On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

A Seminar in "Teaching Religion Critically"

By John H. Smith

Were I of a conspiratorial bent, I might start believing that my involvement with the UCI-Santa Ana Teachers Institute was master-minded by invisible forces, leading me, a hapless Harrison Ford, down a path that ends with total immersion in the program. B ut I suppose I have to recognize that there was no plot, just a stimulating program that knew how to capture my interests.

My first real contact with the UCI-Santa Ana Teachers Institute was a meeting called by the faculty director on campus back in Fall, 1999. The goal was to introduce the program to a range of professors. It was supposed to be merely “informative.” (Here ’s where conspiracy theories seem to work.) But at the end of the meeting, we went around the room stating briefly what we would offer as a seminar were we to offer one. In spite of the insistence on the subjunctive mood (I explained that I did not have time for such a seminar, but went on to describe one I might teach should things change), some of us found ourselves hooked, or at least intrigued, by the idea.

I was then fortunate enough to accompany a small delegation of UCI colleagues to the Institute meeting at Yale in October, 1999. Feeling at first like an outsider, I very quickly got pulled further and deeper into the organization. What most im-pressed me there was first of all the clear vision of the program to create a space and climate on university campuses where teachers could reinvigorate their academic spirits. Moreover, the actual interactions at the New Haven meeting convinced me that the prog ram knew how to realize that vision since the teachers offered outstanding presentations and ran the show. Unlike so many academic conferences I have attended, this one was marked by a distinctive collegiality and emphasis on dialogue.

Given these experiences, there was little doubt in my mind that the earlier use of the subjunctive would give way to a definite indicative mood when I was approached to submit potential seminar topics later that Fall. The teachers I had met in New Have n were so dedicated and eager that I wanted to work with them in a class.

Beginning in March, 2000, then, I offered a seminar entitled “Teaching Religion Critically.” Our goal was to address issues involving teaching about religion in public education and then to read a variety of texts from modern European thinkers who have reconceptualized, often in a critically, the way we approach religion. Those participating taught in schools at all levels, ranging from kindergarten to high school. We were all motivated by the notion that we do our students a disservice by not teaching ideas from religious traditions, although how we do that appropriately is extremely difficult to carry out.

The seminar itself follows an important trajectory on religious thought, beginning in the sixteenth century and going up through our own time. This trajectory might be considered a “slippery slope” in the following sense: The thinkers (mostly philosoph ers) we read generally were attempting to offer secure grounds for religious faith, grounds that could be accepted not only “on faith” but also rationally; and yet, precisely these efforts often generated further arguments that ultimately led to the “deat h of God.” Hence, we see first how Erasmus, as opposed to Luther, begins to look at the Bible with the linguistic and philological tools of Humanism, thereby opening up (as Luther feared!) the floodgates of criticisms of Scripture as a historical document . By the late eighteenth century, writers such as Lessing and Kant accepted such criticisms and turned to moral rather than scriptural arguments for the existence of God and the lessons of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But this turn to ethics was one hu ndred years later in turn undermined by the attacks that Nietzsche and others waged against the dominant system of morality. In short, early efforts by religiously inclined thinkers to grasp religion rationally helped pave the way toward what has been cal led “secular humanism.”

The reason we traced this path is so that we can understand better both the origins of our own age and the debates that continue to be waged around issues of religion. Always in the background for us in our discussions was the question of how public ed ucation, indeed education in general, lies at the fault line where larger questions collide. After all, if one of the points of education is to teach young people to use their minds critically, and if the tradition we’ve studied indicates what happened to religious thought when studied rationally, then we need to inquire what and how we can teach about religion in schools.

Rarely have I so looked forward to a class every week! In keeping with my understanding of the Institute’s mission, the seminar was not designed to offer concrete “in-service” instruction about how to teach this material in class. Indeed, the readings were much to difficult for most school classrooms. Rather, our weekly focus was on our own intellectual engagement with the ideas. We grappled with, and argued about, some of the most important ideas in the modern Western tradition, from free will and gra ce to “God is dead,” from historical critiques of the Bible to the relationship between religion and morality. The success of the seminar is measured, in my eyes, by the development of one middle school teacher who began by doubting she could complete the course (“It’s been a long time since I’ve read philosophy…”) yet who found herself interesting her colleagues back in school in the subject matter (“We talked in the teachers’ lounge today about my reading of Nietzsche…”).

The curricular units varied considerably in approach and content, depending on the levels for which they were intended. Teachers in the middle schools, for example, tended to go in two directions. Either they worked on building out their “world civiliz ation” units with more work on world religions or they developed topics on tolerance and intolerance from a religious perspective. (These latter units were particularly interesting and challenging. Many teachers know now better how to approach matters of race, gender, and ethnicity, but religious tolerance is in some ways more difficult to discuss.) The high school teachers were able to work with some of the materials we discussed in class. One teacher will be able to use Nietzsche as a background when sh e teaches Camus and existentialism; another will use the Erasmus/Luther debates on the free will as background to his classes on Shakespeare; and a third will bring in structural arguments on “consumerism as a religion” when she does critical “readings” o f contemporary culture.

On the basis of my experience this year, I have proposed to teach a seminar next year that raises the question of how to introduce fundamental religious scriptures (the Bible, the Koran, the Veda, Buddhist teachings) into the classroom. In short, I am hooked by the concept of the Institute and especially by my concrete interactions with the teachers. Unlike Harrison Ford, who liberates himself from the frame he found himself in, I am very happy with the way I have been drawn into this pr ogram, step by step, sometimes almost against my will. Now, it is definitely my decision to stay with it.

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© 2001 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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