Philosophy of Education:

Religion and Religions (including Islamic Studies)

Why teach world religions? (1) They are there. (2) They are here. (3) They enrich as well as challenge Christian witness. (4) Their storytellers are people Jesus loved with his own life. (5) They call for understanding, discernment, appreciation, correction, appropriation, and mission according to the good news of Jesus Christ. "For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth  as indeed there are many gods and many lords  yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through who are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Cor. 8:5-6).

Approaching a neighbor. "Not all possess this knowledge" (1 Cor. 8:7). Teaching world religions is easier said than done. Like all education, it must cohere both with the subject itself, and with the other subjects of Christian liberal arts education.

To teach a course on another tradition, say Islam, demands great respect for Muslim self-understanding  for Islam "on its own terms." This means treating the tradition as more than a set of ideas or doctrines. It involves exposure to adherents, practices, concrete history, diverse expressions, and primary source texts. It is an introduction to real forms of life, not an ideological construction. An indispensable course assignment is a written reflection on student experiences attending community or worship events in the traditions we are studying.

Likewise, merely cataloging similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity "from the Christian perspective" makes Islam out to be an incoherent and inferior imitation of Christianity. It constructs a straw man that makes as little sense to Muslims as it does to Christians. Cataloging its features "objectively" fatally reduces both traditions to specific instances of a generalized modern construction called "religion." (Whether religion here is understood in terms of cognition or experience is immaterial.) Islam (and Christianity for that matter) is not just an instance of something broader. Both these taxonomic approaches fail to address the temptation to distort a tradition by making it objects of intellectual or practical imperialism. This tradition stands on its own. Its considerable incommensurabilities place heavy demands on outsiders who want to understand its ways. (Alasdair MacIntyre is a helpful voice here.)

However, to teach a course on Islam demands equal, indeed greater respect for Islam as understood in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. My teaching in dogmatics (Christian doctrine, systematic theology), history (Church history and 'theological history'), comparative religions (Judaism and Islam), and Christian praxis (symbolics, liturgics) appeals to a coherence that is not found entirely in any one modern academic field. Merely presenting a tradition as it understands itself shirks the responsibility of discernment to which all disciples of Christ are called. Moreover, it fails to address the multiculturalist temptation to distort traditions by partitioning them into either equivalent or incompatible domains. Teaching must not encourage our culture's flight to relativism. God has put all things in subjection under his feet.

Even when Christian scholars have said constructive things about rival traditions, as the Catholic Magisterium did in Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, we have usually either preferred either sweeping generalization or idiosyncratic eclecticism to honest, thorough specificity. We have rarely risen even to the example of Thomas Aquinas' appropriation of Islamized Aristotelianism in Summa Contra Gentiles. If I may quote myself from an article on Christian and Muslim efforts to describe each other:

It may be that at best, the [Christian and Muslim] traditions will gain rare converts who continue to appreciate the rationalities of their old traditions, though now understanding them in terms of their new ones. Working together, those new Christians and Muslims may be able to comprise a sort of bilingual community from which to inquire into the positive significance each tradition has for its rival, beyond its mere act of surrender. Neither [the Muslim theologian  Alija  Ali] Izetbegovic nor the Maximalist school of Roman Catholicism has yet arrived at that extraordinary depth of insight. However unintentionally, each would still play the part of [The Taming of the Shrew's] Petruchio to the other's Katharina.

Many students are evangelical imperialists. Many others are post-evangelical relativists (the terms are from James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Witness: Systematic Theology vol. 3). The cultural forces reinforcing both temptations are strong. Each camp alienates the other and distracts the class from its true mission. Resisting both imperialism and relativism is a daunting theological, intellectual, spiritual, pastoral task. I take it with the utmost seriousness.

Because of the influence of all these methodologies, educating students inevitably involves the task of identifying and assessing earlier approaches to "world religions." This gives them critical leverage when interacting with the course materials (and their professor). It also defuses some of the cynicism many have acquired from exposure to poor narrations of other traditions in school or at church, and creates new receptivity to faithful, bold, sensitive thinking.

McClendon's own contribution to the discussion is a complex, rich, subtle, mature theology of culture that struggles to avoid both imperialism and relativism. One of its metaphors for the conversation between the gospel and its inevitably religious cultural contexts is Jesus' parable of the sower (Mark 4:2-9), in which the Word is sown on four kinds of soil, each of which responds and interacts with the good news in its own way. This picture models analysis of the soils of world religions and reminds analysts that the goal of their efforts is not just a personally fulfilling education, but a rich harvest in the Kingdom.

Depth through specificity. I have chosen Islam for my example because I know it best. However I have appealed to a concrete example because my teaching stresses the specificity of these discrete traditions. Courses in a few traditions (such as Judaism and Islam or Hinduism and Buddhism) as well as courses in many (such as World Religions) must strive for fostering depth, not merely breadth, of understanding. I would rather students understand one other tradition well than many other traditions poorly. Interreligious inquiry's urgent comparative and synthetic questions are best addressed at the actual places where two traditions meet, not in some abstract field of religions in general.

A course in world religions, and even a more specialized course on major "eastern" or "western" traditions, cannot possibly produce the sophistication and sensitivity required to do justice to whole traditions that have driven human societies and imaginations for centuries. It cannot even do justice to one. However, it can sketch broad contours, point out failures, pose helpful questions, offer more promising frameworks, and  most importantly  appeal to the universality of God s purpose, the good news, the great commission, the history of salvation, the atonement, Christian hope, academic honesty, and epistemological humility.

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