Posted by: Heathen | October 10, 2008

Teaching Comparative Religion in a College Setting

Last week, I got called up for an interview at a local community college to teach a course in Comparative Religion.  In anticipation  and preparation of my already completed interview, I scribbled down some notes about the way I would structure such a course.  One can say that this was my aspiration/vision/pedagogical method/teaching goals as a potential instructor in Comparative Religion. I trust that the reader will forgive me for my sometimes grammatical and structural flaws as this was written during a “flow of consciousness” moment:

Comparative Religion Instructor Aspirations

In a postmodern and increasingly globalized world, it is extremely important to engage in the study comparative religion. The old saying that “religion is irrelevant” or outdated has proven to be wrong. On the contrary, religion and belief in God(s) are stronger than ever. We see people talk about religion all the time, for good or ill. Thus, at the risk of cocooning oneself or being ignorant to the other, teaching a course on comparative religions is vital in order to make sense of what people believe and how cultures and identities are shaped by such traditions. I’m not pretending that this would be an exhaustive study on the world’s religions, but it will provide the student to be more sensitive to a religious tradition that is not of his/her own. Ultimately, studying another religion can give us a clearer perspective of ourselves and how we should relate to others.

As one that is heavily influenced by postcolonial theory, it is naïve to think that we can objectively compare religions. Indeed, we must ask what and why we are comparing the religions with. What are the power relations that are involved in the process? Are we seeking a “universal” commonality within the religions studied? I hope that with this course, I am able to instill to students that we have to be careful in naming and making blanket statements about other religions, while at the same time holding in tension the “generalizations” that must come in to play in an intro course. I am also well aware of the potential for commodifying and highjacking other people’s religious traditions without knowing the cultural/social/historical backgrounds that are associated with them. Such New Age and hyper-individualistic take on religions are to be avoided. Again, my interest in postcolonial theory will serve to highlight this.

Rather than considering religion solely within the purview of theology, which is largely a Christian project, I want students to study religions as there are – and trying hard not to equate, say the Amida Buddha as Jesus, or that all concepts of an afterlife is akin to the Christian faith, OR that all religions needed to have a historical/chronological account in order to be more “truthful.”  This approach encourages openness to new, different, and alternative formations of religious belief and practice. Of course, the question that follows from this is, what is the distribution between content and comparison? After all, you cannot do the comparison without the content. These are the tensions that I would like to hold up.  In short, I want the class to study religions for what they are, and not evaluating them through Judeo-Christian eyes.

I also want to bring up the issue of doctrine/abstract religions and lived religions. One can always teach a religion class based solely on its doctrines and teachings. The meat of the religion, in my opinion, is the lived aspect of it. Indeed, there is a fundamental difference between these two categories, and I intend to highlight such demarcations. This is not to say that all religions are flawed, but merely pointing out that religions are often dynamic and organic; with its teachings and doctrines interacting with its followers.

Assignments – No MCQs. I don’t believe in a student regurgitating information and mindless memorization of facts. Written assignments thus, are a must. Plus, I do not mind take home written exams.

One of the assignments would encapsulate the student’s ability to grasp the material and apply them with a creative “twist” by writing a “creative historical fiction” essay. These can range from writing “diaries,” news reports,  fictional stories, etc. with regards to a world religion. For example, the student can write a dialogical account of a forum between Ehud Barak, Osama Bin Laden and Jerry Falwell about Islam and/or Christianity regarding the question of revelation and truth. Subsequently, one can also imagine oneself as a high caste Brahmin in India writing a letter to his son’s “conversion” to Buddhism. Or, a Polish Jew in living in the US grappling with God’s  relation to the people of Israel upon hearing news of the concentration camps in Europe in the 40s. I also want to use the media and have them evaluate not only movies, but how religion is viewed by the public. There may also be group projects where a group “designs” a religion undergoing certain “criterias.” Subsequently, I am not opposed to location reports to temples/synagogues/churches, but I’m not too sold on that idea.

I think it is important also to approach the class in a dialogical manner. I’d rather prefer to engage in discussion with the students instead of a straight up lecture class. Each student bring about them a unique perspective from their social location. It is my hope that a “web style” class discussion and environment would begin to foster, through the interactions with students. Of course, sometimes this doesn’t work. So a backup plan is always vital.

Some tentative texts that I would like to assign for the course:

“Religion and Empire,” by Richard Horsley

“Night,” by Elie Wiesel

“Global Religions: An Introduction,” by Mark Juergensmeyer

“Introducing Liberation Theology,” by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff

“Darsan,” by Diana Eck

And of course, something on Chinese Religions/Buddhism – maybe an amalgamation of these two particularly in Chinese cultures where religions are appropriated quite easily.


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