An introduction to theology and philosophy at Notre Dame

As a Great Books and theology student, I am tempted to criticize our university’s philosophy and theology programs, particularly on their introductory courses. However, researching for this piece helped me to reevaluate my criticisms. Here’s what I learned from conversations with the professors developing these introductory courses and with other leaders of the Notre Dame community.

Other elite universities do not compare.

The closest that Ivy League institutions’ core curricula come to philosophy or theology are essentially history or Western civilization courses—the likes of Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization or Harvard’s Ethics & Civics, which vaguely refers to interest in the “common good.” Reviewing the courses in these “distribution areas” of the Ivy general education revealed that at most one in thirteen courses would broach philosophical and theological questions.

And of course, at the cutting edge of higher education, we have Brown’s infamous open curriculum. They say to students: “We challenge you to develop your own core … By cultivating such openness, you will learn to make the most of the freedom you have, and to chart the broadest possible intellectual journey.”

I am grateful that Notre Dame students are required to crack open the classics in introductory philosophy. I am properly awed that we can be confident every student is exposed to Sacred Scripture in their introductory theology (“Foundations”) class.

Notre Dame’s programs have clear and strong objectives.

Undergraduate students are required to take two theology and two philosophy courses—twelve credits, which almost amounts to a full semester of coursework. The Core Curriculum description of the first philosophy course states: “No Catholic education can be complete without the study of philosophy.” It also indicates an unique interest in making students able arguers of and responders to Christian ideas and intellectual challenges. And of course, it is ideal that all students understand by the year’s close “the value of exploring philosophy as an end in itself.”

Notre Dame theology clarifies its difference from philosophy as a “distinctive mode of inquiry, one that seeks to understand revealed mystery, using reason not to eliminate revealed mystery but to comprehend it, appreciate it, and work out its consequences for our understanding of ourselves and our world.” The two departments promise to lend students a common vocabulary in their first courses and then invite them into further exploration of a particular topic in the second.

While I—and many like-minded community members—are tempted to groan when we hear about variation among introductory courses, visiting the documentation of the objectives of these programs for the first time gave me pause. I realized that only greed could make me unhappy with the electives I took; and what a blessing it is that we can so covet our class listings.

Notre Dame faculty are unusually dedicated.

The philosophy and theology faculty are some of the best at the university because they strive to connect our studies with how we live. Meghan Sullivan, Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, shared with me that she believes the Notre Dame philosophy experience helps students consider what it means to be human and what sort of goals are worth living for. Only at Notre Dame would a professor note, as Sullivan did, that “formation also involves learning about the extraordinary resources traditions can contribute to our understanding of the good life (i.e. theology).”

At Notre Dame, we are blessed with a faculty restlessly pursuing a better experience for students through contemplation and innovation. In an email exchange with the Rover, Sullivan explained the inception of “God and the Good Life” (GGL), the popular introductory philosophy course. Inspired by Aristotle’s reflections on “the good life,” she believes, “Philosophy is meant to be a living discipline … much more than intellectual history.” Sullivan, along with Professor Paul Blaschko and Professor Justin Christy, was animated by this idea of teaching introductory philosophy as “care for our soul.”

Sullivan said: “ND students want to know that the professor teaching them is a top subject expert, who genuinely cares about them—not only intellectually, but who will also care for their souls. What’s remarkable about Notre Dame is how many opportunities students have to find such faculty.”  Indeed, it is a gift that many students do not even know to seek.

Notre Dame enjoys greater freedom to innovate than most universities.

The philosophy and theology faculties’ commitment to revisiting syllabi, considering pressing matters in the world and in academia, and constantly returning to the touchstone of the Catholic faith reveals how Catholic identity elevates the education Notre Dame offers. In summarizing the vision for the philosophy department’s growth, Sullivan said: “I want the academy to be surprised by the creativity, depth, and love that comes from a Catholic university’s commitment to philosophy.”

The numbers talk. Notre Dame’s introductory philosophy and theology courses are effective and improving. Jeffrey Speaks, professor of philosophy and chair of the Core Curriculum Committee, pointed out to me that few students enter the university as philosophy majors, and the same is true of theology. Approximately 200 and 600 students (respectively) have been won over to the majors by these first encounters. Speaks reported that in the last six years alone the philosophy major has doubled in size while “other humanities enrollments (at most universities) have fallen.” He noted, “I don’t know of any other department in the country that has experienced similar growth.”

I met with Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C. to learn about new elements he has brought into his “Foundations” course. Fr. Grove emphasized that a large classroom does not mean you cannot have a good conversation. In the lecture hall, he arranges his students by dorm, so that their seats model a map of campus. With the facilitation of undergraduate mentors, his students can continue to build community by meeting for optional discussions within the dorms themselves.

One mentor, senior Maggie Garnett, shared: “Theology requirements cannot be reduced to a box checked off of one’s graduation requirements; the questions asked within that lecture hall—and in weekly discussion—will change how these students think, love, and live … This adaptation affirms the uniqueness of Notre Dame, and plays on the strengths of our residential life system.”

In a conversation with the Rover, engineering professor emeritus and interim provost Dr. Christine Maziar compared her experience as a faculty and academic officer at Notre Dame to her prior time at large public universities: “The freedom we have at Notre Dame to make decisions that we think are in the best interests of our students, our faculty and staff, and the larger Notre Dame community is tremendous … Sadly, some of the pressures on our colleagues in public institutions prevent them … People don’t think being at a religiously affiliated institution is necessarily connected with freedom, but it absolutely is.”

Fr. Dan Groody, C.S.C., associate professor of theology and global affairs, overseer of the Core Curriculum Committee, and associate provost, joined me and Maziar and noted how the university must consider the current needs of the Church. He said, “We won’t be able to take [the students of tomorrow] for granted like the students of today because they will probably be less churched and probably less formed in the Catholic faith than before. That’s a crisis but it’s also an opportunity … we really have to think about new and innovative ways of evangelization.”

I should have known these things by looking at the people around me.

Both Provost Maziar and Fr. Groody reflected on the kind of person that graduates Notre Dame. Maziar said that in speaking to alumni in Notre Dame clubs all over the country, she has been amazed by how active Notre Dame alumni are in service work: “This is how they have been taught to live in the world: service to others. That really struck me as a characteristic of a Notre Dame grad.”

Fr. Groody had a similar experience with an MBA graduate working on Wake Forest’s lunar mission. His account showed me how he and a fellow domer were shaped by their exposure to life’s biggest questions in theology and philosophy at Notre Dame. Fr. Groody shared that he is interested in space as a “frontier of  knowledge” with  “spiritual dimensions to it … Space changes the way [astronauts] understand the earth,” just as these introductory courses expose to students a whole new world. This graduate told Fr. Groody that “the core of his Notre Dame education—the core of who we are as a person, that I think we [at Notre Dame] help deepen—is still operative. And that’s what I want to see: the people that graduate have that spirit. It’s intangible, but it’s also one that you recognize when you see it.”

Fr. Groody concluded: “There are a lot of questions for our students today about meaning, hope, living well; for us, about forming character and how the Church gives us so many resources on this. The folks who went to space said they need something more than science to help them understand their experience …  Our curriculum needs to be complex [because] the challenges we face are complex.”

If students arrive here without knowing what they can demand of this place, the rigor they can and should anticipate in these fields, then they did not do their homework. I have written in the past that universities were not built to parent. Now I have shared something of how she accompanies us on our lifelong pursuit of truth.

Note: Pieces further exploring faculty assignments and other topics introduced by these sources are forthcoming.

Elizabeth Self is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology and minoring in Constitutional Studies. Despite her thin Arizona blood, she has been enjoying this winter very much (when she is not behind the wheel). To recommend winter recreational activities, please contact her at

Photo credit: Mia Tiwana