Evading the Noble Lie

Teaching an introductory course, for me, is about bridging a gap. The gap is not just about knowledge, whereby I pour out some knowledge into the student-vessels and after a few months they know some percentage of what their teacher knows. It’s also, and I would say primarily, about attitudes—about the way that the long process of training and of acquiring that knowledge has shifted (not to say warped) the professor’s way of seeing.

In the humanities, which is the set of disciplines that people often have in mind these days when they think and write about the difference between “academic” ways of thinking and those of the wider culture, it is likely that any given Ph.D-holding individual will have a method of approaching their subject that renders even their students’ initial questions “badly framed” or “insufficiently critical.” It almost doesn’t matter what the field is. Anyone who has been to graduate school has absorbed enough semiotics, hermeneutics, critical theory, or historicism to learn how to problematize the assumptions behind such seemingly innocuous questions as “what does this text mean.”

In an introductory course, however, problematizing questions with one’s full arsenal of critical tools can result in a kind of comically pointless overkill. Students arrive without possession of the concepts that professional academics spend so much time deconstructing. And so, the pedagogical dilemma arises: how to present the necessary introductory concepts without simultaneously indulging in some kind of Noble Lie?

In a Religious Studies course, these problems emerge around the basic words organizing our study: “religion,” “world religions,” “Hinduism,” “Islam,” etc. And the temptation to plunge right in and expose the instability and incoherence of these terms can be tremendous. But I have tried teaching Jonathan Z. Smith’s essay “Religion, Religions, Religious” on the second week of an introductory 100-level course. I would not advise anyone else to try this. The history of the emergence of the study of “religion” in Western Europe, and the conditions of possibility for our own activity in the university classroom, are certainly subjects of the utmost importance—but this doesn’t mean that you can just drop them like bombs as soon as your students walk in the door.

Nevertheless, the self-definition of the field is often the first thing students expect to be presented with, and in Religious Studies there is a long tradition of doing this by making a clear distinction between Academic Religious Studies and Theology. I have to admit that I am not comfortable assuming in advance that my students “need” this distinction insisted upon, as though they would otherwise imagine that we were about to engage in Sunday School: The College Years. I like to credit them with at least a minimal awareness of what they are getting into. Not only that, but in my limited experience, the reverse has often been true: my students arrive more interested in learning about “other” religions (another one of those problematic terms they all use: “other religions”) than in their own (which they assume they already know all about). But this initial goal comes with its own set of challenges.

In my department, we have separate introduction-style courses to religions of the “West” and the “East”; this leaves the Intro to Religious Studies as a kind of sampler of the field, with some methods & approaches and some basic accumulation of knowledge about a small set of religious traditions. But I don’t want to present idealized forms of “other” traditions any more than I would want to expound on the greatness of the religions with which my students are more familiar. This can create some tension when students arrive, for example, already convinced that they are going to learn about “earthy,” environmentally-friendly Native American traditions, or “spiritual” Hinduism, or “peaceful and compassionate” Buddhism. In fact, I encounter this kind of “positive prejudice” and eager desire to “respect” everything we will treat in class far more than any kind of close-minded wariness of the different, or suspicion of the “other.” And while it is easy to relish the role of demolishing the media-constructed image of Islam as inherently more violent than other religions (or even as the religion in connection with which violence becomes most prominently a question), it’s hard to equally anticipate the task of crushing these other, more idyllic images.

Nonetheless, it has to be done. And the best way I have found so far is not to mount a frontal assault (although sometimes you have to compile a sizable list of instances of “Buddhist violence” before students will look like they believe you that it exists). Instead, it is to begin the long process of initiation into humanities methods more generally. Recognizing the importance, when confronted with any “cultural” data, of asking who produced this, when, where, for what audience, in whose interests, for what purpose—this is also, ultimately, a roundabout way of breaking down monolithic images, whether positive or negative. It is a methodological humanism.

So, in the end, while it is important for students to gain some facility with the vocabulary and concepts of the “world religions,” and to know what is in the Torah and the Qur’an, it is even more important for them to understand that human beings don’t simply download scriptures and traditions into blank-slate brains and then execute their programming. It’s great if their minds are blown by the idea of the unity of Atman and Brahman, but a paper about why they “like” that idea more than the idea of a transcendent God is not something they can rest upon.

Michel de Montaigne

In 1581, Michel de Montaigne attended a circumcision at a synagogue in Rome, and wrote about it in his Travel Journal for a Christian readership. One of the first things he noted, about the service in general, was the general chaos and talking amongst the congregants: “They pay no more attention to their prayers than we do to ours.” I consider this an excellent example of a humanist observation. Prior to the description of the strange and shocking ritual (the sensational and exotic, what they came for), and in lieu of a philosophical or theological comparison of doctrines, Montaigne remarks upon a feature of ordinary behavior—is it “religious” behavior?—that has potential to create true sympathy. If our business as teachers of religious studies is to make the strange familiar, and to make the familiar strange, we have to be prepared to do this even when our students seem to be having a positive experience learning “from” the traditions we study and not just “about” them.

One thought on “Evading the Noble Lie

  1. Sam, your comment about trying to teach “Religion, Religions, Religious” in the second week cracked me up. I too have made that mistake, and never will I attempt that essay early in the semester, ever again. I’ve found it can work at the end of the semester, but even then it is quite difficult for almost all students. Like so many of Smith’s works though, the payoff is huge!


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