In a previous post I mentioned that I am currently team-teaching a class called, “Jesus in Contemporary Culture” to a group largely composed of freshmen, most of whom are not intending to be religion majors. Last week we looked at various presentations of Jesus in the first four centuries of Christianity, which inevitably led us to the four gospels. We spent almost an entire session looking at some of the major differences in the canonical presentations of Jesus, and ended by considering the notoriously difficult problem of the competing genealogies in Matthew and Luke. (I have recently written about my own experience with this issue.)
After two class sessions on this topic, we opened the floor for discussion. Thus far our students seem interested and engaged, and numerous students have expressed their prior ignorance about some of the issues we’ve been raising. During our conversation last Friday, two students commented (independently of one another) about how this material had made them think, and how each had taken these conversations back to someone s/he regarded as a spiritual mentor. In each case, the student’s trusted adviser made a comment that was something to the effect of “Well, that’s what you get from college religion courses.” The implication appears to be that studying religion in a formal academic setting is somehow dangerous to one’s faith, and also that this is an obvious reality that people without such training are aware of (i.e., “Everyone knows that you can’t trust what college religion professors tell you!”). I wonder if professors in other disciplines get this same treatment? It’s hard for me to imagine my colleagues in history, psychology, or biology getting the same response….
There is no doubt that studying religion will wreak havoc on one’s received (and therefore, unquestioned) religious biases. Overlooked evidence has a way of waking people up to realities they have yet to encounter. But, neither my colleague nor I have the goal of “ruining” or “destroying” anyone’s faith. We are simply trying to promote critical thought and intellectual engagement with the material. Isn’t it funny how often these two things appear threatening to one’s faith? Last week I came across an article entitled, “10 Things Every College Student Needs to Know About Religion,” and I asked my students to read it just to round out their perspectives. My favorite line from the article reads:
Just like it’s uncomfortable to confront the fact that slaves built the U.S. Capitol Building or that American settlers committed genocide against the Native People, the history of any religion forces us to grapple with the ugly realities of ourselves. This isn’t your professor being anti-Christian or anti-Buddhist — it’s just historical information. What you do with that information, however, matters. History doesn’t ask you to throw away a faith or dismiss religion altogether. Nor should it make you distrust academia for disseminating some nefarious agenda. Instead, at its best, history can help us ask how we make the future better.
I guess by now this response should not surprise me, but I continue to be amazed at how much suspicion is directed at formal learning from people of faith. I can only hope that our efforts this semester will prove to our students (at least) that our goal is much nobler than shipwrecking their personal religious beliefs.