A Catholic priest teaching in front of a chalkboard in a classroom
Category: Student Experience

Title: The Problem of God: Challenging Nearly 100,000 Hoyas Over 50 Years Later

Most college students have to take required courses in mathematics and the humanities their first year. At the nation’s oldest Catholic, Jesuit university, Hoyas have an additional requirement: Georgetown’s signature course, The Problem of God.

In the 50+ years it’s been taught, almost 100,000 Georgetown students have taken the course, which encourages undergraduates to practice Georgetown’s value of interreligious understanding and critically examine the religious dimension of human nature and reflect on their own experience with religion.

Across its history, nearly 3,000 sections of the course have been taught. And each section of the course is distinct. Currently taught by 24 professors this fall semester, the Problem of God leans into each faculty member’s specific disciplines to bring unique perspectives to the course.

“The different sections of The Problem of God are as diverse as our faculty. They range from Christian, Jewish and Islamic statements of faith and doubt, to courses on the goddess in world religions and from theology to psychology and beyond,” said Ariel Glucklich, chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. “What they all share is an invitation for students to seriously engage in the questions that relate to the divine and humanity’s relationship with the divine.”

Creating a Space for Open Dialogue

When Lauve Steenhuisen joined Georgetown 29 years ago to teach sociology courses on religion in America, she did not anticipate teaching The Problem of God for the next three decades. However, the chance to engage first-year students with deep questions that many hadn’t contemplated before kept her coming back to the classroom.

Portrait of Lauve Steenhuisen
Lauve Steenhuisen is a teaching professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies who has been teaching The Problem of God for 29 years.

“My daughter went to Stanford and had to take required courses in coding,” Steenhuisen said. “I think she missed something in her education by not being forced to construct a meaning of life and face the questions of evil in the world, so I’ve gotten even more passionate about The Problem of God over the years.”

In Steenhuisen’s class, she pushes students to think critically about forgiveness, how to forgive and the limits and costs that can come with forgiveness. 

Above all, Steenhuisen emphasizes that her course “keeps it real” by connecting philosophical and theological questions to the world events and real-life issues her students are grappling with.

 Her class also touches on polarizing issues. In the first week of class this semester, Steenhuisen engaged her students in a debate over whether God exists, offering a chance for religious and non-religious students to dialogue with one another from opposing viewpoints.

“We’re a week into the semester, and they feel comfortable being passionate about their beliefs and all leave as friends,” Steenhuisen said. “That may be the first time they’ve had that experience where they can just put it out there and people are listening deeply to what they have to say.”

Lauve Steenhuisen teaching in front of a class
In Steenhuisen’s class, students grapple with questions on suffering and forgiveness. Steenhuisen emphasizes the importance of having students on opposing viewpoints engage with each other.

F.B. “Fritz” Brogan III (C’07, L’10) took Steenhuisen’s class two decades ago. He was nervous at first, but found the class challenged him to talk about why he held certain viewpoints while exposing him to new ideas.

Fritz with his wife
F.B. “Fritz” Brogan III (C’07, L’10) with his wife Brooke Brogan (G’19).

“That’s what Georgetown does best, putting people with different viewpoints in the same room and forcing you to learn from each other and not be in these ideological silos,” said Brogan, who loved Steenhuisen’s class so much he enrolled in her feminist theology course.

At the heart of Steenhuisen’s class is a commitment to foster open dialogue between people from all walks of life. Today, Brogan and his wife, Brooke Brogan (G’19), champion the cause of promoting conversations between people of opposing viewpoints, supporting a new professorship and programming at the McCourt School of Public Policy to promote inclusivity at Georgetown and diversity of thought in public policy.

If there’s one thing Steenhuisen hopes her students walk away with, it’s that they learn to listen and trust their own voices.

“My hope is they have the confidence in their skill to reflect and to trust that voice in themselves,” Steenhuisen said. “We think it’s about the content and [St. Thomas] Aquinas’ proofs, but it’s not about that. It is about developing a way of getting in contact with your inner voice and trusting that.”

96,641 Students Taught since 1977
2,947 Number of Sections Since 1977

Finding the Good Life

As an ethics teacher at an all-boys Jesuit high school years ago, Rev. Christopher Steck, S.J., frequently got into stimulating debates with his students over right and wrong.

Portrait of Rev. Christopher Steck, S.J.
Rev. Christopher Steck, S.J., is the Healey Family Distinguished Professor in Ethical Issues and an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. He has taught The Problem of God for 24 years.

Decades later, Steck continues to bring those challenging ethical and philosophical questions to the classroom at Georgetown, where he has been teaching The Problem of God for 24 years. 

“I tell students at the very beginning that regardless of what faith tradition or non-faith tradition you’re a part of, these are questions that a well-informed and thoughtful person wants to be able to answer for themselves,” said Steck, the Healey Family Distinguished Professor in Ethical Issues and an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. 

In Steck’s class, students examine questions about suffering and religion through the lens of ethics. In addition to studying prominent religious thinkers from different faith traditions, students also study atheist philosophers, from Albert Camus to Friedrich Nietzsche.

Using the thinking of all these philosophers, Steck’s students explore the question of what it means to live a flourishing life. They build up to a final paper in which they answer that question for themselves.

Steck teaching in front of a classroom
Steck’s course challenges students to think about what constitutes a good and flourishing life.

“What is the noble life all about? What is the good life all about?” said Steck. “We look at different ways various religious traditions have understood what it means to be a great human being.”

When Sharon Huang (SFS’26) first entered Steck’s class in spring 2023, she was excited yet nervous to tackle these big philosophical questions she’d never considered before.

“When we approached this essay about what is a good life, I had no idea what to do because there’s no foundation for me to start laying out all the assumptions to come up with arguments and a definition of what is a good life,” she said.

Huang found that the class gave her the tools to sit with those questions on her own, a habit she says will stick with her long long after her time in Steck’s classroom.

Portrait of Sharon Huang
Sharon Huang (SFS’26)

“A lot of times students get caught up in clubs, professional development and other things in our lives, but then we never slow down to think about what kind of life we really want to live,” Huang said. “It’s great to be able to have that introspection and reflect on my life in the past and then tell myself what kind of life I want to live from now on that will bring both myself and the people around me the sense of joy that is long-lasting.”

After teaching the course for more than two decades, Steck firmly believes that The Problem of God is not so much a typical college class as it is a course that prepares students to live their authentic lives.

“It’s forming them — not by telling them what to think but giving them a context for where they can answer for themselves what kind of person they want to be,” Steck said. “We talk about wanting students to be lifelong learners. I want students to be lifelong reflectors, meaning I want them to cultivate the habit of reflecting on things. I think this is distinctly important for a Jesuit and Catholic education, and I think The Problem of God is one course that encourages students to do that.”