Graduate students in theology study religion and its interaction with human society, something nearly everyone experiences in some form. In the United States, those pursuing a master's degree in theology will commonly choose to study Christianity but might choose one of the non-Christian faiths as well. Postmodern society and relativism pose some unique challenges to religion, and those challenges provide plentiful material for students seeking potential Masters thesis topics.
New Challenges in Christianity
"Christianity" is an extremely broad term. The main categories of Christianity are Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Historically, the United States had a Protestant majority, but Catholics became a major presence in the 19th century. The graduate student could examine the recent popularity of highly demonstrative, emotional religious movements in Christianity, like Pentecostalism. Pentecostal believers claim to personally feel the effects of the Holy Spirit, often in dramatic ways. Another fruitful subject is the controversy that arose in the Catholic Church in America in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Finally, students could examine the still-developing story of how the various churches in the US will respond to the general acceptance of gay rights and gay marriage. Various denominations' responses range from welcoming to confrontational.
Judaism and Islam
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all claim the Biblical patriarch Abraham as their founder, with Judaism being the oldest of the three religions, followed by Christianity, and then Islam. All are monotheistic religions and stress a personal relationship with God. Graduate students could find many interesting potential thesis ideas which involve comparing some aspect of the three religions. For instance, students could compare and contrast descriptions of the personality of God in the three religions' sacred texts and the tensions between them. Christian graduate students often seek greater familiarity with the Jewish roots of Christianity. A more specific study of regional and ethnic variations of Islam and Judaism might interest graduate students.
Major World Religions
Graduate students in the United States who elect to write about Buddhism, Hinduism, or other non-Abrahamic religions often have to overcome the obstacle of unfamiliarity with their subject matter. In another generation, this may not be a problem, as Buddhism and Hinduism are spreading throughout Western countries. For students of textual exegesis, an examination of competing versions of ancient Buddhist texts might be fascinating. Another topic which calls for further examination is the impact of tourism on Buddhist and Hindu shrines in Asia, and whether this activity harms or helps these places of pilgrimage.
Emerging Religious Movements
Emerging religious movements are a fascinating subject. "Emerging religious movements" can refer to either an entirely new religion, or to a new movement within an established religion, such as the Catholic charismatic movement. One typical characteristic of emerging religious movements is that many people at first are suspicious of them, then go on to accept them as they become a more familiar sight in the religious landscape. Emerging religious movements provide a unique opportunity for graduate students to view a religion in its embryonic form: graduate students could compare attitudes in an emerging religious movement towards its founder with attitudes towards the founder of a major world religion.
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- Harvard Divinity School: Harvard Theological Review
- Oxford Journals: The Journal of Theological Studies
- University of Illinois Press: American Journal of Theology and Philosophy
- Wiley Online Library: International Journal of Systematic Theology
- First Things: Online Edition
- Judaism 101: The Patriarchs and the Origins of Judaism
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