meant the mere fact of religious diversity, that is, the simultaneous presence of several, at times mutually exclusive and even mutually hostile, religious traditions in one and the same location, even though, as has been mentioned above, this type of diversity is becoming more common in the West and puts severe pressure on the possibility of peaceful coexistence. Nor does religious pluralism here refer to a particular Christian theology of religions, i.e., pluralism, which holds that various religions are equally valid, albeit diverse, paths to the Divine or Reality. Such a “pluralistic” view rejects both the claim that only one religion, Christianity or any other religion, is true (exclusivism) and the claim that other religions, though possessed of elements of truth, will be subsumed into one religion, e.g., Christianity (inclusivism).

As the focus of our doctoral program, religious pluralism refers to the heightened consciousness, ever more widespread since modernity, of the necessarily relational and historically embedded character of all exclusive and absolute claims, including those made by various religions. Indeed, this consciousness challenges the very nature of religion itself, with its attendant notions of truth, normativity, revelation, sacred scripture, divinity, salvation, worship, dogmas, moral norms, ethical practices, cultural traditions, etc. Perhaps more than any other religion, Christianity is affected by religious pluralism, given its claim of Christ as the unique, universal, and divine savior and its understanding of itself as the only community of salvation. Islam, too, is severely challenged by religious pluralism with its claim that the Word of God has been revealed in the Arabic Qur’an and that Muhammed is the final prophet. But even other religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Chinese religions, which may not make exclusive claims for themselves, are affected in diverse ways by religious pluralism insofar as whatever claims they make for themselves are shown to be historically conditioned and context-dependent.

Hence, the focus on religious pluralism invites a scholarly and critical investigation into how various religions have dealt with diversity in their theology, ethics, and relationship with surrounding cultures. In so doing, it explores inter alia the philosophical and theological grounding of religious pluralism; the nature of human, in particular religious and theological, knowledge; and the methods of interpretation. It encourages, as well, a constructive reformulation of doctrines and practices of a particular religion in light of recent epistemological and hermeneutical theories and because it takes seriously the data from other religious traditions. This study (or investigation) also explores how religion and culture are related to each other, especially the various practical strategies in which believers deal with religious diversity (e.g., popular religion), as distinct from official doctrines and practice.  

Comparative Approach

The study of religious pluralism requires detailed knowledge of at least two religious traditions and methodological resources to consider their interaction. To carry out this study of religious pluralism adequately requires comparative analysis.

The purpose of the comparison is neither to extract some common core of religious experience that is supposed to undergird all religious traditions nor to erect on the basis of allegedly common and identical elements a universal world religion and theology, a species of religious Esperanto. Rather, recognizing the other as “other” but not as “opposite,” to use Archbishop Williams’s expression, the doctoral program will assist students to see the “mutual illumination” among religious traditions where differences are as important as commonalities and to explore the ways in which studying in depth the analogies in other traditions can open up fresh and rich understanding of their own.  

Multidisciplinary Methodology

This program will foster an approach that is multidisciplinary—employing the methodology of both religious studies and theology.  Traditionally, religious studies and theology have been kept apart, even within the same university. While the distinctive character of these two disciplines and their relationship are still being debated, the program offers the students an intellectual space in which to investigate the history and the methodology of these two disciplines as well as the possibility of cross-fertilization between them.  

Theology, Ethics, Culture

Historically, comparative work has not been fully extended to theology, ethics, and cultural studies. But to place comparative study of different religions at the heart of these disciplines, as the program proposes to do, will bear great intellectual fruit as different religious ideas, ethical theories, and social practices are brought together into sophisticated conversation. Only this sort of reflection will be adequate to the challenges of the increasingly globalized, multicultural, and multireligious world of our times.

Religion is studied in its three areas: theology, ethics, and culture.  The study of each of these areas requires the use of distinct methods which are investigated in the four core courses, as explained below. These are not three distinct tracks or areas of concentration in which the students major, even though the courses and the dissertation will, of course, focus on one area rather than another.  Rather, they constitute three series of leading questions that must be asked of the phenomenon of religious pluralism in every course, corresponding to the three areas of theology, ethics, and culture, namely:  (1) What is the meaning and truth of a particular teaching, classic, or religious/ethical/ ritual practice? (More generally: what is the ultimate concern?); (2) What is its ethical import? (More generally: how should one live?); and (3) What is its social, political, economic, and cultural context? (More generally: how do our particular social locations inform the way we respond to the first two questions?). While graduates from the program can designate their specialization as theology, ethics, or culture and religion, it is expected that they will attend to all three areas in their study of religious pluralism.  

Goals and Objectives

The proposed doctoral program intends:

  • To bring about a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of religious pluralism in all its ramifications and implications for the academy, religious communities, and society.
  • To promote interreligious understanding and dialogue by comparing at least two religious traditions.
  • To develop a different way of doing religious studies and theology that takes into account various religious traditions and to contribute to the elaboration of a comparative religious studies and theology.
  • To make use of the resources of Georgetown University (such as the Center for Christian and Muslim Understanding, the School of Foreign Service, the Departments of Arabic, Government, East Asian Languages and Culture, History, and Philosophy, the Law Center, etc.) and of neighboring universities for the study of religion and religious pluralism.
  • To prepare professors of religion and theology who are capable of thinking creatively about religious pluralism and of teaching crossculturally and crossreligiously in an academic environment that is increasingly multireligious and multicultural.
  • To help achieve the mission of Georgetown University as a Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning with its stated commitment to religious diversity.   
Distinctiveness of the Program

With the focus on religious pluralism, our doctoral program introduces a new and distinctive way of studying the religious phenomenon as it occurs today. Religious pluralism, though ancient as a fact, marks our contemporary consciousness in radical ways, as is explained below, and presents challenges to both life in society and academic studies of religion and theology. With this doctoral program, the Department of Theology at Georgetown University intends to bring a fresh perspective and methodology to the study of religion and in this way to contribute to the implementation of the mission and goals of the university.

In sum, the new Ph.D. program, and hence its “niche,” are distinctive in at least the following ways:

The program focuses on religious pluralism in a way not yet done at other universities, that is, religious pluralism as a special object for critical reflection. The program is multidisciplinary, bringing together two academic disciplines—theology and religious studies—that are usually kept apart at other academic institutions. Within this multidisciplinary framework, the program promotes the study of religious pluralism from the perspectives of theology, ethics, and culture, which are often kept separate.

Structure and Requirements

Areas of Study

  • The program will focus on three areas: theology, ethics, and culture. It will expose students to the issues involved in the study of each, and it will offer them the opportunity to focus their own study on the combination best suited to their specific research interests.

    Theology. As an object of study for the program, theology is defined as the authoritative or learned reflection of a religious tradition as found in religious texts, liturgical rites, and jurisprudence. The program will focus primarily on how authorities and scholars within religious traditions address the issue of pluralism. This requires a sophisticated understanding of the broader theological tradition in question. Thus, course work and comprehensive exams will introduce students to the basic teachings and forms of reason of a given tradition. “Theology,” here, means the object, not the method, of study. The theological reflection of religious traditions will be considered using the disciplinary methods of both theology and religious studies.

    Ethics. As a practical form of reflection, ethics provides a means of broadening the consideration of pluralism into issues of ethos, character formation, and social life.  Religious communities have developed complex ideas of human flourishing and the virtuous life, which are often the result not only of  the community’s religious worldview but also of its historical engagement with the ideas of human excellence found in other cultures and communities.  Such engagements have become increasingly important in the contemporary world, because more frequent and unavoidable, and, often, more explicitly desired by religious communities themselves.  In addition, because its practical focus has social implications, ethical reflection is frequently marked by an awareness of the demands of culturally and religiously plural situations.  The practical need for consensus about shared social concerns, such as the environment, human rights, and medical ethics, has created a new tension within religious communities between the desire to be faithful to a particular religious vision of the good life and the social demand that this vision be re-articulated into an ethics Esperanto.  In turn, these communities have been forced to reflect on the meaning of pluralism itself.  For these various reasons, ethics has an inherent interest in comparative discourse.

    Culture. Religious responses to pluralism are manifest in “popular” religion as much as in the reflections of religious elites. Popular, or “lived,” religion often involves forms of religious reason and practice that are quite distinct from those of learned believers and “official” religion. Historically, religious communities have employed a number of strategies in responding to religious diversity. Some emphasize difference (e.g., drawing boundaries, inter-group violence) and others emphasize similarity (e.g., agreeing on a common history or negotiating common ground for cooperation). Such classic strategies continue to be manifest today.  The rise of modernity and its heir, globalization, however, have created new problems and possibilities.  They have accelerated both cultural change and social mobility and have eroded the stability of religious authority structures.  As a result, contemporary believers face a much wider range of religious options, which they encounter through a host of different sources, such as living communities, education, and the cultural
    marketplace of advanced capitalism.  The situation at once makes encounter with diversity more likely and responses to it less easily analyzed.  This calls for historical, cultural, and ethnographic methods of analysis that can attend to the complex agency exercised by individuals and subgroups in the culturally and religiously pluralistic context of the contemporary globalized world.


Course work in the program will consist of two types: a series of “Core” seminars that address methodological issues and a range of “Tradition” courses that provide competence in the study of particular religions.

Core Seminars.  Core seminars will provide the intellectual backbone of the program.  All students will take them together, regardless of their choices regarding the study of primary and secondary traditions.  Thus, whatever choices students make regarding course work and comprehensive questions, these core courses will ensure the intellectual coherence of the program by providing a shared set of issues and methods which the students will bring to the rest of their studies. These courses will be offered in a two-year sequence, thus facilitating intellectual life among various groups of students in course work. While these core courses focus on methodological issues, they will, whenever possible, attempt to pursue these issues via comparative study.

The Study of Religion.  The concept of “religion” at the heart of religious studies, as well as within broader public conversation, is the product of a cultural history.  This history entails the European and American enlightenments, the shift in the nature and authority of Christianity, and, most particularly, the Western encounter with non-Abrahamic faiths. The resulting concept of religion is quite particular in terms of its historical location and objectives, but quite vague and controversial as an academic category. This course will examine the pluralistic context out of which the academic study of religion arose, and consider the methodological resources it provides for the study of religion in pluralistic contexts.

Theological Methods.  The term “theology” describes a host of different forms of reflection carried out within specific religious traditions.  Thus, there is no single “theological” method for the study of  religious diversity.  Each religious tradition will approach the topic from its own specific doctrinal commitments and corresponding forms of reason.  Thus, both the inherent diversity of theological methodologies and their particular logics and modes of argumentation will be important subjects for the program.  This course
will consider general philosophical reflection on the nature of traditional knowledge and specific examples of the methods and logics of various religious traditions, as well as their resources for addressing religious diversity.
Religious Ethics in Comparative Context.  This course is an introduction to the maturing discipline of religious ethics with sustained focus on the issues raised by examining ethical reflection from different religious traditions.  Western, Christian ethical reflection is by no means monolithic; it is marked by significant internal pluralism and a history of pluralistic debate. Western discourse on “ethics” and “morality” have analogues in other traditions’ sustained reflection on how best to order individual and communal life.  The course will focus on the methods of religious ethics that have developed in the West, on the alternate ways of understanding ethics that are gained in a comparative context, and on methodological issues surrounding crosscultural interpretation, comparison, and evaluation.  Key topics for this seminar will include alternative
ways of understanding “ethics” as a field, the use of authoritative texts and traditions in ethical reflection, and debates concerning universalism and relativism.

Religion and Culture.  This course will give students knowledge of various cultural functions of  religion so that students may better understand the complexities of how religious believers deal with religious diversity “on the ground.”  Like “religion,” “culture” is a contested term. Thus, this course will consider the history of academic use of the term—especially its use in religious studies and theology. It will focus upon  topics of relevance to religious responses to diversity such as the relationship between elite and popular
religion and the complex relationship between religious doctrines and the forms of life fostered by religions.

Tradition Courses and Special Topics.  Students are expected to come into the program with substantial training in one religious tradition. (See the discussion of admission requirements below.)  A series of tradition seminars will provide graduate competence in the traditions chosen by the student.  This will be further augmented through comprehensive exams. While the program will foster a comparative approach and a multidisciplinary methodology, many of these courses focuses on a single tradition. The simultaneous two-year cycle of core courses provides students a venue to engage their growing knowledge of particular religious traditions in comparative settings. Program needs require that courses be offered that address three foci within each tradition—theology,
ethics, and culture—but will allow for flexibility in specific topics to suit faculty and student interests.  Seminars will also be offered on topics of relevance to a variety of religious traditions, which are not specific to any tradition.  Such topics include pluralism, syncretism, secularization, fundamentalism, globalization, media, and consumer culture.  See Appendix 5 for a list of these tradition courses and special topics.

Plan of Study

Credits and Course of Study.  The doctoral program requires a minimum of 36 credit hours in graduate courses, to be completed in two years.  In addition to the four core seminars, students will take eight tradition seminars, apportioned from three to five courses in their traditions of specialization. Sample programs for three hypothetical students are presented in Appendix 6. To complete the doctoral program will normally take five years of full-time study, two years of course work, one year of exams, and up to two years of dissertation work.  Students who have not completed their degree within two academic years after the approval of the dissertation proposal must petition the department for continuation. Upon successful completion of comprehensive
examinations, the student will receive the master’s degree and be evaluated for admission to candidacy for the doctoral degree.

Comprehensive Exams.  There are five comprehensive exams:

-  a general exam for all students in Religious Pluralism,
-  two exams that explore a topic in the area of focus (theology, ethics, culture) within each of the student’s chosen religious traditions,
-  an exam in the tradition of one’s primary competency,
-  a specific exam in the topic that is to be the focus of the student’s dissertation.

Languages. Students are expected to achieve reading proficiency in at least two foreign languages related to their field of study.  More languages may be required depending on the student’s area of study.  Georgetown can provide training in both classical and modern Arabic, Chinese, Portugese, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Russian, and Japanese.  Other resources are available for a range of modern languages at other area universities.


In general, the admissions process follows standard Georgetown graduate procedures. Admission into the doctoral program is based on the applicant’s academic record, letters of recommendation, an academic writing sample, and the Graduate Record Examination results. In the essay, applicants will (1) articulate the nature of their interest in religious pluralism, (2) outline how their education has provided preparation to study comparative and pluralist issues, and (3) outline a direction for study in the Ph.D. program that is feasible in
light of the applicants’ current training and department resources.

A master’s degree is required for admission. The ideal candidate will bring substantial competence in one religious tradition to the program.  However, students holding a range of degrees and from a variety of programs will be considered (e.g., master’s degrees in Divinity, Rabbinical Studies, Religion, Theology, etc.).  Students intending to focus on the cultural analysis of religious pluralism may come from different educational backgrounds, such as Anthropology, History, and Sociology, or from programs in religion that focus on cultural aspects.

Students are expected to have some competence in at least one modern foreign language. It is highly desirable that students wishing to pursue studies in traditions for which Georgetown does not have language resources arrive with these language competencies.

Our doctoral program will be small by design, with a total of eight students in course work and an additional four to twelve in residence. This relatively small number of students is dictated by the limited number of available scholarships. However, our program is not particularly small when compared to various tracks and concentrations within existing doctoral programs—many of which have specialized concentrations and admit fewer than four students a year into such concentrations. Moreover, the need for a “critical mass” of students
is obviated by the fact that the intellectual life of our students will be fostered through both the shared core courses and their involvements with other programs on campus and in the metropolitan area, as they will take courses from these programs and from neighboring institutions.


Department of TheologyBox 571135New North 120Washington D.C. 20057-1135Phone: (202) 687.5846Fax: (202) 687.8000

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