Friday, February 17, 2012

Damaged by Religion

I'm in my second week of teaching a new semester of American Religious Histories.

Partly because I've been teaching this course long enough to feel very comfortable with the material, this year I've been delivering the lectures in a more conversational way. I'm very pleased with how this is going, because it seems like my students are much more likely to stay engaged and ask questions in the course of the lecture. It feels more Socratic!

I've always divided my classes into a lecture portion in the first half and then a discussion portion in the last half, where we talk about the readings, or discuss questions the students may have had about material covered in the lecture.

In the past, depending on the make-up of the class, the discussions can get kind of interesting. The student body at the seminary where I teach is very diverse religiously. The majority of my students come from mainline Protestant denominations. But we get students all along the theological perspective, from the more conservative/evangelical Christian end of the spectrum, to folks who are secular humanists, and everything in between. We have folks who take a more hard-boiled rationalist approach to religion, and folks who are more mystical. Every year in each of my sections, I get at least a few Catholics. A fair number of my students also come from New Thought, New Age or Wiccan perspectives. This is the first year I've had an ex-Mormon student. You get the idea.

We've occasionally had discussions that got kind of tense. For example, a student of a more rationalist bent might refer to charismatic worship as "crazy," and somebody from a holiness or pentecostal church background might take offense. Some folks who identify as "recovering Catholics" might make some comments that come across as disparaging to individuals in the class who relate to their Catholic heritage with fondness and devotion. I had a student from a more conservative Protestant background once who referred to Roman Catholic devotions to the Saints as "idol worship." I've always done my best to set a tone of openness and respectfulness, but still it can be challenging when people don't always realize that they have been misinformed, or that a particular attitude could be offensive to somebody else.

I do some work trying to unpack biases and assumptions that are common in our culture -- especially when we begin to study religions, like Native American religion, or Judaism, that are based on a fundamentally different set of assumptions than Protestant or Catholic Christianity. Judaism is particularly tricky, because a lot of folks from Protestant backgrounds think they know more about Judaism than they actually do, just because they've, say, read the Old Testament. Words like "Judeo-Christian" or "monotheistic" complicate Christian efforts to learn about Judaism, because they encourage Christians to make assumptions about what common ground may or may not exist.

This past week, the topic of my class was Evangelicalism. Because my lecture style has become more relaxed, I think it has encouraged a more free-wheeling discussion of the topic, which, as I said, I like. However, it also came to my attention that at least some of my students were experiencing a fair amount of anxiety and pain in relation to this topic. These students had experienced some form of abuse in a context involving people of conservative Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christian faith. And they found that they were reliving some of the pain that they had experienced in these situations in the context of the class, as we were studying the religion that their abusers identified with.

The truth is, that while I strive to put a positive spin on all the religious traditions we study in this course, American religious history has often, unfortunately, been a history of religiously motivated intolerance and violence. Gay people have experienced extreme abuse in churches. Black people have suffered heart-breaking indignities in predominantly white churches. One of my students recounted a chilling story of intolerance she and her non-Christian family experienced in a small, predominantly conservative Lutheran town in the rural Midwest.

Of course, part of the purpose of a course like mine is to try to defuse and perhaps even heal old animosities through understanding. My own passion for American religious history is fueled by the pain I experienced growing up gay and Mormon. And I have found that it has been incredibly healing for me to face my fears and seek deeper understanding of those who -- inadvertently or purposely -- have hurt me in the past.

Still, this is a reminder to me of the importance of pausing from time to time to acknowledge that individually and collectively, we are far from living up to the high ideals of love and fairness proclaimed in our religions.

I teach a course like this partly in the belief that repentance -- both individual and collective -- is possible. And so is the forgiveness and healing that true repentance makes possible.

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