Harm Goris

Character building is a fundamental aspect of theology

Developing knowledge, skills and character has always been part and parcel of the classes of the Dutch and English-taught Bachelor’s program of Theology. Assistant Professor Harm Goris explains how Theology puts the Tilburg Educational Profile into practice.

By Melinde Bussemaker

“Within Theology, we also engage in asking personal questions about what motivates students, what they think is important, and how they pursue the good,” Goris explains. “We do so as part of the courses of Spirituality and Ethics. When we read medieval texts, we don’t do so exclusively because of their museum value: it is also about what those writings mean to us in this day and age. We encourage our students to reflect on and discuss the meaning of ancient texts in present-day society.”

In another person's shoes

“I think it is important that students learn to put themselves in another person's shoes,” he continues. “That they break free from their own limiting beliefs and frame of reference and try to put themselves in the position of someone with a different background, from a different time or place. This is, for example, what our students do as part of an assignment in which they present and defend someone’s ethical point of view, for instance, Sartre’s or Hume’s. They have to express the point of view as best they can, although they may not agree with it. Critical thinking is often perceived as a valuable competency, and so it is, but the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes has been unjustly neglected. Immersing yourself in 'the unfamiliar’, a person, vision, or religion from a different time and place, also forces you to take a critical look at yourself. What does your point of view say about you?”

“I think it is important that students learn to put themselves in another person's shoes.”

Being a better person

“A Theology program is not about checking off the skills to-do list, but about developing yourself because you want to,” Goris argues. “Of course we need to make character development visible in some way, but I don’t think it’s necessary to test it. At the start of their Bachelor’s, our students take a personality test. They take it again after three years. This gives them insight into how they have developed.”

“You can build and develop character, but it is also based on your genes, on how you were brought up and in what environment.”

“I rather see these things as the parameters within which you can grow and develop. Within which you explore how you can be a better person. I see the latter as an existential responsibility of every human being.”

Knowledge and skills

Theology graduates usually get jobs as a spiritual counselor in a health care setting, the army or in a penitentiary and many go into education, teaching Religion and Worldviews. “To that end, you need to develop skills and capabilities that are taught in our program, for instance, working together in a team, creativity, being proactive, and critical thinking. These skills and competencies are becoming increasingly important, even more so than knowledge. Knowledge quickly becomes obsolete, although this does not affect a field like Theology so much. Facts is something that you can look up, even though you need a solid basis.”

“In our teaching, we pay a lot of attention to skills and character building because we believe that this will help our students on their individual pathways.”


“Character building is a fundamental aspect of the Bachelor’s program. ‘You don’t just learn for school, you learn for life.’ That is what I was taught in my first Latin class in high school. And that is how it is here as well. I hope that students don’t come to class to learn tricks or memorize facts, but that they are intrinsically motivated to learn what gives them joy. When you know who you are and what motivates you, you will also know what will bring you satisfaction.”