Aerial photograph of the Immaculate Conception Chapel

Get to know Jana Bennett

Jana BennettJana Bennett was not raised Catholic. She did not major in education and her proudest moment is not the publishing of her first book or her first conference invitation. Yet, Jana Bennett, associate professor of theological ethics, sits in her office a Catholic woman, mother and academic, constantly thinking of new ways to explore and experiment with innovative ways of teaching and putting ethics to action.

Jana was born in Dubuque, Iowa. Raised in a United Methodist household, she struggled with the "God concept."

"I was angry at God, if God existed," said Jana. "Partly because of my progressive hearing loss (suffered from birth) and partly because of my study of evolution and physics, I considered myself agnostic through high school and college."

She grew up in Denver and earned her undergraduate degree from The Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A history major and student researcher in biochemistry, she happened upon a few classes taught by Carmelite monks. Through that experience she was exposed to history and contemplation she had not before experienced. She began going on month-long silent retreats and explored a variety of religious traditions.

"I didn't become Catholic in college," she said, "but that's where it all started."

Also, during her undergraduate education she "fell in love" with her liberal arts education, as well as theology, and decided she wanted to become a professor. That decision led her to a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago and a PhD from Duke University.

During graduate school Jana continued her study of theology, initially as someone who still wasn't sure about returning to Christianity. She read Thomas Aquinas and Herbert McCabe and Teresa of Avila and realized that theology and science could coexist, and they did within her.

"I started realizing that theology and science were not at all at loggerheads with each other," she said. "That I could deeply love God as well as deeply love scientific questions and theological doubts."

After collecting her degrees and spending three years teaching at a small, liberal arts college in Virginia, Jana made her way to UD. Here she teaches and researches Christian ethics: the way Christians live in the world because of their belief in God, particularly their belief in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

"Belief in God and response to the world’s questions and problems go hand-in-hand in thinking about Christian ethics," she said. Very often, people think of ethics as merely the hot-button issues that appear in the media. Ethics is much more than that for Christians. It is also formation for learning how to love God and neighbor in what are often small, seemingly insignificant actions. She jokes with her students that the kind of orange juice they buy is part of their moral formation.

Jana is a believer in interaction, particularly in the classes she teaches. Engagement in community service and action is a fundamental requirement. Constantly thinking about new ways to facilitate service learning, she is currently developing a sophomore "Ethics in Action" Living, Learning Community.

"I love the creativity that involves," she said.

There are, however, challenges that coexist with loving your job and having a beautiful family and strong religious convictions.

"I think it's a constant struggle a lot of academics have," Jana said, "not to feel like I'm an impostor at this job." Dubbed "impostor syndrome" by some of her graduate students, it's the feeling that you can't possibly be qualified to sit in your position, or that there is no way you are actually smart enough to speak on a subject and have others think what you have to say is important. "Maybe it's because I love this job," she continued, "and there's a sense that I can't possibly (really) be able to do what I love." Still, Jana works against her feelings of inadequacy and says what she thinks anyway.

Aside from teaching and raising her two children, Lucia, 5, and Gabriella, 2, she is the associate editor-at-large for a blog, catholicmoraltheology.com, which she started with 17 of her closest theologian friends.

"Online formats are often not good ways to have good conversation," Jana explained. "People yell at each other or dismiss each other and they don't always have a depth of theological knowledge that might be helpful. So my friends and I, all academic theologians, started a blog where we pledged to have good conversations with each other even if we disagreed — we write on all kinds of controversial and non-controversial topics."