Monday, November 26, 2007

Comparative Religion

I spent a good part of the Thanksgiving weekend preparing to teach CH 462, "Introduction to American Religious Histories" at United Theological Seminary, starting in February 2008. Mostly I was hammering down the details of my course syllabus (what readings and assignments will be due when, etc.), but I also spent a fair amount of time mapping out the class lectures. The scope of the course is every religion in the history of the United States, from the colonial period to the present, so that always presents certain challenges. Preparing for the class led to inevitable wonder at the strange twists and turns of life, and musings about what I, a gay Mormon, might contribute to the formation of future Protestant ministers.

In preparing to teach this class, I actually sought and received a blessing from my bishop. Before giving me the blessing, my bishop actually quizzed me about the circumstances of the teaching assignment. "Do they know that you are gay?" he asked me. "Oh, yes," I replied, "And they even know I'm Mormon." (He didn't even crack a smile. Though when I told the story to a close friend who teaches at the same seminary, he almost fell off his chair laughing.) Among other things, my bishop blessed me with a quickened mind, and the ability to teach in a way that is pleasing both to God and to me. (I was deeply moved that he felt it was as important for me to be pleased with my teaching as it was for God to be pleased!) He also blessed me to show the same love for my students that my Heavenly Father has shown for me. That is what I have turned over and over in my mind the most, ever since.

For me, there is a particular challenge in teaching people about other people's religion. Faith is such a deeply personal, intimate thing. I'm aware that there is huge diversity in how individual Latter-day Saints interpret their own faith (or individual Protestants, or Catholics, or Jews, or... The list goes on. I'm covering 12 major groupings in my course). The differences between individuals within a faith can be almost as great if not greater than the differences between individuals of different faiths. How do you do justice to the specificity of different faiths and also to the diversity within faiths? How do you present someone else's faith in a way that represents them fairly, when you are not a part of that faith and don't appreciate the nuances that they appreciate?

I had an outstanding professor of Chinese history who once told me, "You cannot begin to approach another culture without much prayer and fasting." What he meant is, teaching about another culture or another faith requires utmost humility on the part of the teacher. It must begin with a contrite acknowledgment of how much we do not know. Having seen how Mormonism has been distorted in the teaching and writing of others, I am more painfully aware of this than most might be in my position. So each time I sit down to work on my course prep, there's always a certain amount of "prayer and fasting."

As I have sifted through the resources available to me to teach this course, including the various texts and monographs I will assign my students to read, I have been aware of the very intellectual, very academic framework I am forced to use to approach this. And part of me squirms at the thought of this. This of course must be an intellectual, academic exercise. That's the nature of the beast when teaching any graduate level course. But if it is only that, I believe I will have failed my students.

One of the first things you learn when you start to study religions comparatively is that one function shared by all religion -- no matter what type -- is centering oneself in relation to the divine and to the cosmos, and then, from that centered space, defining and the exploring boundaries. This is what we will be doing in this class, and this is a fundamentally spiritual process. It will make it even more challenging that my "centered space" as a gay Mormon will be different in fundamental ways from the "centered spaces" of my mostly (but not all) Protestant, mostly (but not all) white, mostly (but not all) straight men and women students. It will mean in a significant sense that every class will be an exercise in comparative religion. And I believe that in order for that to work, a unique kind of spiritual practice is required, one that will include learning to understand who we are, even as we approach, with humility and openness, the faith of others.

United Seminary is a very open, inclusive, tolerant place (thus, the gay Mormon teaching American religious histories). Still, I am incredibly grateful for my bishop's blessing. Because more than anything else, this endeavor will require the illuminating guidance of the Spirit, and it will require love.


Pan said...

I went to a forum during my freshman year at BYU by a professor from somewhere midwest who is not a member of the LDS Church but studied at USU and has given Mormon history extensive study (phew, long sentence). He used a lot of academic jargon that got me pretty lost, but I did take away one thing. He said it is unacceptable to study religions and religious people assuming their beliefs are false, because that cannot give you a whole picture. It gives you a cynical, condescending view. We cannot try to understand a person's faith if we presume that they're deluded.

That point opened my horizons, and your thoughts about studying religion in an academic way reminded me of it.

Excellent insights.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Pan. As a Latter-day Saint, I was taught to understand that all people have the light of Christ. We also understand that the Spirit is at work in all nations to lead all of humanity to an understanding of the truth.

Joseph Smith taught that Latter-day Saints should eagerly seek out truth, whatever the source. I particularly love this quote:

"Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace that. Have the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth? Embrace that. Get all the good in the world, and you will come out a pure Mormon."

So for me, there is an imperative for the Saints to humbly seek understanding from people of other faiths. As I have read the sacred texts of other religions and learned more about their faith, I always feel my own faith and understanding is deepened.

Bill McA said...

What a great bishop you have! He is obviously in tune with the Spirit.

J G-W said...

I can't even get started about my bishop. If I start talking about him, it sounds a little too much like worship.

He's one of the wisest, most loving people I know. I am so incredibly grateful for him.