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Ten Issues That Should Arise Whenever We Teach Religion
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By Terry Hansen

Those of us who teach religion at the high-school and middle-school levels, as well as many of our colleagues who teach religious studies at the college undergraduate level, need to face more squarely than we have so far a significant and enduring problem; we simply cannot do our jobs. I would like to explore the origins and ongoing dynamics of, and some possible solutions to, this problem.

Our job, as I see it, is to provide opportunities for our students to engage with the contradictions and complexities within and among religious traditions. The problem is that most of us, through no fault of our own, are asked to do this job under impossible conditions. Some of these conditions include “world religions” courses crammed into cramped scheduling slots; “essentialist” courses in which the core meanings and values of a tradition must be clearly spelled out in distorting and reductive ways; religion departments whose mission seems to be merely to serve as adjuncts to chaplaincy programs; and the resistance of the traditions themselves to their own internal diversity.

My reflections are the result of almost thirty years of teaching in independent schools, the past dozen as chair of a Religion and Philosophy department. I have been fortunate enough to be able to teach full semester courses each in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Philosophy of Religion. In my experience, even with this advantage, it is difficult to faithfully evoke even a fraction of the complexity of the subject matter. How then can those who do not have the benefit of a semester program like mine even begin to do justice to the material? The answer, of course, is that teachers do the best that they can with what they have.

What I propose is that we frame our courses, however expansive or constrictive our schedules may be, within a series of polarities. This article is a fuller and, I hope, more articulated attempt to formulate the content of a past CSEE/RSiSS workshop presentation called “Ten issues that should arise whenever we teach religion.”

The ten polarities are: belief vs. practice; scholars vs. believers; men vs. women; internal vs. external diversity; textual analysis vs. other kinds of intelligence; disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary; buddhology vs. Buddhism; spirituality vs. religion; postmodern vs. modern; religion as problem vs. religion as solution. It is my contention that if we teach our courses with these kinds of polarities in mind, we will be doing justice to our students and to our subject, no matter what constraints or conditions we face.

I was lamenting to a Greek Orthodox friend of mine about how few religious people seem to understand their own theologies. He gave me his characteristically exasperated look and said, “sometimes it’s just about the food.” Of course, he’s right. My mother has been a faithful Roman Catholic all of her life and I doubt if she could formulate, even on her clear days, one jot or tittle of her belief system. So when we teach that the Four Noble Truths are what Buddhists believe, what are we really saying? I have had many Thai, Japanese, and Chinese students in my classes who call themselves “Buddhist.” Few of them could recite the Four Noble Truths. It would be impolite, let alone colonialist, of me to tell them that “true” Buddhists can recite them. I can guarantee you, however, that if my friend’s Greek Orthodox diners, my mother, or my Asian students were asked to tell what they do when they practice their religions, I would get very knowledgeable answers.

The second polarity I feel it is important to discuss is the scholar versus the believer. The ascendancy of academic scholarship and its multifarious approaches to the study of religion, particularly in the past twenty years, is finally beginning to make its way into the teaching of religion at the high-school level. Just as the Academy often has to confront differences between theology and religious studies programs, so independent high schools are now beginning to discuss the different missions of our chaplaincies, our religious affiliations, and our religion departments. To complicate matters further, it is historically true that most of our religious studies programs have indeed evolved from theologies and chaplaincies.

What does it mean to teach religion without a theological or spiritual agenda? This is an issue I try to present to my students by framing it around the issue of scholarship vs. belief. Clearly, a synthesis between the two is also quite common in religious discussions; but I try to separate them out first before discussing how they can complement and inform each other.

One way I have found to illustrate the differences among spirituality, theology, and religious studies is to explore theodicies. The spiritual issues raised by the problem of suffering, evil, and misfortune involve finding sources of personal meaning and strength in order to address the problem. The theological issues involve various ways in which religious traditions have dealt and are dealing with the problem. Religious studies, however, explore theodicies from the perspective of how “religion” itself was created as a category of discourse, and for that matter, how “theology” and “spirituality” inform our discourse. Granted, this way of delineating the distinctions has a philosophical bias. I use it primarily in my Philosophy of Religion course. But, even when I teach Hinduism and Buddhism, I find it possible to ground my philosophical approach in specific historical and cultural contexts. This is generally not the approach one takes either spiritually or theologically.

As far as how the three complement each other, I see theology as the bridge between spirituality and religious studies. In my school, our chapel program does a nice job of blending general spiritual issues with a generous sprinkling of theology. Our academic religion program, from the other end of the spectrum, tries to locate the relevance of theology in the history of a variety of religious and cultural contexts.

The third issue I raise for our consideration is gender. So much has already been written about this dimension of the study of religion, that I doubt if I can say anything genuinely new about it. In addition to the obvious areas of gender-specific terminology, I find the women’s movement in India to be a particularly profound source of material. For example, the determination of some Indian women to be officially recognized as having the right to renounce can lead to some great discussions about renunciation itself, the recovery of women’s voices in the Upanishads, and responses of religious traditions to challenges from within. Other ways of approaching gender include Carl Jung’s anima/animus dynamic; the role of goddesses and female saints and its often-inverse relationship to the actual status of women; and the way feminist studies need to deal with religious precursors of the modern women’s movement.

The fourth area I would like to highlight is a slight variation on the sometimes-hackneyed ways in which many of our texts deal with religious diversity. In addition to the obvious imperative that we all have to present exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism in our courses, I try to spend an equal amount of time exploring the diversity within each tradition. Please let us do everything we can to stamp out statements that begin with “Buddhism says” or “Hindus believe”. I am just as guilty of this sin as anyone else; but I try to do my best to eliminate this kind of talk in my classroom. Unfortunately we cannot solve this problem merely by talking, say, about Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. In fact, most recent scholarship finds this to be a largely false, or at the very least misleading, system of classification. Shia and Sunni; Shaivite and Vaishnavite, and many other dualistic typologies like this fail to provide our students with a true sense of just how messy the traditions are.

This becomes a particularly important issue when inviting religious representatives into our classrooms. A recent issue of the American Academy of Religion’s quarterly is entitled “Who Speaks for Hinduism?” Those of us who are not Hindu often think we can solve the problem by inviting Hindus into our classrooms. But which Hindus? Granting that there is a long tradition within Hinduism of downplaying its own internal differences, that enterprise is itself only one of Hinduism’s approaches to itself. Is it Hinduism or Hinduisms, Buddhism or Buddhisms, Christianity or Christianities, and which ones should we teach?

If you mention “interdisciplinary” at a curriculum meeting, you will almost automatically receive nodding heads and general assents. I am not sure, however, that those approvals are unequivocally good for religion. Hence, my sixth polarity: disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary. Of course, we want our programs to be connected to a larger world. I team-taught a religion and science course a few years ago that certainly provoked a healthy response from students. My concern is that we need to be careful about religious studies. Anthropology, psychology, sociology, literature, and History are major contributors to our understanding of religious phenomena. The problem occurs when religion is not given its own voice. I acknowledge that this is a turf battle, and I also acknowledge that “turf” is a nasty word these days. I am simply asserting that religion is sui generis, i.e. that it defines a realm of study that is unique. Thus, I contend, this polarity between disciplinary and interdisciplinary is worthy of our consideration.

I am an advocate of liaisons, including one I consider to be the most important of all, that between religion and the natural world. But I also understand that ecology, environmental studies, “nature writing,” and science are not religions. Forgive me if I don’t accept the secular thesis that everything is essentially religious, including the economy and the nation. I do accept the notion that when religion combines with ecology it becomes theology. (see polarity #2).

My seventh polarity is perhaps the most abstract of all. What we teach is not what is. Every teaching is a representation of the truth. Engage students, if you can, in that acknowledgement of how limited we are. Do I teach “Buddhism”? Absolutely not. No matter what I call my course, what I have been teaching these many years, is “Buddhology”. What is the difference? What I have been teaching is a particular representation of Buddhism, and that representation itself can become the subject of the course. Why am I choosing the texts that form the basis of my course? Why am I teaching religion? Who am I? With these questions in mind, I would hope that students would not come out of my classes with the nefarious assumption that they have “done” “Buddhism”.

My next (eighth) polarity is crucial. I recommend that religiously affiliated schools do a much better job than they have so far in distinguishing their religious studies programs from their chaplaincy programs. “Spirituality’ is an historical religious phenomenon. It emerged from a specific religious context. Thus, the spirituality vs. religion polarity is a subject for academic discussion. That it has often been portrayed as a church vs. individual issue is a wrong way of framing the question. Even religious practitioners have claimed that “spirituality’ is an internal phenomenon, and that “religion’ is about ritual and community. While I understand the rationale of that claim, I think that it does an injustice both to religion and to spirituality. Community is not exclusive to religion, nor is internality exclusive to modern post-religionists.

Whenever I hear dismissals of the “postmodern’, I am appalled. Do we not see that surrealism is rampant? The “modern” is, of course, defined in many ways. I equate it with science and rationality. To say that we are postmodern is simply to say that we have passed the “Age of Science.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki took care of that for us. We are now living in a world in which the crazy is mundane, and we are liberated. That I can talk with students on Monday about asceticism and on Tuesday about birds is a gift. That I can move within the same forty-five minute class period from statues to desire to the transcendent to George Bush is what makes teaching fun. To denigrate the postmodern in favor of the modern is to give rationality more than its due.

So, the final polarity: is religion a problem or is it a solution? The answer is yes. Teaching it is fun. We are not supposed to have fun, of course. It is a dangerous emotion. Might it be classified as a sin? I would prefer to classify it as a practice, in the Buddhist sense. I know a man who has studied the American dipper (a bird known by John Muir as “the water ouzel”) for thirty years. When asked to describe what he had learned about this bird, he answered, “nothing.”

Terry Hansen is former chair of the Religion Department at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland.

[User Group: Administration, Teachers]

[Grade: Middle, Upper]

[Subject: World Religions]


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