Studying theology can shake one’s personal faith. An interview with the Vice-Dean of the Protestant Theological Faculty, Ladislav Beneš

7. portrety009_300x300The Protestant Theological Faculty is one of three theological faculties that are part of the Charles University in Prague. In 2019, the faculty celebrated its first century of existence. We talked to the Vice-Dean for Academic Affairs, practical theologian and minister, Ladislav Beneš, about the faculty’s current position, about what it’s like to study there and how new students could be attracted.

When I started studying at the faculty in the mid-nineties, the students came from diverse backgrounds, I would say most of them were not intending to become ministers. What is the situation like today?

The situation has changed a lot, in several ways. As far as Protestant Theology students are concerned, most of them really do come from a religious background and they are considering serving the church. They don’t only come from the ECCB, but practically from all the churches found in our country. And it’s not only young people who have just graduated from High School. We also have people who work as elders in their church and wish to deepen their knowledge, or work as assistant preachers. In addition, people seeking a “second career” sometimes come to study, wishing to do something more meaningful. The situation at the faculty has also significantly changed due to the fact that a study programme in the field of social work has been added. Those enrolled in it make up approximately two thirds of the faculty’s students and they are often people who are active in a church, but of course there are also people that are not part of any denomination. Learning from one another – not only between the individual specialisations, but also with regard to the various worldviews, is a real challenge and an exciting venture, which we see as a promising direction for the future.

The faculty is called “Protestant”, but both students and teachers alike are Christians of various denominations. In your view, what makes this faculty Protestant?

As mentioned above, the faculty’s students are not just declared Christians. We are part of a university and we are open to anybody who embraces the concept of a university. We are one of three theological faculties, so it would be the easiest to try to formulate what sets us apart. I suppose our faculty has the most Protestants. But I believe what really matters is the major, historical connection with Protestant churches, primarily the ECCB. And then, or perhaps first and foremost, it is our focus on cultivating Protestant theology with its foundation in critical research in the field of Biblical studies. It is also our task to explore the work and the impact of the Gospel in the past and now, questions of the Christian perspective in the fields of ethics, freedom and human rights in the context of other religions and worldviews. It is essential that all these studies are taking place freely, with a critical approach, but also with regard to the Protestant tradition; and yet at the same time, also in a basic ecumenical cooperation and in the spirit of openness to others and to the new things that are ahead of us. This type of critical reflection and openness is visible not only in the actual field of theology, but also in all our other subjects of study.

Working at the faculty has always involved building and maintaining living relations with foreign theological schools. Can you name an example of a successful cooperation with an institution abroad?

Perhaps I don’t have access to all the information, but I can’t think of a cooperation that would have turned out to be “unsuccessful”. There are some foreign schools that our students no longer go to, but in general, this is always a life-changing experience, both personally and career-wise. Our faculty has the advantage of being able to offer a wide range of contacts and possibilities, so almost anybody who is interested can study abroad, as long as they meet some very basic requirements. Among the most noteworthy institutions we have traditionally been cooperating with, I should mention Tübingen and Heidelberg in Germany, Oxford in the UK, or universities in Atlanta and Princeton, USA. In the field of social work, Scandinavian universities are the most attractive. What we are probably most proud of is our cooperation with the university in Tel Aviv, maintained by our department of Biblical studies. The students participate in archaeological research in the surroundings of Jerusalem. This is very hard work and excellent experience. It also brings new findings about life at the time of the kingdom of Judea. And again – basically any student can apply for this type of scholarship.

The faculty also offers English-language courses for foreign students. What is the best way to attract these students to choose the Protestant Theological Faculty?

TF_social_media87I suppose you would need to ask the students. There is probably no need to point out that cross-border activities have been somewhat reduced in this past year. In spite of that, foreign students have been studying at our school, whether “from home”, or actually here in Prague. I am not entirely able to estimate the extent to which their interest in our faculty stems from its location, its attractive cultural, social and historical context, and to what extent it is based on our teachers who do a lot of work and have published many texts and books abroad. Many foreign researchers also come to our university and then tell their students good things about us. Usually, foreign students are interested in a specific topic or period from Czech history – either the era of the Reformation, or modern history; often, they are also intrigued by the mixing of cultures, a typical characteristic of Prague. Sometimes, they also come with a specific interest in Biblical studies, or other fields. We are now planning to offer the comprehensive theology study programme in English as a Bachelor’s degree as well. We have learned that there are many people around the world who have taken all sort of theology courses and trainings but would like to receive a more comprehensive education, including Biblical languages, systematic theology and history, which would enable them to graduate and continue working in their home countries.

Concerning the fields of study that focus on social work, who would you say these are mainly designated for, keeping in mind that similar specialisations can be found at other universities as well?

We offer a bachelor’s social and pastoral work study programme, in which basic theology accounts for approximately a quarter of the subjects. The theology should enhance the motivation for this type of work. It encourages students to seek a critical view of a person’s image, of their dignity, their rights. It should also help them deal with situations of poverty, sickness… They learn to theologically reflect our social reality, and to understand the uniqueness of a human life in their work. The follow-up Master’s programme named Community Crisis and Pastoral Work – Diaconal Work focuses on linking community and pastoral work, it places emphasis on the on comprehensive concepts of cooperation and relationships between people.

Are you considering widening the range of study programmes?

Not really at the present moment. Rather, we are thinking about strengthening certain specialisations. We have recently added a follow-up master’s programme called Theology – Spirituality – Ethics, which offers a deep insight into Christian thinking and ethics, including the ecumenical aspect. In a way, it is a continuation of the bachelor’s study programme named the Theology of Christian Traditions. This programme is suitable for those who have never dealt with theology before. Our idea was that it could mainly be designated for those who had previously studied other specialisations and wanted to broaden their knowledge in this field: people from the area of arts, media, history, economy or medical schools, and also “engaged laymen” from various churches. So far, however, we don’t seem to be able to promote this programme well enough.

The faculty’s webpage shows the profiles of the individual study programmes’ graduates. What is the reality like? Is it easy for graduates to find a job?

As far as I’m informed, anyone aiming to work in the church and systematically preparing for it can find a job. The same applies to the social area. This is in part due to the fact that a good education is always a sought-after asset, and in part because the students already work during their studies – to enhance their qualification, possibly also to establish contacts with their future employers, and to discover what they enjoy doing, what they should focus on. I think this says quite a lot about the quality of the education received at our faculty: it motivates people to perform interesting jobs. In churches, in the profit and non-profit sector, in the fields of cultural as well as state administrations.

What is the main skill you would like your graduates to acquire?

Maybe somebody would find this is a very modest requirement, but above all, I want our students to be able to learn critical thinking. The prerequisite for that is a sufficient knowledge of the facts, the ability to think in a methodically correct way, awareness of a large number of scientific disciplines, an ability to engage in a dialogue with others and to cooperate with various types of people. At the same time, our graduates need to be willing to keep learning throughout all their lives. Is there anything that could be more useful to our churches and society? Could there possibly be a more adventurous path through life?

Ondřej Kolář