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Brandon Withrow on Cultivating Empathy in the Academic Study of Religions

Brandon Withrow has written a great piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on his empathetic approach to the academic study of religions within the context of theological seminaries and divinity schools.  He writes,

Classrooms can be places of real education, but they can also be camps for dogma. And that’s troubling. Many seminary students are second-career individuals, so this may be the only time a professor gets to open the door to new insights before the students trek off to their ministries, where they will be looked to by parishioners as experts. Unless seminary professors put our students (and ourselves) under the microscope, examining the motivations and commitments behind our beliefs, we will be creating monsters, un-self-aware and unchallenged ministry leaders with a dangerous stamp of approval provided by their seminary degrees.

How can a seminary maintain its theological commitments and fidelity to its charter to train ministers for specific faith traditions while also engaging with other faiths in an open, honest, self-aware, and (self-)critical way?  Withrow makes four key suggestions:

  • Acknowledge your own limitations and personal intellectual revelations. Students can (and do) look for mentors in their professors, so if we pretend to have absolute infallibility—or act like complete tools—we should not be surprised when we discover little clones doing the same. There is nothing wrong with students knowing that their professors have their own questions, doubts, or limitations. We should model humility and self-examination if we want to see it in our students.
  • Not all books on world religions are equal. To see another perspective, students need guidance in finding quality sources for research. If they need to understand or discuss the views of another person or belief system, they should be required to read books from that perspective, rather than critiques of that perspective by its opponents….
  • Lectures and books are helpful, but nothing replaces the opportunities that come from face-to-face conversation….
  • Make the classroom an active, small-group learning experience. Have students discuss a controversial subject or reading. It often surprises certain students to learn that there are disagreements on beliefs or ideas that had seemed extremely clear and simple…. Rather than pushing students to believe one proscribed doctrine, there is more value in leading them to the possibility that the world is bigger and more complicated than they had previously imagined. In that approach, the classroom becomes a human laboratory, where each person’s perspective is a chemical waiting to be mixed with another. That can lead to fresh ideas or explosive conversation; either way, something is discovered and learned….

I think it should be noted, too, that Withrow’s suggestions are badly needed within secular, state university religious studies departments, as well.  While most such departments began their lives as places where individuals could deepen their own religious commitments while encountering practitioners of other faiths, such departments have almost completely shifted from focusing on the practice of various faiths to theorizing about them, and such theorizing is done from the only standpoint that secularism can acknowledge, namely, methodological (if not ideological) naturalism.  From such a vantage point, all religions come to look like constellations of intellectual and cultural quirks that sane, sophisticated, secular people will shrug off (or, at the very least, significantly temper).  Secularity of this sort is as damaging a dogmatism as any other, and academic teachers of world religions would do well to follow Withrow’s suggestions.

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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