Wednesday, May 28, 2008

World Religions: The joys and frustrations of teaching.

I have recently accepted a faculty position at Iowa State University. Starting this Fall, I will be teaching in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Most of my courses this fall term will be "Introduction To World Religions."

Teaching "World Religions" in the classroom is one of those tasks that religion scholars find endlessly frustrating on a variety of levels. At the most practical level, such one semester courses turn into less of an academic exercise, and more of a la carte sampler platter. It would be the intellectual equivalent of filling up on a series of appetizers that give you just flavor and substance to add up to a meal, without being a really satisfying meal in and of itself. Based on research conducted on behalf of the Wabash Center, students and professors seem to be frequently at odds from the moment class begins: professors want students to develop critical thinking and cultural literacy, while students are primarily focused on developing their "spirituality." But professors are not chaplains, even in a private sectarian school. Those are two different roles that require different sets of skills and demands.

On a deeper level, teaching 'World Religions' risks creating the impression that religions are fixed sets of entities, when that is simply not the case--religious elements of culture are inherently dynamic---constantly in flux, reinforcing and interfering with other impulses and other religions through contact points. It also risks indoctrinating students into the idea that only certain kinds of religion are important enough to study. For example, any 'World Religion' course worth its salt must teach Judaism. And rightly so. Jews have never constituted more than 5% of the world's population and even today it is only the 12th largest religion in the world, yet the contributions of Hebrew (earlier) and Jewish (later) culture to the world are almost incalculable---far out of proportion to its size. Yet, for reasons of space (and lack of training), "World Religion" courses almost never teach Chinese indigenous religion, even though it has almost 400 million adherents. Given the increased role that China may play in world economic and military affairs, as well as the gradual loosening of Maoist ideology on the country, this may have to change. As a legacy of European liberal education, 'world religions' courses give the impression that the forms of religion that have been of greatest concern to Europeans are indeed the most important ones. Which is, of course, a highly dubious assertion.

In the end, its often more like a poor compromise between a course that gets students to critically investigate religion (like an 'Introduction to Religious Studies' course) and a pastoral course that one might take at a church. Realizing all of the compromises necessary, nonetheless many professors hope to communicate something of the vibrancy of practice, as well as the necessity of appreciating (in the wide sense) the influence of religion on humans. 

Don't get the wrong impression. I enjoy teaching these courses, I really do. I get to indulge my inner dilettante, even as I bemoan it in students. It also serves as a means for faculty to investigate and perhaps indulge themselves in scholarly literature far from their home zone, and it keeps them on their toes, lest an enterprising student seek to "stump" the professor with a sly question about an unfamiliar area. As an intellectual packrat, I often find ways to acquire or obtain pictures, information, or other material just so I might be able to someday use it in a course or a project such as this. In fact, 2 years ago I had the opportunity to visit a Sikh gurdwara in Queensland Australia, and I took literally mountains of pictures and movies, as well as interviewing an old man who originally worked to found the gurdwara. Finally I'll have the chance to use those resources in class, for along with Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I'll be teaching Sikhism, as there is a gurdwara in the local area.


Clay said...

Congratulations, Christopher! That's excellent news.

Ed Vis said...
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Ed Vis said...
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Ed Vis said...

Namasthe Christopher: I wish you all the very best in your new assignment.

I firmly believe ignorance is the root cause of all the hatred and evils.

All the wars in history were religious wars and they were fought due to suspicions and hatred.

By your teaching students all about world religions, you will be eradicating ignorance among students who will firmly believe in tolerance and love.

May God bless you.

एकम् सत् विप्रा: बहुधा वदन्ति

Ekam Sat Viprāha Bahudhā Vadanti

"Truth is One, But learned describe it in many ways."

— The Rig Veda (Book I, Hymn CLXIV, Verse 46)