By Gary Laderman
How would you introduce college students to the study of religion? I’m serious. What would you do with the intro course in this day and age?
Let’s hope you wouldn’t use the opportunity to preach your own religion.
Maybe you would take the “world religions” approach and do a round robin of traditions: Week 1, Hinduism; Week 2, Christianity; Week 3, Islam; and so on.
Or maybe you have a more theory-oriented bent and would cover the great thinkers who have contributed to the study of religion: Rudolf Otto, Émile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade and so on (it’s a longer list than you might imagine).
Or you might take the approach we have used at Emory the past decade or so, try to combine the two, and introduce the study of religion to students via two traditions: Hinduism and Judaism, for example, or Buddhism and Christianity.
Our department, like many across the country, is under pressure from multiple directions. From above (the administration), to provide metrics that prove our worth in the overall economy of Emory College. From beyond the campus (parents and politicians), to make the education that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars worth something in the pursuit of a good job.
We realize there is a perception, especially about those of us in the humanities, that it is time to move on from the navel-gazing of the 20th century and transition into the career-building imperatives of higher education today.
The perceptions of administrators, families, politicians and the larger public shape the realities faculty and students have to live with, but we also feel internal pressures that come naturally over time while the composition of the faculty evolves as some people leave or retire and new blood reinvigorates the whole.
Intellectual commitments and pursuits are at play in this period of stress and transformation, and we are reassessing the basics of what we do in a department of religion, especially in terms of the most fundamental staple of any college department: the intro class.
We have wiped the slate clean and are starting from scratch, with faculty experimenting and discussing obvious questions in a college setting: How do we best equip students with knowledge and skills that are valuable in their transition to adults, that have applicability in the larger world, that can contribute to their role as informed citizens who will confront religion everywhere they turn?
This year my friend and colleague Eric Reinders and I are giving it a go, drawing from our different fields (his is the history of Chinese religions and Christianity in China, mine is American religious history and cultures) and our shared graduate training in religious studies many years ago in an early maverick department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In the spirit of world destruction and re-creation of the cosmos, we are throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith into — current events. What better way to introduce students to studying religion than the lively, messy, contradictory, scandalous, enlightening, unpredictable, contemporary world we all live in?
We hope that the following brief course description will draw the students in, and maybe a few will even take other religion courses or, G-d help us, become majors.
You can’t understand the world today without reference to religion. Every day religion is in the news. There are religious “extremists” and “fundamentalists,” religious arguments about sex, death, civil rights and human rights. There are arguments about religious symbols such as the Ten Commandments and cartoons of Mohammed. Religion is infused in political rhetoric. Presidents are sworn in with a hand on a Bible.
Why study religion? Does this pursuit have any practical value, relevancy to your career goals or monetary payoff, or is it, in every sense of these words, “a complete waste of time”?
If you pay closer attention to the pervasive role of religion in our world today, you can’t help but be persuaded that the study of religion may be the most important course you take during your college education.
The more challenging question than “Why study religion?” is the “what” question. Just what is religion? Can it even be defined, or is it something like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in 1964 about obscenity: “I know it when I see it”? (As you can imagine, a favorite quote in the field of religious studies.)
In addition to heightening your awareness of the centrality of religion in the world today, this course aims to open your mind to “religion” in less traditional senses, to include examination of phenomena that are not usually considered religious but that might well be seen through the lens of religion, such as natural disasters, sporting events, Dragoncon, celebrity and rock concerts.
In other words, we think that to see religion more clearly in our world, it is best to start by confusing the boundaries of what counts as religion, blurring the lines between the sacred and the profane.
The class is a thematic introduction to the field of religious studies, but the themes we will focus on will be determined by current events over the course of the fall semester: globally, nationally, locally and on campus. These events will include the national election (with its religious references, apocalyptic possibilities, rituals and myths, etc.).
Sadly, we can expect to focus on some kind of terrorist event or natural disaster, and we will examine how grief is processed through religious rituals in public. We will examine the Tibetan shrine on display in the Carlos Museum — to understand the shrine itself better, but also to think about the display of religions in museums and the media.
The annual round of holidays on the calendar — Labor Day, Presidents Day and of course Halloween — will also provide us with data to discuss and analyze. As already noted, other topics will emerge and keep us on our analytical toes.
What is perhaps most critical to the success of this course, and a fundamental requirement to participate in this class, is a simple word: respect. “R. E. S. P. E. C. T.” as Aretha Franklin sang in the song we hope some of you have heard. Respecting diversity, respecting the speech of others, respecting the dignity of all students (and even faculty), and respecting the pursuit of knowledge as not simply a matter of opinions, but as practice that is based on research, reflection and respectful conversation.
This isn’t about political correctness, but intelligence and sensitivity. Having a civil discussion in the classroom about a volatile subject — perhaps the most volatile subject — is challenging and, for us, exhilarating and will give you skills to live with what is an unavoidable fact of the world we live in: religious differences.
Gary Laderman chairs Emory University’s religion department and is the editor of Sacred Matters Magazine. A version of this column originally appeared on The Huffington Post.