On Teaching Christianity

Colleges shouldn't be afraid of adding theological approaches to the dominant sociological or historical focus, writes Adam Kotsko.

February 18, 2010

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 für sich.


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