Delicate Matters of Faith

Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger ran an op-ed piece by Phyllis Zagano entitled “Teaching how, not what, to think.” The essay concerns a tale of two professors, one at the University of Illinois and one at Seton Hall. Both have come under fire for teaching on the issue of gay marriage, one from, one against, a Catholic viewpoint. Zagano’s point of view, evident from her title, is that professors should teach students how to think, but not what to think.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching religious studies. I am in my eighteenth year of teaching in the field. In that time I have taught at both religious and secular schools and, in both settings, presented the material objectively. There are those in both settings who complain. Students at Nashotah House frequently wanted me to bend the Bible to fit conservative Anglo-Catholic teaching. Under immense logical pressure to accept what reason told them of the world, they wanted an authoritative book to back them up in a pre-decided outlook. A theological ace of spades to trump the uncomfortable conclusions of rationality. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and at Rutgers University students frequently want to know my religious outlook so that they might know how to categorize what they are learning: is it sanctioned or is it anathematized? We need to know who you are so we can evaluate your authority in such delicate matters as faith.

I frequently ponder the issues raised by Zagano. I know of no other field of study where the stakes are so high, with the possible exception of political science. Religion is an all-encompassing phenomenon. All of life must conform to religious teaching, often with eternal consequences. It therefore makes an enormous difference what you are being taught. Like Zagano, I try to teach students to think for themselves. Both at the seminary and university I refused to reveal my personal outlook on the issues; I try to kick-start the thinking process. I have paid the price for this in the past, but it is a non-negotiable component of education. If the truth is uncomfortable, it is always possible to let someone else do the thinking for you.

7 responses to “Delicate Matters of Faith

  1. Interestingly, I found a similar experience when studying the socio-natural sciences in the field of Geography. I this case, it was the political (not religious) colouring of data that was employed by various “scholars” to contribute to the discipline. I found myself trying to “gte behind” the likely political persuasions of my teachers, in order to understand where some of their conclusions were comgin from, especailly when I saw the data as being vague or inconclusive (a position which was probably coloured by my own political assumptions!)


    • This is one of the most important reasons to keep one’s personal opinions out of the classroom, as a teacher. I tell my students, “you don’t get upset when a chemistry professor tells you what happens when you mix x with y, so why be upset when you learn who wrote the Bible?”


  2. I, for one, am forever grateful for the way you taught the Hebrew Bible.


    • Thanks, Vicki.

      You were one of the few who, in my opinion, really “got it.” Thanks for the encouragement. I’m still doing the same thing, but in a much larger setting.


  3. In your experience, what do you think entices students to take religion classes? And what lessons do you think students walk away learning?


    • Chris,

      It is just a guess on my part (I’ve been teaching religion in secular schools for about 5 years now), but I think there is a real interest in religion among students. I find that many of my students (my Rutgers classes almost always exceed the cap of 40 per class for adjuncts) are genuinely curious about the material. No doubt, some think religion is an easy subject to get a good grade in, but from the questions and comments I get, I believe undergrads really question what religions are all about. In my best assessment, I would judge that most students come from a Christian background, but I also get significant numbers of Jewish, Hindi, and Muslim students each semester. Some of my relatives who are associated with secular schools are amazed that so many students are interested, but to me it really is no surprise. Rutgers in New Brunswick fills six sections of Hebrew Bible every regular semester and I offer the course in both summer and winter terms as well. There are a similar number of Christian Scriptures/New Testament courses filled, not to mention the several other departmental offerings. It is a field students really want to know about but administrations tend to slight since it doesn’t really make much money for the university.

      Does this help?


  4. Henk van der Gaast

    You know, its so hard to teach religion as it pertains to the end product monotheistic and tritheistic cultures unless there is a geography component.

    Every time I look I see the subject getting bigger and more worthwhile.

    I am sure Steve doesnt want 80 geriatrics like I filling his lectures 3 times a day. Mind you, we have the sandwiches and thermoses with tea… we dont need breaks..or calculators


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