What’s on offer in a university course about religion?
There are two approaches to the study of religion—one is devotional and one is academic. The devotional approach is ancient and the academic is fairly recent (less than 200 years old). The devotional approach is conducted by caretakers of religion and the academic approach is undertaken by critics of religion.
Unfortunately the term ‘critic’ portrays the academic as ‘fault-finder.’ But this is not necessarily the case. It’s more accurate to see the ‘critic’ as a person offering penetrating analyses of religious ideas and religious practices without the demand for belief in those religious ideas and practices.
A university course in religion, taught by a Ph.D., should entail the following:
One, the devotional view must be related. A professor should offer a report of each religion as believed and practiced by the members of that religion, offering the origins of the religion, its history over centuries or decades, its holy books, its notable personalities, its material culture. If there are enough sects within a given religion, every aspect of this study could be debatable, but the most common story should be told. A professor obviously cannot be a devotee of all the religions under revue, but it is enough if the professor accurately describes the religions so that any members of these religions in the lecture hall will nod in approval. Even when offering the devotional view, a professor should not assume the role of cheerleader or caretaker for religions, as if the class is a ‘religion appreciation course’ (similar to art appreciation classes).Two, the academic view must be related. A professor should report on the academic study of the religions as conducted by thousands of Ph.Ds in all the major universities of the West. Without this component, and if reporting only the devotional story, the class is not a university course of study but a catechetical, devotional one. Oftentimes the academic story clashes with the devotional story—on points of historicity, on the dating of ancient sacred texts, on the authorship of ancient sacred texts, on the accuracy of hand-written transmission of sacred texts over centuries, on miracles, on revelation, and on any and all aspects of the religion.
Three, devotional and academic must be blended together. As an example, if Christianity is being studied, a devotional approach could relate the biography of Jesus with a collated story from all four gospels, as a Hollywood production might. On a wholly different day, the professor must expose the class to the critical, academic approach to the gospels as non-eye-witness accounts, as historically dubitable christological depictions of Jesus. Such a message may not find nods of approval in the classroom, and the professor must be made of cast iron at these moments and not soften the scholarship so as to coddle the lecture hall. As another example, if Judaism is being studied, a devotional approach may relate the general outline of the Genesis narrative about the patriarchs and matriarchs, stories that will excite interest in Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. But on another day, the critical academic story must be told—of the late dating of the text that precludes Mosaic authorship, of motifs borrowed from other ancient cultures, of the patriarchs and matriarchs being legendary non-historic characters, of problems with the accurate transmission of the biblical texts over millennia of hand-copying.
Every religion is to be studied in this way. The devotional view is necessary to the understanding of religion, but the academic view is absolutely obligatory if a course is to rise to the level of being called a University Class on Religion.
Featured image ‘Marquette Classroom’ by Marquette University via Flickr