Religious Studies Teaching Philosophy

I give you the end of a golden string;

  Only wind it into a ball,

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,

  Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

                        —William Blake[1]

Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought.

Matsuo Basho[2]

The teaching of religious studies is not a simple endeavor, but it is a crucial one for shaping responsible, compassionate global citizens. As a teacher, I metaphorically hand each student strings to follow through the terrain of faith and tradition. My approach reflects respect for all voices, a curiosity about the subject matter, and the contention that our world is in need of a deeper understanding of religious experiences. The connections formed between people and cultures in this discipline are vital for just peace in our world.

 

Religious Literacy

 The American Academy of Religion identifies “a widespread illiteracy about religion in the US” that can lead to “prejudice and antagonism,” and proposes the academic study of religion as one way of addressing this cultural crisis. The AAR provides “three central premises” for teaching about religion in K-12 schools that apply equally as well to college, and provide a way forward for my own teaching of religious studies: “religions are internally diverse; religions are dynamic; and religions are embedded in culture.”[3]

Considering these three claims in terms of the Church of the Brethren can shed some light on their implications. First, no religion can be described by a single group or ideology. Not all Brethren are white pacifist men in ministry. Any responsible study of the Brethren would look at beliefs and practices of a wide variety of adherents. Secondly, religions evolve over time, which means today’s Brethren are no longer responding to the theological problems posed by infant baptism. To examine Brethren doctrine, one would need to look at beliefs pertaining to twenty-first century questions of ultimate meaning and belonging, such as earth care, racial justice, and gun violence.

Finally, religions cannot be removed from their cultural context. Brethren experiences in Indiana and Nigeria are worlds apart. To consider Brethren identity among German-descended Brethren in rust belt communities amidst an opioid epidemic is certainly worth pursuing. But we must also look at life among the Nigerian Brethren as their children are kidnapped, raped, and killed by the Boko Haram. At the very least, we need to recognize that there is no single authoritative Brethren identity. If my teaching in the field of religious studies is to help make sense of the world in which we live, I must take into consideration the diversity, change, and specificity of all religions.

 

Classroom Culture and Methods

Just as religions are diverse, evolving, and culturally bound, so too are university students. I prefer to guide them on their own journeys toward deeper understanding, so that they might meaningfully grapple with the subject and think seriously about what it could mean for their academic, professional, and personal lives.

My best teaching takes place when I act as a facilitator of knowledge in its multitude forms, rather than an arbiter of scholarly content. All students have unique experiences and perspectives that others, including myself, can learn from. All voices in the class deserve to be heard and taken seriously. The world of academia values the ability to put one’s own thoughts into words and to engage in respectful conversation with others. Because each voice is valid, students are free in my classes to research and write on topics of their choice, and from their own perspectives.

The writing workshop is a common element in my classes. In this research-based pedagogy, the teacher provides mini-lessons on the writing craft when necessary, as well as opportunities for peer review, and one-on-one conferences about each student’s writing. The writing workshop is adaptable to classes of nearly all fields of study, and better prepares students for the experience of writing and exchanging ideas in academia.

Rather than summarizing readings and giving quizzes, I prefer to assign short written reflections, then have students teach units and lead discussions on the text. I am available in the class to provide another perspective and to answer questions, but the more student-led class activities are, the more beneficial they will be.

 

Connecting the Threads

Educational thinker Parker Palmer writes, “good teachers…are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”[4] With Blake, I offer my students golden strings of religious studies, that they might weave them into their own understandings of self, world, and other. No single strand must necessarily be followed to navigate this vast web. Likewise, no tradition alone defines a religion and no one person in the class holds all the answers. The possibilities for connections are endless. Each of our threads may connect with those of others in the class and, ultimately, the wider world in which we all live.

 

[1] William Blake, “63. From ‘Jerusalem,’” Bartleby, 2015, http://www.bartleby.com/236/63.html.

[2] Sam Hamill, “Basho’s Ghost,” Kyoto Journal, n.d., http://www.kyotojournal.org/the-journal/fiction-poetry/basho’s-ghost/.

[3] The AAR Religion in the Schools Taskforce, “Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States,” American Academy of Religion, 2010, https://www.aarweb.org/ sites/default /files/pdfs/ Publications/epublications/AARK-12CurriculumGuidelines.pdf.

[4] Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 11.