Saturday, October 27, 2007

On teaching world religions

The perfectionist and idealist in me will not permit me to simply teach a class in which the units are simply divided among the different great religious traditions of the world. In my opinion, strongly held, such an approach can only do damage to the ideological presuppositions of a high school teenager.

And besides, it would be bad pedagogy.

One thing that I am learning through experience is that teachers are not meant merely, or even primarily, to pass along information to their students. It is not data, but skills that are the most important product of a school. While the skill set involved in a "sacraments" class is limited, especially in a pluralistic environment (my class could legitimately be renamed "sacraments appreciation"), the skill set involved in a world-religions course is more robust. Frankly, there are those in society that can speak intelligently about religion, and those who cannot. The difference hinges on one's factual knowledge, but that is not the only thing. There are at least two others:
  • a willingness and ability to enter into the experience, cares, and hopes of a community belonging to another religious tradition, as well one's own (or the tradition of one's family).
  • a grounding of the knowledge of world religions in a critical and philosophical understanding of religion and truth, which excludes prima facie neither the relevance of any particular tradition, nor the legitimacy of radical fidelity to a single tradition.
The second point perhaps needs clarification. In brief, it might be summarized as the stressing of a relatively recent philosophical discovery: that secularism (in the form of agnosticism, materialism, pluralism, or any other non-practice or non-belief) is not inherently more "objective" in its view of the world's religions than any other religious tradition.

Secularism does not correspond to the absence of bias and irrational belief that popular culture has assigned to it. It is not a "safe haven" from superstition, from unproven and unprovable doctrines, or error, any more than religious belief. Like a religion, western secularism has a foundation of doctrines which are not based on the scientific method; however, unlike religion, secularism is based on the prejudice in favor of constricting all knowledge to the scientific method.

Whether one is biased or not, intolerant or not, fair or not, ignorant or not, has less to do with whether one is religious, or with what tradition they cling to, than it does with how well they have developed the skill set of investigation, exploration, and understanding of religions--not to mention the virtues of patience, empathy, openness, and faith.

To be sure, not all traditions, including western secularism, lend themselves equally well to the task of learning about world religions. Coincidentally, both secularism and Christianity lobby the same critique at each other with respect to this task: neither can ultimately enter into the pluralistic arena with the serious intention of accepting another tradition as being true (at least in a way that would leave their own founding dogmas to be false). Both of these ideological starting points, as well as all others universally, begin by assessing the world's traditions in terms of how closely they represent values akin to one's own. Thus secularism will show appreciation for Buddhism's inherent synchretism, tolerance, and pantheism; while Christianity will appreciate Buddhism's monastic tradition, its relativization of worldly goods, and its ancient philosophical pedigree; but both will find something to disagree with.

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