The Impossible is Possible! On Teaching the Introductory Course Or World Religions

At my college, every faculty member in our Religious Studies department teaches at least one section of our introductory course every year. For current graduate students or job-hunters who take a job in a small department or at a liberal arts college, it is very likely that you will be regularly teaching your department’s introductory course. You should be developing a syllabus now, and if you get the chance to teach this course during your time in graduate school or as an adjunct while searching for a full-time position, the experience will be a great asset.

I love teaching this course. The possibilities for readings, what to emphasize, what theorists to read, what kinds of assignments to construct, what sorts of comparative themes to cover, etc. feel endless in a way that they do not for tradition-specific introductory courses. I think this is because there is usually a standard way of introducing a tradition that one would be almost remiss not to follow to a large degree, whereas the very idea of an introduction to world religions course is so artificial, even outlandish, that there turn out to be myriad ways to do the course responsibly. The impossible is not only possible, it’s also pretty fun.

In my department, the course serves as both an introduction to major world religions and as an introduction to the discipline of religious studies. Students should leave our course with a basic understanding of the history, doctrine and practices of at least four religions, and having encountered some theory and comparative themes distinctive of the discipline of religious studies.

Here’s what I do:

I know my audience: some students in my course are inevitably majors or minors in religious studies. Many more are taking the course because it meets a distribution requirement and sounds to them like an interesting way to fulfill the requirement. And some of them take it because they care about the meaning of life.

I try to honor and meet as well as I can the goals that each kind of student has. Majors and minors need to emerge with strong religious literacy, prepared to think both within and across traditions, and able to think with and use theory in productive ways. Students taking the course just to meet a requirement often have the lingering question: “why should I care?” So I tell them why they should care. My first class is a pitch – I tell them that if they know how to look, they will see religion everywhere: in the way space is organized, in the construction of political life, in origin stories of all sorts, in conceptions of what a person is that we carry around inside of us and inscribe onto each other through social mechanisms, in what we eat or don’t eat, what we think is possible and what seems beyond the pale, etc.  And the students who are asking themselves some question about the meaning of life and have come to the course because they have that question need two things: they need to know that sometimes religion is not about the meaning of life, and they also need to know that sometimes it is. I bring in considerations that may appear to be primarily political or social when it seems that they need to hear that religion isn’t just about the romance of mystical experience, or I show them the way that even the political and social are carriers of great meaning for different religions at different times.

My semester long course has four categories of focus, which are outlined and described in the syllabus: traditions, texts, theorists and themes.

The traditions we cover are Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Because these traditions are each so diverse and sprawling, I adopt a specific approach to thinking about a tradition that I hope will grant to the students some sense of the orienting concerns of the tradition. I draw from William James the idea that all religions share a common nucleus or core structure: they identify some problem, he calls it an uneasiness, and propose some resolution. So for each tradition we think about the uneasiness and its resolution. And I use the term “tradition” consciously, conscientiously, and with this idea in mind: a tradition is the handing down through time of texts and other practices that are oriented around, take their bearings from, this common concern. This problem/resolution structure should not be understood as relevant only to high scholasticism: it appears in the literature and practices of these traditions and should be shown to students as so appearing. What is the Passover Seder but a re-enactment and remembering of exile and return? What is an invocation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, but a request for help in liberation from suffering? What are the prostrations of salat but bodily enactments of submitting oneself, cutting down one’s pride?

Texts refer to primary texts. For some traditions we read selections from scripture or revelation (the Vedas, suttas, the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur’an). I also add some more contemporary narrative texts, in good part because these are accessible and engaging in ways the scriptural texts are not always, while the educational benefit is not thereby diminished. In my class this semester, in addition to excerpts from the scriptural/revelatory texts just named, we are reading Novice to Master, the memoir of a twentieth century Japanese Zen monk and teacher, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This semester is the first time I have used Novice to Master, and it was a great hit with the students. I joked with them that this is because they can read it lying down, as opposed to sitting up in the pose of serious concentration. But based on their response papers, I can see that they benefitted from it, even if it does invite the posture of repose.

Theorists refer to major theorists who have been formative in the field of religious studies. One of the four books my students are required to purchase (along with the two aforementioned books and the Bhagavad-Gita) is Daniel Pal’s Introducing Religion, which includes chapters of excerpts from the writings of eleven major theorists with an introduction to each thinker at the beginning of the chapter. We read, in this order, Marx, Eliade, James, Durkheim and Freud. I start with Marx and Eliade because they are exemplary instances of reductive and non-reductive approaches. Also, Marx, if they have never read him, “blows their minds” (or confirms their deep and unsettling suspicions) not just by explaining quite a lot about much of the contemporary ideological structure of some parts of our shared world, but by being so compellingly single-minded and intense. He also lays down a challenge that we keep considering throughout the semester, and students quickly becomes pros at spotting what Marx would see as coercive ideological discourses in our texts. We read Durkheim so that we have a chance to ponder whether OSU footfall fandom, united under the banner of the Buckeyes, may count as a religion. Or, in serious terms, he helps us both think about the things we already understand as religions in a new way and to ask whether there are other things that are actually religions, even though we would not have thought to call them that. We read James for his focus on the centrality of experience and his pragmatic argument for the existence of something transcendent, and we read Freud because everyone nowadays is a master of suspicion about other people’s psyches (if only we were equally suspicious of our own!), so it behooves us to read the master of that. The other readings from Pals are excellent as well and different teachers would likely drop one or more of the theorists I use and pick up others, like Weber, Geertz or Frazer.

Finally, themes refer to topics for comparison and analysis across traditions. These are countless: myth, faith and belief, food, revelation, the body, etc. Our first theme this semester was space and time. The students read Eliade’s chapter on sacred space from The Sacred and the Profane, two chapters from Vine Deloria Jr.’s God is Red about the centrality of space in Native American religions, and a very short chapter from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man called “A Religion of Time.” Eliade serves as a theorist who both brings to our attention that space is a category we can use to think about and compare religions, and gives us a conceptual vocabulary for thinking about space and religion. Deloria’s chapters are polemical: he argues that religions that prioritize space over time (as he says that Native American religious traditions do) cultivate superior ethical systems and result in better treatment for people within a community and for the land the community lives on. His target is the monotheistic religions of Western Europe, the religion of the conquerors. He primarily means Christianity, but the Heschel reading emphasizes for students that this is not a false imposition on Deloria’s part – that for some religions, like Christianity and Judaism, the historical event is central. And then we discuss: is Deloria right? I don’t have an answer for them, but I’d like for them to take him seriously, which they do.

This is a complex treatment of a theme. Some students will get it; others will leave confused. I think that’s alright, as long as I consistently reinforce what it is that I want them to get: I want them to get that even categories as seemingly mundane and secular as space and time are inflected with (or even entirely shaped by) religious values and concerns and can be used to think about religious ideas, texts, and traditions. I also ask them, at the end of our treatment of this theme, to think about what criteria our society urges them to use to decide where to live their lives. Through this, I think they will discover just how far we are from the prioritizing of space that Deloria describes as essential to Native American religious life.

My other theme – we haven’t done it yet this semester, and it will be my first time trying it out – will be law. We will visit the concepts and practices of halakha and sharia, and we will read a blog post on The Immanent Frame by Winnifred Sullivan (“The Impossibility of Religious Freedom”, but not her book by that title) to complicate their notions of how religion and law work together, or don’t exactly, in the United States.

That is the structure of the syllabus. Here are a few more things that I do:

Because there are many moving parts on this syllabus and in this class, I am constantly reminding them of how the parts work together: we apply theorists to texts and practices we learn about when we study traditions; we use theorists to analyse our themes; our understanding of themes is enriched when we see them come into play in a primary text; etc. More than anything, I am just constantly using these four words: tradition, text, theme, theorist. (Alliteration is our ally when attempting to assimilate information, which I also tell them.)

I assign response papers to the primary text readings. I give a very specific assignment guideline in which I explain that a response paper is not a formal academic paper because it does not require that they posit and defend a claim (it may just develop a question) and because they may if they wish discuss their personal reaction or experiences. This can sometimes go wrong, such as a merely personal reflection that does not make an effort to extend beyond the scope of the experience. But more often it goes right: there is more passion in these papers than in most of the formal academic essays I get, and that is the point. Since many of them do care about what these traditions and texts can tell them, or whether this or that theorist is right or wrong, they get engaged in developing their question or outlining their personal response. I assign these papers because I want to give them that chance. I grade these relatively easily, because I have not asked for an argument and I am not going to pronounce punitive grades on papers that include reference to personal experiences. There are other assignments in the class (exams, final papers) that I grade with more rigor. I tell them all of this.

I do emphasize the dichotomies that, as they become more conceptually sophisticated, they will start to question, dissolve, be vexed about. They learn emic and etic, reductive and non-reductive, universal and particular. I think that you cannot get off the ground in religious studies if you don’t know that these are the terms of the debates. I also tell them that these dichotomies are always collapsing, and I model that a few times. But I don’t emphasize this too much, since they are just learning these terms and the differences they stand for.

For their final assignment (a “religion in the news” project) each of them picks their own topic about a relatively recent news story featuring religion in some way (the Kim Davis affair is a good recent example) and becomes an expert on it. They need to know what happened, who the players are, what the stakes are, and what role religion plays. They also need to take a stand on the issue in their paper. This project grants a sense of mastery, of something learned through and through, that is I think a good balance to the medley of the class.

Everything I have just written is an ideal. It sounds great. But on the ground, it’s a lot bloodier. Here are some things that wobble or fail in the class:

  • It always goes too fast. I try to wrestle time away from the fast pace of a semester to read some of the primary texts at a leisurely pace. But when I do that once or twice (which I always do), we are behind on the syllabus and something drops off. So be it.
  • I am never grading fast enough. I think I am just going to have to accept this as a feature of my life. So be it.
  • I don’t use enough art. I should use more.
  • There’s a lot I don’t know about the impossible subject of world religions, and sometimes they ask. “I don’t know” has to be used delicately, lest one de-authorize oneself. This is hard.
  • Sometimes I just fail to respond to a student as I should. For example, the other day in class a student said something so stunningly revealing of exactly the lack of spatial emphasis and instead a focus on time and progress that Deloria was talking about (Student: “Does Eliade’s theory about settling a territory equaling establishing a world still apply?” Me: “Why would it not? What do you think is different about our times?” Student: “There are no more territories to settle.”) that I was startled into an inability to seize the pedagogical moment and point out that there were never any territories to settle, that it was always someone else’s world already. I think this was a real failure, for that should have been a great learning moment for him and for the class. I fumbled my way through a less obvious and on-point response.

Most poignantly and frustratingly, for me, I fail to do what most needs to be done, because this really is the impossible part of the course. That is, I fail to show them that world religions is a made-up thing, and for that reason is even more important than we already thought it was, for through that fact we learn so much about ourselves. I do say, once or maybe three times, that this idea of world religions, not to mention religion itself, is imposed, that there is no such thing, that we really are just working our way through a historical, conceptual, textual, doctrinal, praxis-based, art-infused, myth-telling thicket. I say to them, very infrequently and in cleaned up words: “We are hunting a unicorn. You know that, right?” Some of them nod. Some of them squint their brows. But it strikes me that none of them do know it, really, and I am unsure that I know it, really. I believe that if I want to be a good teacher of this introductory course, I cannot let this stop me. I don’t believe that world religions comes to exist in their minds or my mind as ‘a thing’ because I am teaching a course about it, anymore than liberalism or colonialism or sexism comes to exist because someone teaches a course about it. The students who go on to the major may, by the end of senior year, get this to some degree, but here in their introductory course, they still don’t know what it is that “doesn’t exist” and my job is to first teach them that. So I believe this is a necessary failure.

A final failure: some students are just confused by all that is going on in this intrinsically unwieldy course. I answer as many of their questions as I can and hope that the seeds of understanding are being planted. The sense of mastery conferred by the final project also helps to give the students a sense of something they can take out of the course with them. But overall, with a class like this, mastery is not my goal for them. As I say to them in my opening pitch, if they pay attention in this class, they will start seeing this thing called religion everywhere. They will learn a lot of facts and concepts, some of the readings may sweep them off their feet, but in the end just that seeing is my goal for them.

One thought on “The Impossible is Possible! On Teaching the Introductory Course Or World Religions

  1. Pingback: The Balancing Act of Major Design | The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

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