Our Stories

The Nuts and Bolts of Religion

"I became a professor because I couldn't say anything in a short amount of time," says Doug McGaughey, who teaches religious studies at Willamette. "I need 15 weeks."

Apparently, he also needs lots of empty pages. His third volume in a series on theology was just sent to a New York editor, and each one would grace a bookshelf by itself. The first dealt with philosophical theology, the second with systematic theology, and the third -- Religion before Dogma: Groundwork in Practical Theology -- with practical theology. "It's devoted to the nuts and bolts of religion as the endeavor of becoming fully human," McGaughey says. "I just sent out the final, final, final proofs!"

McGaughey has come a long way from his youth. Heading to college from a small town in Vermont, he didn't want anything to do with religion. Even though his father was a Methodist minister, McGaughey saw religion as intellectually empty, and so he took up Asian history. But he soon came to believe that he couldn't begin to understand Asian culture without understanding Asian religion. The deeper he went into his studies, the more he realized he didn't even understand Western religion, let alone Eastern, and he became intrigued.

A change of interest, and a change of heart, led him to the Chicago Theological Seminary, a school steeped in social activism; it had been founded by leaders of the Underground Railroad. "I thought I was going to be a pastor," McGaughey says.

The Life of the Mind
That was before he got waylaid by a German philosopher named Martin Heidegger, whose Being and Time was starting to take North America by storm. "That was the fall of 1969, and I haven't been the same since," McGaughey says.

A dairy farmer who attended a theology seminar by McGaughey offered him seed money for a four-year sojourn in Germany, where he researched and wrote his dissertation and made money typing -- at phenomenal speeds -- for translation companies. His first teaching job offered a 4/4 teaching schedule, a summer school load and an extra curricular adjunct position to make ends meet. It wasn't the "life of the mind" he had envisioned, and he made a courageous decision. "I quit cold," he says. "I wanted to teach, but I also wanted to write and publish."

Though writing and publishing theology is not exactly a secure career track, McGaughey found success, and in 1988 Willamette offered him a position, and a more balanced teaching schedule.

Humanity Becoming Human
At Willamette, McGaughey began to influence students in much the same way he had been influenced by Heidegger. He also began his trilogy of theological works.

McGaughey didn't start from the usual premise, but took a different approach. "At the core of most of Western Christianity is a focus on our incapacities, what's wrong with us." He began to concern himself with our capacities, what we can do. "Religion is about humanity becoming human," he says.

"It is ultimately not only the responsibility of each individual to continuously exercise her or his moral capacity, but it is also the responsibility of religion to create the moral culture that encourages the spiritual -- hence, moral -- elevation of the individual and humanity."

"Without confusing difference for superiority, we know that humans have something more than other species. We can lay out pieces of a computer on the floor and nature will never put them together. Humans can initiate sequences of events that nature can never produce on its own.

"Humans don't have to take things as they are; we can talk about what should be. If we were just products of nature we would be marionettes, but we are moral beings. We can make moral choices that lead to improvement, and religion is concerned with the proper exercise of human freedom. It is because of this freedom that we can experience a 'should' and an 'ought.'"

The most important "shoulds," according to McGaughey, are to acknowledge the dignity of others -- to treat them as ends, not as means. This is something McGaughey not only writes about, he practices it. He is an influential teacher, mentoring students to probe their own feelings about religion. Many of his students come to believe that the intellectual exploration of religion enhances the emotional side. Some of his students have also won top honors in national essay contests.

On a Personal Note
Although McGaughey is from the opposite end of the country, he and his family have planted deep roots in the Pacific Northwest. They hike and ski the Cascade Mountains and have a special affinity for the lakes below Three Finger Jack.

McGaughey does more than discuss sacramental bread in class. He bakes bread at home, a skill passed on by his mother. To bake German bread correctly, it helps to have a clay, wood-fired oven, so he built one in his backyard. He kneads the dough just so, and uses the correct amount of yeast. Even in baking, it all comes down to the nuts and bolts.


McGaughey's essay On the Role of Religion in Moral Development was recently awarded third place in an international essay contest, sponsored by the Forschungsinstut fuer Philosophie in Hannover, Germany. McGaughey is currently the executive secretary of the Pacific Northwest region of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR).



11-15-2006