Passing a Roman Catholic bookshop not long ago, I noticed a window display of books by and about Pope Benedict XVI, including a volume of interviews done back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The acquisitive urge was short-circuited by the fact that the store was closed. And in any case, I'll probably get an earful about his doctrines and policies soon enough from my mother-in-law. She's a Vatican II-type liberal who writes for a dissident Catholic newspaper, of the kind likely to be amused by the rumor that the new pontiff's "street name" is Joey Rats.
Eventually, the right combination of free time and impulse book-buying will make it feasible to catch up with the pope's thinking straight from the source. But for now, it's interesting to see that the summer issue of New Perspectives Quarterly has an interview about Benedict XVI with the literary theorist René Girard, who is now professor emeritus in French at Stanford University.
The introduction to the interview describes him as a professor of anthropology -- a mistake, but an interesting one.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Girard published a series of analyses of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Proust (among others) that foregrounded their preoccupation with desire, envy, and imitation. He found that there was a recurrent structure in their work: a scenario of what he called "triangular" or "mimetic" desire. Don Quixote offers a fairly simple example. The would-be knight feels no particular longing for Dulcinea. Rather, he has thrown himself into a passionate imitation of certain models of what a knight must do -- and she's as close to a damsel as circumstances allow.
Girard argued that, at some deep level, all of human desire is like that. We learn by imitation -- and one of the things we learn is what, and how, to desire. (Hence, I didn't so much want that book in the window for its own sake, but as a means to triumph in the struggle for the position my wife calls "Ma's favorite son-in-law.")
For the most part, we are blind to the mediated nature of desire. But the great writers, according to Girard, are more lucid about this. They reveal the inner logic of desire, including its tendency to spread -- and, in spreading, to generate conflict. When several hands reach for the same object, some of them are bound to end up making fists. So begins a cycle of terror and retaliation; for violence, too, is mimetic.
By the 1970s, Girard had turned all of this into a grand theory of human culture. He described a process in which the contagion-like spread of mimetic desire and violence leads to the threat of utter social disintegration. At which point, something important happens: the scapegoat emerges. All of the free-floating violence is discharged in an act of murder against an innocent person or group which is treated (amidst the delirium of impending collapse) as the source of the conflict.
A kind of order takes shape around this moment of sacrificial violence. Myths and rituals are part of the commemoration of the act by which mimetic desire and its terrible consequences were subdued. But they aren't subdued forever. The potential for a return of this contagion is built into the very core of what makes us human.
Girard's thinking has not changed much in the 30 years or so since he published Violence and the Sacred, which appeared in France in 1972 and in an English translation from Johns Hopkins University Press in 1977. He has restated his theory any number of times, drawing in material from the various social sciences as evidence. He has spelled out some of its theological implications -- which, in Girard's own telling anyway, are profoundly Christian. He wasn't a believer when he started thinking about mimetic desire, but became a Catholic somewhere along the way. (Girard's readers have a right to expect a detailed spiritual autobiography, at some point.)
It isn't necessary to share Girard's creed to find his work of interest -- though I must admit to some uncertainty, after all this time, about how to classify his system of thought. You can trace some of his ideas back to Hegel (desire for the desire of the other), or sideways to George Bataille and Kenneth Burke (who both wrote about scapegoating). But there's also something reminiscent of Middlemarch about the whole thing, as if Girard were trying to finish Edward Casaubon's "Key to All Mythologies."
Girard has a small academic following, organized as the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which produces an interdisciplinary journal called Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. And there's a useful annotated bibliography of works by and about him available online.
The interview in this summer's issue of New Perspectives Quarterly is interesting, not just for Girard's comments on the new head of his own church, but for his thoughts on the dangers of mimetic desire in a global marketplace. One counterintuitive element of Girard's theory is that scapegoating is not the product of difference. Rather, he holds that mimetic desire and the resulting cycle of conflict tend to reduce people to the same level. (The moment of savage violence against the scapegoat is an effort to create a difference, a structure, an order in the chaos of sameness.) That would be the dark side of Tom Friedman's peppy thesis about how the world is now "flat."
The interview is also striking for Girard's full-throated proclamation that Christianity, alone among religions, can face the truth about mimetic desire. In a smart and welcome move, the editors of the Quarterly have invited the comments of someone from another religious tradition with very definite ideas about the intimate relationship between desire and human misery, Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Submitted by Alex Golub on November 2, 2006 - 4:00am
Inside Higher Ed's recent article on the prevalence of religion on campus came as no surprise to me. Although it has been about a month since the article came out, I still think that the time is ripe for me to make a confession: I actively incorporate the gospel of Christ into my teaching -- although not for the reason you might think.
I myself am not Christian -- as some readers may remember, I'm Jewish. I am, however, a passionate choral singer with an interest in music of the Baroque and Renaissance, and it is hard to find secular ensembles that perform this repertoire. As a result I spend a lot of time in church.
After I get done writing this, for instance, I'm off to my second gig of the week -- a compline service sung in candle light featuring a procession (often with handbells), the complete chanted Anglican rite for the office of compline, two anthems, a nunc dimittis, the office hymn (we have over 25 settings of te lucis ante terminum), an orison, and a psalm. The group itself is quite small -- 10 men (countertenors sing the treble parts) who rehearse without accompaniment in a 90-minute rehearsal before our performance.
I'm very proud that I have what it takes to sing in a group that operates at such a professional level. But singing in church means more to me than just pride in my musicianship -- it is part of the more general rapprochement I've had with Christianity. I went to a college where people were more likely to take acid than communion and my last visit to the Bay Area involved stopping at both anarchist communes and picking up equipment to broadcast an illegal radio channel from our car while road tripping up to Burning Man. So you see, attending church seems infinitely more transgressive of my socials norms than does, say, running around naked in the middle of the desert while dosed to the gills on synthetic mescaline.
This generally lefty background, combined with my religious background, means that Christianity was something that I only ever heard about from my friends, whose lifestyles were an elaborate form of rebellion against it. As a result it's been a bit of a surprise to me to discover that the religion had any redeeming features at all. But in fact my time as a chorister has given me the opportunity to meet Christians whose faith has led them to lives of remarkable compassion, caring, and integrity and to appreciate the power and value that the Christian faith has for its followers.
The other thing that singing in church makes you realize about Christians is that they're everywhere. When it first hit me, this revelation filled me with the same shock that fills those ladies in the old Palmolive commercials -- I'm soaking in it! These "palmolive" moments continued into the classroom and it soon became apparent to me that many of my students -- who looked perfectly normal -- actually considered Jesus Christ to be their personal savior.
I quickly noticed that being a Jewish church musician gave me something in common with my Christian students -- indeed, in some strange way I knew more about their religion than they did. This is because I am, like all church musicians, a liturgy junkie. My students think of the celebration we just observed as "Halloween," while for me it was the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. Many of my students know the Lord's Prayer by heart, but few of them can spontaneously spout the text of the Magnificat in both English and Latin. And while I occasionally get a student who knows that Easter is somehow tied to Passover, I've never encountered one who knew that Pentecost was actually Shavuot.
My decision to begin incorporating the anthropology of Christianity into my classes was premised on the belief that, academically speaking, Christianity could be used to soften hands while I did the dishes. That is to say, I realized that I didn't just have to let the fact that my classes were saturated with Christianity go unremarked. Rather than simply soak in it, I could use it to further the goals of the class. Even the fact that my students came from diverse faith backgrounds within and without Christianity could be foregrounded as a way of asking students to think through and share with each other exactly what their beliefs were.
The key, of course, is that the stance we take on Christianity in class be distanced and yet respectful. While I may feel that I'm soaking in it, Christian students see themselves to be an embattled minority in an increasingly secular society full of professors who belittle their beliefs in lectures on evolution and secular humanism. Beating up on my Christian students for their faith in the name of cultural relativism is simply not effective anthropology.
So while I have a gimlet eye for some of Christianity's more incongruous beliefs, I am someone who actively participates in the life of their faith community. I'm the guy who sings motets while everyone else takes communion -- in participant-observation in the classically anthropological sense. This sense of being both insider and outsider helps, I believe, to reassure students that our my analysis of Christianity is not meant to be a partisan exercise either for or against, but a demonstration of the power of social science to make taken-for-granted topics amenable to analysis.
The textbook in my "intro to anthro" class, for instance, has a chapter on the way symbolic action reinforces worldview through the use of compelling and culturally specific metaphors. It then takes examples of rituals from "other" cultures and demonstrates how these seemingly bizarre activities function, once you understand the metaphors at play within them. I, however, have given up teaching the Kwakiutl Cannibal Dance. Now I just teach communion -- my favorite Christian ritual after the procession on Palm Sunday. I begin by taking the belief of Christians that they can be made pure only through the cannibalistic consumption of their deity. How can we account for this belief?
I begin by having students explain what communion is to members of the class who are not familiar with it, and we pause to consider the special fact that practices within Christianity vary greatly from one church to another. This is, literally, anthropology 101: Cultural traditions are not internally homogeneous, but demonstrate a wide variation in practice ranging from Roman Catholics (who do believe themselves literally to be cannibals) to Lutherans (who hedge their bets with consubstantiation) to Mennonites (who may go their whole lives without taking communion).
Next, I begin slowly peeling away at the communion service, pointing out the metaphorical associations of consumption and identification which -- as in most Christian rituals -- derive their power by recreating in the here-and-now of the church an event from the there-and-then life of Jesus (I don't burden the students with technical terms like "metricalization of space" and "distal chronotope"). Students pick this up relatively quickly: In communion the priest is to Jesus at the Last Supper as the congregation is to the apostles, just as in the Palm Sunday processional, the priest becomes Jesus entering Jerusalem just as the congregation becomes the crowd welcoming his entrance into Jerusalem.
The original grounding event of the Last Supper thus becomes the source of a metaphorical identification. This is not the end of the matter, however, since the Last Supper itself is Jesus's own elaborate riff on the festival he was celebrating -- Passover. Passover itself is a here-and-now remembrance of the then-and-there event of the angel of death (creepily represented in The Ten Commandments by colored dry ice) passing over Hebrew houses marked with the blood of a lamb.
Having taken the students back to Exodus, we then begin working forward with the image of the blood of lambs, passing successively through pastoral imagery in the Hebrew Bible, prohibitions on the consumption of blood in Leviticus, and all the way forward again to the Roman Catholic liturgy in which God becomes not the shepherd who makes us to lie in green fields, but the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
I typically wrap up by noting that these metaphors and identifications continue to circulate in our own culture and keep us "soaking" in Christianity. Recently, for instance, I've ended with the new Superman movie, which features a man sent by his omnipotent father to Earth who protects humanity using his supernatural powers, only to be defeated by The Adversary -- Kevin Spacey cum Lex Luthor on a gigantic island made of kryptonite -- but who rises again to triumph in glory and help Kate Bosworth quit smoking.
I think it is one of my better lectures of the semester. I can't take much credit for this fact, however, since the communion service is such a spectacularly well-designed ritual. And of course it's not like I figured all of this symbolism out -- it's a series of connections that Christian theologians have been quite articulate about.
Best of all, this discussion of communion leaves my students turned on to some of the central concerns of my discipline: What is the distinction between "the real" and "the cultural" in a situation where most Christians do not believe in transubstantiation and yet rely on tropes of incorporation (cannibalistically, when Jesus's body enters you, and communally, when this act of alimentation brings you into the "body" of the church) to give their rituals power? How do we characterize the awareness of a participant at a ritual event who "gets it" but may not be able to articulate the play of tropes they experience without their professor's help? What is the status of interpretive social science as a science if it consists (merely?) of re-presenting the knowledge of our informants in a new form?
And speaking of productive tropes -- what sort of metaphorical associations are invoked in my own lecture (a genre that in America at least has an unabashedly homiletic past) when I mobilize the then-and-now of the communion in my role as a maverick Jewish proselytizing for my own brand of human knowing to a classroom full of potential intellectual converts?
Years ago Gerald Graff argued that the best way to deal with the culture wars was to teach them. My own experience with Christianity, as atypical as it is, has led me to see the value of bringing it into the classroom and making it an issue with my students. Like a lot of worthwhile tasks, it's a tricky one. But I believe it's an important one and -- when done correctly -- fun as well. Above all, I think it is best to realize when it comes to religion in our schools, the issue is not necessarily what is being taught, but how it is being approached. After all, America is a country where we are "soaking in it" -- even if we are not as fully immersed as some would like.
While Trinity is thriving, we are part of a sector of American higher education that is increasingly under siege. The nation’s 245 Roman Catholic colleges and universities are heirs to more than a century of progressive efforts to win acceptance in the mainstream of the American academy. The hard and thoughtful work of numerous Catholic scholars and educational leaders in the middle of the 20th century modernized the governance, curricula and scholarly frameworks of our institutions. The previous great generation of Catholic academic and intellectual leaders --- including such luminaries as Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, former Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh, and Trinity’s own President Sister Margaret Claydon -- moved Catholic higher education out of the insular, parochial consequences of this nation’s 19th and early 20th century anti-Catholic, anti-intellectual propensities.
These great leaders of the Vatican II era developed a rich and extensive body of thought supporting the fundamental premise that our faith should not fear freedom, but rather, embrace it; that we must engage with our culture, not shun it; and that Catholic universities must have the same high intellectual standards as all universities, nurturing academic freedom as the bedrock of excellence in scholarship and teaching. The progressive influence of Catholic higher education in the last 50 years propelled lay Catholics into the mainstream of our nation’s social and political life, opening doors to places where once we were held in suspicion or even barred because of rampant religious discrimination.
Today, a half century of progress for Catholic higher education is at risk of slipping back into those insular, parochial pre-Vatican II days. On Sunday, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, a drama unfolded that will affect the future of all Catholic colleges, and, indeed, will affect the place of Catholics in American life. As has been a tradition at the University of Notre Dame, the president of the United States spoke at the university’s commencement.
Notre Dame has invited many presidents in the past without fear or favor regarding their political positions. But the announcement of President Obama’s appearance triggered one of the angriest and most aggressively hostile efforts to block a commencement speaker ever endured by any American university. The fundamental issue is about the Church’s teachings on the right to life and the contrary policies of the Obama Administration. But there’s more to the Notre Dame case than the obvious clash between religious dogma and secular politics.
This is not about bishops exercising their rightful responsibilities to call Catholic institutions to fidelity to Church teachings. Nor is this about the right of individual Catholics to voice concerns about institutional actions. Disagreement and passionate argumentation are a normal part of university life, and religion sharpens the edges of any debate about university activities. For all Catholic universities, close and continuous dialogue with our bishops is an essential part of our stewardship of the Catholic intellectual tradition; Catholic college presidents frequently must exercise prudential judgment in making sure that the local bishop is not surprised by the appearance, if not the reality of dissent from Church teachings in university activities.
But something else is at work in the Notre Dame case.
The real scandal at Notre Dame today is not that the president of the United States spoke at commencement, albeit causing some controversy among Catholics. The real scandal is the misappropriation of sacred teachings for political ends. The real scandal is the spectacle of ostensibly Catholic mobs camping out at Notre Dame for the specific purpose of disrupting the commencement address of the nation’s first African American president. This ugly spectacle is an embarrassment to all Catholics. The face that Catholicism shows to our new president should be one marked with the sign of peace, not distorted in the snarl of hatred.
The religious vigilantism apparent in the Notre Dame controversy arises from organizations that have no official standing with the Church, but who are successful in gaining media coverage as if they were speaking for Catholicism. The media loves nothing more than a good Catholic versus Catholic fight, a self-destructive civil war that has no winners save the anti-Catholic underground that finds joy and vindication in watching Catholics strangle each other with litmus tests about fidelity. The self-appointed “watchdogs” of Catholic higher education also afflict Catholics in political life, acting as grand inquisitors who appear to want nothing more than to drive all Catholics away from public office. They have established themselves as uber-guardians of a belief system we can hardly recognize. Theirs is a narrow faith devoted almost exclusively to one issue. They defend the rights of the unborn but have no charity toward the living. They mock social justice as a liberal mythology.
Catholicism is not a one-issue faith. The social justice teachings that are central to our Church’s moral construction demand that we act in defense of the sacred dignity of all human life, from conception through salvation. Ours is a faith that demands peace and decries unjust war even as we demand that the unborn child have a right to live --- not mere life, but a life that can realize the full potential of the Creator’s divine plan as a matter of justice. Ours is a faith that is profoundly intolerant of racism and the exploitation of women, of poverty and the violence that economic injustice spawns. Ours is a faith that demands a more just sharing of the world’s resources, more pervasive global education to remediate the illiteracy that condemns children to repeat the cycles of poverty of prior generations. Ours is a faith that finds the use of torture for any reason an abhorrent offense against life. Ours is a faith that calls each member to take the option for the poor, to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters on this planet, to exercise the responsibilities of our citizenship fully, to honor the rights and dignity of workers, to be moral stewards of God’s creation --- all in the name of life. This is what it really means to be “pro-life.”
Catholicism is a faith of charity and hope, not hatred, bigotry, self-righteous condemnation. To be Catholic is to embrace the world in all of the remarkable diversity that is part of creation; to be a university is also to embrace the world in the fullness of its intellectual scope and in the endlessness of the human quest for knowledge, meaning and, ultimately, Truth. A Catholic university realizes that the differences of opinion that are the plain reality of human thought are not at all a danger to our faith, but rather, a manifestation of the freedom that God has given to every human being to think, to learn, to engage the quest for that Truth that can never be fully known in this life. Those who claim to know the Truth already claim a power that is God’s alone.
The terrible danger of the siege at Notre Dame, and the ugly specter of Catholic vigilantism’s efforts to intimidate Catholic academic leaders and politicians, is that Catholics will be driven back to the edges of American life, unable or unwilling to be elected to public office, as we once were, unable or unwilling to engage with our colleagues of other faith traditions in the difficult, bruising, uncomfortable yet utterly necessary debates about essential moral issues that contribute to the shape of our society.
The great opportunity in the Notre Dame controversy is the renewal of our commitment to the robust intellectual life of Catholic colleges and universities as the best possible means to ensure the vitality of our faith in public life. If we live the duality of our mission well, neither our freedom nor our faith will suffer harm, and both will be enlarged.
This is a mission that calls us to create campus communities that respect the human person; to minister to the spiritual as well as intellectual needs of these communities; to ensure that the teachings of the Church are fairly and accurately presented. Fidelity to those teachings does not require shunning all other forms of expression. We should make even greater use of the teachable moments when the clash of ideas reveals the need for better research and scholarship on the most critical issues we face, not just as Catholics but as citizens of a very complicated society. Catholic institutions of higher education should be contributing significantly more research and scholarship than we have thus far on those core issues where faith and politics collide: the right to life, economic and social justice, universal education, environmental destruction, equal justice, keeping the peace.
We live our mission as Catholic universities in the sunlight, not in caves; we teach and learn from the center of the culture, not on the margins. Evangelization’s best work occurs in uncharted territories among those who do not share our faith already. We engage every human being who is a child of God and part of his creation; and whether we agree or disagree with that person, every child of God belongs on our campuses. And when that child happens to be the president of the United States, so much the better for the fruitful opportunity to open new avenues of dialogue about the future breadth and depth and moral foundation and legal construction of that Good Society we so earnestly seek.
Here at Trinity, let us take from the controversy at Notre Dame a renewed commitment to give witness to the fullness of our faith tradition, not indulging the moral relativism of repressing faith for the sake of getting along, nor cowering in fear of the moral absolutists who would have us hear no voices but their own. As a Catholic college with a long and proud tradition of educating leaders for the public sector, with a mission commitment to action for social justice that comes to us from our founders, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, we must not shy away from using our intellectual firepower to push the current debate away from the self-destructive precipice of Catholics set against Catholics. We must lead this debate toward the more life-giving mission in true Christian evangelization, teaching all nations the imperatives of justice and peace through which human life will, most assuredly, reap significantly greater protection than the current intractable arguments will ever achieve on their own.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University. This essay is adapted from the commencement address she delivered Sunday to the Trinity Class of 2009.
This year, many of the job listings posted on the American Academy of Religion Web site indicated an interest in "Global Christianity." Many of my younger colleagues agreed with my impression that this trend was simultaneously new — few had heard of the field of "Global Christianity" before, much less specialized in it — and surprisingly pervasive. It appears to refer to something like “Third World” Christianity, which is an increasingly important field of study, and fortunately for me it is one that I have already been engaged in to a certain extent, through my study and teaching of a wide range of liberation theologies from around the world. My colleagues are now helping me to expand from that base to develop a course comparing the spread of liberation theology and Pentecostalism, which would capture a lot of what is going on in Third World Christianity, or at least what is most dynamic.
Thus I am far from objecting to this trend on the level of content — indeed, it would be strange if religion departments did not want to teach such courses. Nevertheless, this sudden vogue discourages me because it seems to be the latest permutation of a long-standing trend: namely, an increasing desire to take an exclusively sociological or historical approach to Christianity, rather than what I would call, at the risk of being misunderstood, a "theological" one. By that I emphatically do not mean an approach that attempts to inculcate belief in God, loyalty to Christ, or membership in any Christian institution. I simply mean a grappling with the texts and concepts of influential Christian thinkers of the past two millennia, in the same way that we would deal with philosophical or literary texts from any cultural or religion tradition.
This trend toward sociology and away from theology is problematic for a number of reasons, most immediately because only a relatively small proportion of scholars of Christianity are equipped for such an emphasis (the primary exception being "Religion in America" specialists, who often cover both Latin America and North America). One could easily see these slots being filled by a succession of one-year appointments due to the under-supply of "real" scholars, something that I’ve come to suspect is at work in the perennial postings for Islam and South or East Asian religions.
From a broader perspective, though, this trend toward sociological or historical approaches seems to me to point toward the fundamental anxiety that attends the teaching of Christianity in any secular setting. We are perfectly able to imagine courses on Buddhist philosophy or rabbinic Judaism — both of which involve what we would call "theological" argument and commentary on authoritative texts — without worrying that this would represent some kind of toehold for religious indoctrination. This remains the case even though there always tend to be at least a handful of college students who will wind up identifying as Buddhist in some sense, including practicing.
The teaching of "religions" generally, then, doesn’t seem problematic. Yet Christianity is somehow different. It’s too close to us all. Those of minority religions or no religious affiliation are constantly reminded of Christianity’s power in the United States, and even many secular agnostics or atheists either had a Christian upbringing or have parents who did. For all other religions, one could imagine, even in America, that the state might go ahead and display some of their symbols as a kind of token of recognition — it’s with Christianity that the doctrine of the separation of church and state really takes on its existential heft. Thus it is understandable that having a professor teaching Christian theology seems to be problematic in a way that teaching Buddhist philosophy or Talmudic exegesis is not.
The tendency, I think, is to try to deal with this difference by denying it in some way — that is, by either not teaching Christianity at all or claiming to treat Christianity like every other religion. Yet the stubborn reality remains that Christianity, for us, really is different. And the way to deal with that difference isn’t to sweep it under the rug or pretend it isn’t there, but to face it head-on. That means teaching the Bible and the Christian theological tradition, neither evangelizing nor denigrating, but using a truly critical approach that moves from the initial sympathy necessary to understand a text on its own terms, through the identification of internal weaknesses, and toward an informed critique drawing on a wide range of textual and historical resources.
Such an approach would by no means exclude sociological or historical discussions, nor would it leave out cross-religious comparisons. One simply can’t understand Christianity without understanding its relationship to Judaism, for instance; the encounter with Islam was also formative, albeit in a different way; and there are good historical reasons to discuss Christianity in relation with "Eastern" religions as well. It is also impossible to imagine dealing responsibly with Christian thought without taking into account the sociological context out of which it grew, and which it in turn helped to shape. For all that, though, one must also attend to the texts and arguments, just as one would need to deal with the texts and arguments of Descartes and Kant in even the most sociologically-informed course on modern thought.
It is very difficult to see how a historically rigorous and broad-based approach to teaching Christian intellectual history could fail to meet academic muster or violate our country’s well-established commitment to the separation of church and state, even in a public university. It is in fact very difficult for me to see how any kind of proselytizing could take place in a secular academic environment at all. Basic tolerance is the bedrock of the contemporary American educational system. In fact, in my experience my students’ commitment to keeping an open mind and valuing others’ opinions is so strong that it’s often difficult to convince them to express straightforward disagreement with each other. We all of course want to avoid the nightmare scenario of a professor who grades on the basis of agreement and attempts to “indoctrinate” students on that basis, but even such a person would most likely wind up doing a disservice to his cause by definitively turning students off to Christianity due to their very healthy aversion to close-mindedness.
This brings me to my next point: I think we need to trust our students’ instincts. If I give them a sympathetic description of the worldview underlying Augustine’s Confessions, or an account of the core convictions that motivated the development of the Trinity, or a particular reading of Paul’s understanding of his mission, are my students then going to become fundamentalists? Are they even going to be more inclined to practice Christianity than they otherwise would be? I would be surprised and even alarmed if someone came out of my classes — which have so far tended to be very "theological" in the sense of being idea-oriented — excited to join up with some institutional form of Christianity, particularly the most destructive forms that are always at the forefront of everyone’s mind when the influence of Christianity comes up. Here again, though, we need to trust students’ discernment. How many of my students are likely to find Pat Robertson, for example, to be a compelling and persuasive spokesman for anything? I would estimate that the answer is zero, and if it’s higher, it’s because those students were already so inclined before they came to my class. We instructors don’t have to make any special effort to keep students from being led astray into the most intolerant and narrow-minded forms of Christianity — the fundamentalists are surely doing a good enough job of it themselves.
In the end, though, it’s not my business what my students do with the knowledge and skills I give them, least of all when it comes to their own spiritual lives or lack thereof. What is my business is giving them the tools they need to take stock of the cultural inheritance that has, for better or worse, been forced on us all, in different ways and to varying degrees, and to open the door for them to consciously and creatively reappropriate elements of that inheritance if they choose or else articulate their reasons for rejecting it entirely. To my mind, such a goal is not only compatible with liberal education, but it is at the very core of what we try to do in the humanities: to help our students come to the point of making their own critical and informed judgments about their stance toward their cultural inheritance, or put differently, to be active rather than passive in their relationship to culture.
I understand that for many, dealing with the Christian aspect of our cultural heritage may be too emotionally charged for a variety of reasons, either because of traumas associated with religion or else because of the fear of "losing one’s faith" through critical investigation. I am very conscious of that reality, and for that reason I would never propose making a course in theology a general education requirement at a secular institution and would in fact fight against any such proposal. Yet even if we can choose to avoid a class on Christian thought, none of us can choose not to have been born into a culture that has been deeply informed by Christianity. There are very good reasons to wish we had not been chosen for this particular inheritance, reasons that should be obvious to us all. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to at least take an inventory. That’s how I view my teaching of the Christian tradition — helping my students to take an inventory. They can’t go back in time and decide not to have received some form of Christian inheritance, in all the varied ways they have received it, but I would hope that after taking my class they are in a better position to decide what to do with it.
Adam Kotsko is visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College. He blogs at An und fÃ¼r sich.