Dr. José Ramón Matito Fernández has been teaching at IES Abroad Salamanca since 2012. He attended Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca for his B.A. in Theology and Philosophy, M.A. in Psychological Research Methods and Techniques, and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. Dr. Matito Fernández has taught at Universidad Católica de Concepción in Chile, Universidad Católica de Ávila, Universidad de Salamanca, and not surprisingly, Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca, where he also serves as Vice Dean of Faculty of Theology. Dr. Matito Fernández speaks Spanish, English, German, and Polish, and has a large number of publications in different languages.
IES Abroad: What courses can IES Abroad students take with you in Salamanca, Spain?
Dr. José Ramón Matito Fernández: I teach the following two courses in Religious Studies at IES Abroad Salamanca:
- RL 271 Paths of the Sacred: Pilgrimage in Religious Traditions and its Evolution in Europe
- RL 370 Comparative Religion: Tracing the Path of the Spanish Soul
I also give several lectures during the fall semester for LT/AH 358 Reading the City: Literature and Art in Salamanca, the focus of which is on religious monuments in Salamanca, such as the new and the old Salamanca cathedrals or the Clerecía.
IES Abroad: What makes Salamanca such a great city to study religion?
JRMF: Salamanca played an important role in the European academic and religious history, not only in Spain.
During the 16th century, the famous Escuela de Salamanca was developed, which was composed of some of the brightest theologians of the time. These theologians took part in the renewal of theology and laid the foundations of international law and of modern economic science. They also participated actively in the Council of Trent, where the renewal of the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reform, took place.
In addition, the University of Salamanca (Universitas Studii Salmanticensis) is the oldest university in Spain and in the Hispanic world, and the third oldest university of Europe. It was the first European educational institution to be named a university, thanks to King Alfonso X in 1252. This event would be later ratified by Pope Alexander IV in 1255. Starting in the 16th century, 6,500 new students would arrive in Salamanca, Spain, each year. Until the 17th century, the University of Salamanca was considered the most influential and prestigious university of Spain for having the widest variety of teachings, the best facilities, excellent faculty, and the most international students. Theological and religious studies were a significant part of the University since the very beginning.
IES Abroad: What is most interesting question you’ve received from an IES Abroad student in one of your courses? What was your response?
JRMF: It’s really difficult to choose just one among the many interesting, and sometimes even hard, questions that my IES Abroad students have asked me.
One of the questions that they ask me almost every year is the reason why the major religions have taken a step back from their original “spirit”, and why all of them, especially the three great monotheistic religions of greater influence and presence in Europe and in Spain (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), have ended up condemning in the name of God those who think differently for them, or even killing or inviting to kill in the name of that God. Clearly, there is no single and simple answer to that, so I try to explain that the institutions that were eventually created to organize the different religions are created and led by human beings, who are moved by their own political, economic, and personal interests, rather than the genuine religious and spiritual interests that inspired those who initiated these religions.
IES Abroad: You serve as one of the Faculty Academic Advisors at IES Abroad Salamanca, holding sessions with students who are interested in courses at the Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca. What are some of the benefits students receive by taking courses alongside Spaniards?
JRMF: One of the main aims of the IES Abroad Salamanca academic program is the linguistic and cultural immersion of students during their time in Spain. Their involvement with Spanish students in university classes helps them both to improve and strengthen their command of the Spanish language and to understand better some of the fundamental components of the Spanish culture.
IES Abroad: Your courses include numerous course-related excursions, including a trip to Atapuerca archaeological site, and a five-day field trip walking the last 100 kms of the “Ruta de la Plata” and of the “Camino Francés” within the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. What kind of additional insight do these outings provide for students in relation to religious traditions?
JRMF: The course-related excursion to Atapuerca is carried out within the Comparative Religion: Tracing the Path of the Spanish Soul course. The Archaeological Site of Atapuerca is located near the city of Burgos, in the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León, in the North of the Iberian Peninsula.
The caves of the Sierra de Atapuerca contain a rich fossil record of the earliest human beings in Europe, from nearly one million years ago and extending up to the Common Era. They represent an exceptional reserve of data, the scientific study of which provides priceless information about the appearance and the way of life of these remote human ancestors. The Sierra de Atapuerca sites provide unique testimony of the origin and evolution both of the existing human civilization and of other cultures that have disappeared.
The evolutionary line or lines from the African ancestors of modern humankind are documented in these sites, as well as the earliest and most abundant evidence of humankind in Europe. The sites constitute an exceptional example of continuous human occupation, due to their special ecosystems and their geographical location. The fossil remains in the Sierra de Atapuerca are an invaluable reserve of information about the physical nature and the way of life of the earliest human communities in Europe. In addition, painted and engraved panels have been recorded, with geometrical motifs, hunting scenes, and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. The major discoveries of Atapuerca help us to interpret the first symptoms of religiosity in humankind, and for that reason this activity is so important for our Comparative Religion course.
A part of the Paths of the Sacred: Pilgrimage in Religious Traditions and its Evolution in Europe course, the trip to the Camino de Santiago is vital not only to understand part of the history of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, but also to know in a deeper way the history of Spain and Europe. At the beginning of the second millennium, the Camino de Santiago became an international and political event that helped to build connecting routes between Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. Christianity and the Spanish medieval history cannot be understood without the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago cannot be understood either without the history of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula. When study abroad students participate in this activity they are covering, literally, a great important part of the European religious, political, and social history.
IES Abroad: You recently became more involved in Orientation at IES Abroad Salamanca, explaining the close ties between religion and art throughout Spanish history. Why is this connection important for students to understand early in their study abroad experience?
JRMF: IES Abroad Salamanca students participate in many of the course-related excursions and field trips we organized during their stay in Spain. In most of these excursions, we visit places of great cultural and artistic importance to the history of Spain, and those places normally have a religious origin, linked usually to Christianity, but also to Islam and Judaism.
Our study abroad students need to understand what those places mean to the history of Spain, and to the history of Europe. For instance, a cathedral in the United States does not have the same meaning as a Medieval European cathedral, and a mosque in Los Angeles does not have the same cultural and historical impact as the mosque of Córdoba in Spain. Many big Spanish and European cities can only be properly understood from their religious monuments—they were built and grew around cathedrals, huge churches, and monasteries.
IES Abroad: In 2014, you participated in the Best Teachers International Summer Institute in New York City through our Faculty Development Program. What were some of the biggest takeaways from the workshop?
JRMF: My participation in the 2014 Best Teachers International Summer Institute was a great opportunity that I have IES Abroad Salamanca to thank for. One of the most positive aspects of this experience was being able to share our teaching practice, challenges, and strong points with an excellent group of teachers. All of this helped me to discover new dynamics and instructional strategies that I was able to implement in my lessons at IES Abroad and at the university. It was also a very effective tool in that I was able to understand our students from the United States better because I was able to experience first-hand the school and university learning environment where they develop as people and as professionals.
IES Abroad: What has been your proudest teaching moment or career achievement?
JRMF: There have been several important moments throughout my 15 years of teaching at the university and during my four years of teaching at IES Abroad Salamanca. I think that one of the most significant was my participation in August 2015 in the XXI Five-Year World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, hosted in Erfurt, Germany. At that conference, I had a presentation entitled, “Dynamics of Theological Interpretation of Religious Diversity”, in which I was able to share most of the knowledge I had acquired during my academic research over the past few years.
Take one of Dr. Matito Fernández’s religion courses when you study abroad in Salamanca!