July 25, 2011 — Religious beliefs are firmly felt, central to one's identity and emotion-laden for many people of all ages, and certainly for college students. In pluralist America, college classes inevitably bring together students with a variety of religious beliefs, and discussing those beliefs can feel like trying to disarm a bomb, being careful not to cross the "wrong wires" regarding students' convictions, explained Charles Mathewes of the University of Virginia.
How to deal with that challenge is one of several key topics being discussed at a U.Va.-hosted Study of Religion summer seminar for college and university faculty, led by Mathewes and Kurtis Schaeffer, religious studies professors in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. The three-week seminar began July 11 and wraps up this Friday.
U.Va. won the honor of hosting this first-of-its-kind seminar, funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, for several reasons, Mathewes said.
The Department of Religious Studies is the largest of its kind at an American public university, and one of the largest departments of religious studies in the world, with roughly 40 full-time faculty.
The department also offers the full range of commonly used approaches to the study of religion, including historical and sociological, literary and textual, as well as philosophical and theological, making U.Va. an ideal host of big-picture consideration of how to teach religion.
The academy – outside of religion departments – had relatively little interest in religion for much of the 20th century, but in the past two decades, interest in religion has exploded across the academy, Schaeffer said. "Every field today is studying religion. It's one of the hottest topics out there."
Among the seminar's 17 participants from across the country, about half are faculty or researchers in religion departments, and half are from other disciplines including anthropology, sociology, political science, English and history.
"Our primary goal is to introduce teachers and researchers to the debates that are happening now in the study of religion, and have happened in the past," Schaeffer said. "Things that we argue about now have their origins in the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century in Europe, and the emergence of modern science in Europe. Those are still things that we're grappling with today."
One of the turning points in those debates was Thomas Jefferson's revolutionary decision to found the University of Virginia free of any religious affiliation. As a result, U.Va. did not originally offer any sort of theological or Bible studies, leaving that instead to the many existing seminaries and religiously affiliated schools, as then-U.Va. trustee James Madison explained in a famous 1823 letter to an overseer of Harvard College, Mathewes said.
Madison observed, in a memorable turn of phrase, that if U.Va. elected to include religious courses in its curriculum, it would either have had to favor one sect over others, or it would have turned the university into "an Arena of Theological Gladiators."
"We are still wrestling with this Jeffersonian/Madisonian legacy," Mathewes said. " How do you understand the study of religion in today's much more pluralist society? How do you do that in a way that genuinely allows learning to happen, and does not devolve into talk-show bloviating or outright yelling at each other? Those are quite important questions for the academy, and for the nation, and maybe for the world."
"This has been a great opportunity to step back from our detailed studies and think across disciplines about the big issues facing us," said seminar participant John Seitz, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University.
So how does a teacher best deal with students feeling their beliefs threatened when they learn that their own religious tradition includes variations that differ from their personal convictions?
There are at least two ways that religion courses handle that challenge, Schaeffer explained. The class may use a historical or anthropological lens that places the study of religion within the study of culture and examines how a religion was practiced in the past and the different ways it is practiced today.
A course may also more directly confront students' personal religious upbringing, by examining how various religious convictions are based in a series of arguments within a religious tradition, and how such arguments and related presuppositions gave rise to competing sects and convictions.
In both cases, Schaeffer said, the goal is for the student to have more humility and take less for granted.
"The more history you know," Mathewes said, "the more aware you are of the particularity and the peculiar contingencies of your tradition – which doesn't necessarily undermine them – it renders you more aware of them, and the notion that others have lived viable forms of human life without sharing those traditions."