Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why study religion (2)

As we discussed in my previous post, there is a lot of discussion abut the proper place of religious studies in secular education. Writing in the online magazine Inside Higher Education, one writer takes on
.....the latest permutation of a long-standing trend: namely, an increasing desire to take an exclusively sociological or historical approach to Christianity, rather than what I would call, at the risk of being misunderstood, a "theological" one. By that I emphatically do not mean an approach that attempts to inculcate belief in God, loyalty to Christ, or membership in any Christian institution. I simply mean a grappling with the texts and concepts of influential Christian thinkers of the past two millennia, in the same way that we would deal with philosophical or literary texts from any cultural or religion tradition.
I think that's an excellent point he makes; the same way that we would deal with philosophical or literary texts from any cultural or religion tradition. At some level, we are treating Christian texts as too "special" in the academy.
....From a broader perspective, though, this trend toward sociological or historical approaches seems to me to point toward the fundamental anxiety that attends the teaching of Christianity in any secular setting. We are perfectly able to imagine courses on Buddhist philosophy or rabbinic Judaism — both of which involve what we would call "theological" argument and commentary on authoritative texts — without worrying that this would represent some kind of toehold for religious indoctrination. This remains the case even though there always tend to be at least a handful of college students who will wind up identifying as Buddhist in some sense, including practicing.

The teaching of "religions" generally, then, doesn’t seem problematic. Yet Christianity is somehow different. It’s too close to us all. ....Thus it is understandable that having a professor teaching Christian theology seems to be problematic in a way that teaching Buddhist philosophy or Talmudic exegesis is not.
I wonder what the basis of this is? I suspect part of it is a push back from the conservative wing, which very vocally brings their beliefs into the classroom and shuts down inquiry. Part of it is a hyper-active political correctness, where we give excess consideration to the possibility that someone might be offended so we eliminate the conversation.

....It is very difficult to see how a historically rigorous and broad-based approach to teaching Christian intellectual history could fail to meet academic muster or violate our country’s well-established commitment to the separation of church and state, even in a public university. It is in fact very difficult for me to see how any kind of proselytizing could take place in a secular academic environment at all. ....
Well, I think that's not quite right. There are certainly cases of proselytizing of opinion by faculty and by students--not just religious views, but political ones. It works both ways, conservative and liberal. I am frequently shocked to find out how seriously some of my students take my least utterance---and I teach science. Teaching a religious subject requires a combination of fearlessness and sensitivity.

In the end, though, it’s not my business what my students do with the knowledge and skills I give them, least of all when it comes to their own spiritual lives or lack thereof. What is my business is giving them the tools they need to take stock of the cultural inheritance that has, for better or worse, been forced on us all, in different ways and to varying degrees, and to open the door for them to consciously and creatively reappropriate elements of that inheritance if they choose or else articulate their reasons for rejecting it entirely.
I think this writer points out many of the issues that are important. It's also part of why I have no problem with a "great books" curriculum, as long as it's not limited to the "great books".

In many respects I wish I could go back to school. When I was in college, I didn't have much time outside of my degree requirements to explore things that I now find fascinating. I think education is wasted on the young. Unfortunately they are the only ones with the time to do it.

19 comments:

Recall said...

I suspect part of it is a push back from the conservative wing, which very vocally brings their beliefs into the classroom and shuts down inquiry.

I actually take the conservatives' side in this. If they identify as Christian, and the class is about Christianity, then their beliefs were in the classroom from the beginning. You can't teach Christianity as a culture if you silence the people who actually belong to it.

dr.primrose said...

New California beuaty queen news - Miss Beverly Hills Quotes Bible for Death to Homosexuals. The story says in part:

***

Miss Beverly Hills Lauren Ashley told Fox News this week that God is pretty clear about killing homosexuals:

"The Bible says that marriage is between a man and a woman. In Leviticus it says, 'If man lies with mankind as he would lie with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death and their blood shall be upon them.' The Bible is pretty black and white," Ashley told Pop Tarts. "I feel like God himself created mankind and he loves everyone, and he has the best for everyone. If he says that having sex with someone of your same gender is going to bring death upon you, that's a pretty stern warning, and he knows more than we do about life."

***

As we all know, just a couple of verses before this, Leviticus requires that all who curse their parents to be put to death. Lev. 20:9. Miss Beverly Hills is going to make a great parent, I can tell.

IT said...

Well, recall, the problem is that the conservatives don't own Christianity, just one flavor of it.

I think it is possible to teach these subjects without making it a judgement of belief, either way.

IT said...

Yes, Primrose, and do you want to bet whether she wears mixed fibers?

dr.primrose said...

Well, for good or ill, Leviticus 19:19 does not call for the death penalty for those who "put on a garment made of two different materials."

Recall said...

I think it is possible to teach these subjects without making it a judgement of belief, either way.

You can also mess it up, and conservative religious groups know how to whip up a media controversy in their sleep. It's hard to blame people for not wanting to walk into that minefield.

Jarred said...

In many ways, I think that some conservative Christians are the biggest obstacle to the study of Christianity. Truth be told, they don't want their faith to be examined from an academic point of view. This is most obvious when you start looking at the Bible in terms of textual criticism. Mention the JEPD hypothesis regarding the Pentateuch and you'll hear howls from some conservative Christians. Mention the hypothetical Q document with regards to the gospels of Luke and Matthe, and you get a similar reaction. And heaven forbid you suggest that not all of the epistles of Paul were written by Paul himself, despite the fact that writing "in the name of" someone else was a common practice at the time.

Marshall Scott said...

This really isn't a new issue. My BA, long, long, ago, was in Religious Studies from the University of Tennessee. The scholars were all well educated - Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, Union - in the academic study of their areas of expertise. They were also, most of them, ordained clergy in their traditions, and quite happy to consult with ordained clergy in other traditions. I learned Hebrew, for example, from an Episcopal priest who during his doctorate had studied extensively at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

They also tended to be very quiet about their ordinations, at least within the University corridors, and for much the reason that Jarred has identified. Students from conservative and evangelical churches were not ready for either academic study of Christianity or of Jewish and Christian sources, nor even for the the thought that all "real" Christians didn't agree with them. Periodically, they would come to a class expecting to have their preconceptions polished and sharpened, and instead found them challenged. The bravest and most open stayed and, by and large, learned that God might be larger than their preset opinions. However, many, if not most, simply walked away; and a few made for heated sermons in home churches, if not for wider attention.

I think it is in reaction to this that the "science fundamentalists" want to "purify" academic discussion. They have experienced the frustration of trying to converse with folks who insist in entirely different categories. However, I think they do take it too far, wanting to abstract scientific inquiry from human experience. It's good math, perhaps, but it's not really good science; and quantum mechanics suggests it isn't even possible.

Counterlight said...

"If they identify as Christian, and the class is about Christianity, then their beliefs were in the classroom from the beginning. You can't teach Christianity as a culture if you silence the people who actually belong to it."

So who gets to be a "Christian?" Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are each unshakably convinced they and they alone are "Christians," and that all others claiming the label (including each other) are hell-bound legions of the Anti-Christ. Easy-Breezy Episcopalians and Methodists -- who self-identify very much as Christians -- barely qualify as human, let alone as Christian, in the eyes of many Evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

Splendid series of posts, IT.

I run into this issue all the time in my art history classes. You can't teach Western Art without some knowledge of the Christian religion and its history. Christianity was the driving engine behind Western art from about the 4th century to the middle of the 18th century. You can't understand why Christianity is not that driving engine anymore without understanding why it was for so long.
I tell my students at the beginning of each semester that there will be a lot of religion in the class, but that this is not a religion class. It is a class about the furniture of religion.
Still, it is remarkable how little knowledge about Christian history there is out there. Every semester, I give a very brief little lecture on the Reformation to classrooms full of Christian students who have never heard of the Reformation, of Luther, or of Calvin. I teach a similar short lecture on the Counter-Reformation to classes full of Catholic students who've never heard of it, or of Loyola, or of The Council of Trent.
My students are a broad religions mix. I've had Muslims and Buddhist monks in the same class. The Christian kids are mostly from Evangelical and Roman Catholic backgrounds, and are amazingly ignorant of their own faith traditions and their history. The Muslim kids know Christian history and doctrine better than most of my Christian kids.

I'm guessing this ignorance is because of the a-historical nature of evangelical Christianity, the old American conviction that history is bunk. I'm surprised at the Catholics, but then, they tend to imitate the tactics of the Evangelicals frequently these days.

Not only is there not much understanding of Christianity and Christian history in academia, there isn't much in churches either.

NancyP said...

The American conservative evangelical movement produces and disseminates large numbers of books, sermons, correspondence courses aimed at parents and at college bound teens, and residential summer courses for college bound teens and college students. Listen to syndicated Christian radio stations, and you'll hear plugs for these courses by Focus on the Family and like-minded organizations.

Some of the courses/books advise how to capture the conversation, how to put the other students and the professor on the defensive, as well as provide talking points against evolution, gay marriage, feminism, "gender atypical behavior", health care reform, contraception and abortion, public education, and so on. "It's good to be intolerant" is the common slogan.

It is not too surprising when junior faculty at non-elite or public universities wish to avoid topics guaranteed to tie up the class, result in accusations of anti-Christian prejudice being disseminated to the politicized Religious Right publicity machine, resulting in avalanches of calls to politicians and threats of cutting university budget unless junior faculty "anti-Christians" are fired.

Recall said...

Still, it is remarkable how little knowledge about Christian history there is out there. Every semester, I give a very brief little lecture on the Reformation to classrooms full of Christian students who have never heard of the Reformation, of Luther, or of Calvin.

Ironically, I think this ends up being one of the better arguments against mandatory studies of religious classics. Augustine, Aquinas, and other classic theologians have very little relevance to contemporary Christianity as it's practiced in the United States. I found them fascinating in their own right, when I studied them, but I haven't found them useful when trying understand Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye.

Counterlight said...

"I think this ends up being one of the better arguments against mandatory studies of religious classics. Augustine, Aquinas, and other classic theologians have very little relevance to contemporary Christianity as it's practiced in the United States. I found them fascinating in their own right, when I studied them, but I haven't found them useful when trying understand Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye."

Maybe you're just not very curious.

Catholic traditionalists (who insist that they are the only "real" Christians and that Warren and LaHaye are heretics at best and imposters at worst) might disagree.

Warren and LaHaye have a large following, and where did their ideas come from? Whose shoulders do they stand on? Who blazed their trail? Even their ideas have a history and have roots in everything from the Great Awakening to the history of American salesmanship. And where did the Great Awakening come from, and American motivational speaking? We can follow threads back through camp revivals and back to John Wesley. And then from him, it's a few short steps back to Luther and Calvin, to Anabaptists, to Mendicant preachers, to Aquinas, and back to Augustine, even further back to the Ante-Nicene fathers, and even the rabbis who put together the Talmud.

The Bible, which some assume to be God's Oracle, has a history, and a history that unavoidably shapes how we read it and understand it.

I wonder how many people have any idea how late in history the New Testament and Christian Bible in their current forms appear? The letters of Paul are a lot older than the Gospels. Why aren't they first? Why don't they carry more authority than the 4 Gospels we have? The New Testament canon was not closed until the 7th century, and it was only after that Revelations entered the canon. Why that particular book and why so late? There were lots of apocalyptic books out there at the time claiming divine inspiration. Why that one? Why was it resisted? Does anyone ever bother to ask "Why 4 Gospels and not 1, or 5, or 12?" "Why are the 4 in that order with Matthew first and John last?" "Why are the Letters in that order?" "Why did other perfectly orthodox books like the Shepherd of Hermas or the Letters of Ignatius not make it into the canon?" "Why is the Christian Gospel tied to the Jewish Old Testament? A lot of early Christians wanted to dispose of the Jewish Scriptures entirely." "Why do some Christians incorporate the Apocrypha into the Bible canon and others do not?" "Did people read and interpret the Bible the same way in the 5th century, the 9th century, the 16th century, the 18th century. and the 20th century, the same way that people do now?" "Was the Bible the exact same book all those centuries?" "Could the Bible's meaning have changed when translated out of 3rd century Koine Greek into English (modern or not-so-modern)?"

As William Faulkner once said, "The past is not dead. It's not even past."

Nowhere is that more true than in the Christian religion where a lot of the same arguments keep getting argued again and again and again down through the centuries without any resolution (except the resort to force).

Recall said...

Maybe you're just not very curious.

IT has asked me to play nice, so I will say that you are profoundly mistaken and leave it at that.

David |Dah • veed| said...

Wow Doug, I think that I would love to take classes from you!

IT said...

Doug, I think you are painting a bit broadly, though I do appreciate your perspective overall.

Recall, I appreciate your forbearance.

Hopefully we can engage these discussions without making them personal (which doesn't happen well at Street Prophets, where I first met Recall).

Marshall Scott said...

Recall, I wouldn't make attributions about your curiosity. I would say, however, that I have found the tradition useful when helping Episcopalians understand what's wrong with Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye. I'm with Counterlight to this extent: the ahistorical approach of contemporary Evangelicals to the Christian faith is part of the reason they behave as they do. So, while understanding our tradition might not make a difference in following their logic, it can really help see where their logic falls into the same old errors once again.

Counterlight said...

I apologize to Recall and to IT for the offhand remark.
I have a very short fuse, which is why I'm not pursuing any careers in religion, politics, or law. I am as happy about that as the rest of the world is grateful.

IT said...

Thanks, counterlight. I appreciate your note -- I'm a little fast off the mark myself. :-) {{{counterlight}}}

marshall, I think that's a great comment, and I think that's the flip side of what recall was getting at:

it can really help see where their logic falls into the same old errors once again.

Recall said...

I apologize to Recall and to IT for the offhand remark.

I wasn't offended. If anything, I was a little disappointed that my notoriety didn't precede me. Such is the way of the internet.