Is There a Religion in This Class?

I’m participating in a colloquy on Religious Commitments in the Undergraduate Classroom at theĀ Wabash Center for Teaching and LearningĀ in Theology and Religion. Here are the guiding questions:

    • Should we treat religious commitments differently from other personal commitments?
    • Is their presence in the undergraduate classroom problematic or can they enrich learning?
    • How might teachers and students navigate personal religious commitments in the undergraduate classroom, and beyond?

Theses questions are particularly pertinent for me. My training and my personal inclination tell me to keep religious commitments out of the classroom. We are there to study religion, not to examine our personal beliefs. Religious Studies is supposed to be objective and academic, not subjective and confessional.

In reality, however, we all bring our religious commitments to class. Students don’t want to stop with the history of Western Religions or textual analysis of the Gospels. They want to explore their own beliefs. Christians want to connect with the life of Jesus; agnostics are considering conversion to Judaism; atheists want to know why so many people seek answers in religion rather than science. They learn best when they have a personal interest in the subject matter, and in my courses their personal interest is often religious.

So, how to navigate religious commitments in a religious studies classroom? How to acknowledge that we all have such commitments; that they affect our perspectives no matter how unbiased we try to be; that to put them on the table is to invite discomfort, dissension, and political maneuvering?

I have spent most of the summer pondering these questions. Yesterday, the first day of class, I still didn’t have an answer. So I asked my students: Given that we all have some sort of personal stake in the subject matter of this course, how can we create a class that we’ll look forward to attending?

The answer, I discovered, looks something like this:

This looks like a way forward — a way for human beings with religious commitments to discuss religion without the conflicts that have made it a forbidden topic in most other social settings. Maybe we can bring our religious commitments to the table and still enjoy the main course: the academic study of religion.



About Jocelyn McWhirter

Jocelyn McWhirter is the Stanley S. Kresge Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.
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