On the Teaching of Christianity

This year, many of the job listings on the AAR indicated an interest in Global Christianity, which appears to mean something like “Third World” Christianity. It is an increasingly important field of study, and indeed 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 at Kalamazoo 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.

There is a certain logic to the sudden vogue of Global Christianity, which many of my younger colleagues seemed to view as a new and yet surprisingly widespread job listing requirement — indeed, it’d be strange if there was a religion department that didn’t want to offer such courses. Nevertheless, this vogue discourages me, not on the level of content, but on the level of the trends it points toward: namely, an increasing desire to take an exclusively sociological, or else “history of religions,” approach to Christianity. This trend is problematic for a number of reasons, most immediately because a relatively small proportion of scholars of Christianity are equipped for such an emphasis (the primary exception being “Religion in America” specialists, who are obviously specialists in America rather than the whole world). 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 “history of religions” 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, rabbinic Judaism, etc., without worrying that this would represent some kind of toehold for religious indoctrination — indeed, this is 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 US, 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.

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 trying 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 starts with sympathy and works toward identifying internal weaknesses.

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 very difficult to see how a historically rigorous and broad-based approach could fail to meet academic muster or violate our country’s well-established commitment to the separation of church and state. It is in fact very difficult for me to see how any kind of proselytizing could take place in such an environment. 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. Basic tolerance is the bedrock of American education — indeed, it’s often difficult to convince students to express straightforward disagreement with each other.

More generally, though, 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’d be surprised and even alarmed if someone came out of my classes — which tend to be very “theological” — 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. How many of my students — no matter what I do in the classroom — 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 me.

In the end, though, I wouldn’t make it my business — because 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 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.

None of us chose to be born into a culture so deeply informed by Christianity, and there are very good reasons to wish we had not been chosen for this particular inheritance. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to at least take 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 choose not to have received the 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.

16 thoughts on “On the Teaching of Christianity

  1. Adam, I could not agree more with this assessment. I remember during my undergraduate years wanting to take a course on Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, these courses were never offered at the University of Texas. I don’t quite understand why there’s so much anxiety about teaching Christianity. Instead, I ended up taking two courses on Islam, even one on Islamic theology that went through systematic, political, and mystical theology. I sincerely doubt a course like Christian theology will ever be offered at such a school. However, there’s something really problematic about this situation. I would love to actually have engaged critically with Christianity in its nascent stages, but the closest I ever got was a philosophy of religion class.

    I think your point on trusting students is healthy. I suspect that much of the hesitancy to offer a course on Christian theology stems from a professor’s anxiety and reluctance to teach such a course given the sensitive material. But, given a small enough class size, I imagine great dialogue could be generated especially with interested students. The personal connections many students have with Christianity would actually serve to enliven discussions. Also, I believe the concerns about fundamentalists I believe are exaggerated. Most fundamentalists have so much preparation prior to stepping into the big secular university that they are unlikely to listen to professors who don’t support their views. Hence, I would predict that the majority of them wouldn’t even bother enrolling in such a course because they have no reason to understand the doctrines theologically when they can just go to church and be fed the right answers.

  2. Jeremey, evangelical/fundamentalist students enroll in theology courses to perpetuate their minority and persecution complex.

    The first course that I taught at a large public university was “world religions.” I was the only religion teacher, an adjunct, at the entire university, hired to teach one section.

    My department chair warned me: do not tell anyone you’re a Christian pastor on campus–it will come back to haunt you. We talked about this for a bit, and I decided against her advice, and wanted to put my own biases up front at the beginning of the course. Given my decision, she really supported this, and we even talked about offering an upper-level course in Christian doctrine. She was excited to have this kind of course in the works.

    It did come back to haunt me in the way that she suggested it would–students complaining about their grades saying I graded them poorly “because I’m an evangelical” or “because I’m not a Christian,” etc. Every semester. But beyond the complainers that emerge in any class every semester, I developed some very good relationships with the Muslim and Coptic Orthodox communities on campus, and later the atheist organization, I believe, largely because the classroom provided a space to express and discuss religious biases in appropriate ways. The only student I knew there to convert as a result of my class was one that joined a Sikh community.

    After a year or two at this university, I began getting teaching work in several departments. I even had a teaching appointment in the school of education there, which is a good story for another time and a deeply disturbing experience. But I was getting regular work teaching their two-semester humanities sequence, a Western Civ course.

    I didn’t have the students read all of the Confessions in this course, but they read some bits of it, along with many other important texts. In the second course I began with the first session on the Reformation.

    The history department on campus listed this course, even though it was meant to be interdisciplinary, but all of a sudden there was a complaint from the Department Chair of the history department that I was teaching “theology.” A decision came down that Augustine and the Reformation have no place in a Western Civ class.

    After debating this a bit, my department chair suggested to me that the bottom issue was that the history department chair was a very conservative Catholic who was nervous about the reformation being taught at all, let alone by a protestant minister.

    And that was that. If I didn’t want to comply, they had an other adjunct (who was consequently the department chair’s husband) ready to take my course mid-semester. I finished the semester out and found teaching work elsewhere next semester.

    Aside from all of this, what was so interesting is that my department chair, a Continental philosophy Ph.D., an avowed atheist, encouraged me to teach theology. But it was the history department chair, a Catholic, who discouraged any discussion of religion at all, and later an assistant dean (who was actually a Catholic Deacon!) later disapproved the upper-level Christian doctrine course and said we should be offering courses in Islam and Buddhism instead.

    It would be easy to paint this as a Protestant-Catholic scuffle, but it demonstrates Christian’s own distrust of themselves so that the subject matter is ignored altogether. As Zizek mentioned somewhere, often it’s the atheists who open the door for religions to coexist in healthy ways.

  3. That’s a really interesting and disturbing story, Chris. The point about fundamentalists seeking out opportunities to feel oppressed is true, but I’ve found that even when that’s not going on, the students who are actually Christians can be the most difficult to teach — not because they’re actively fighting me, etc., but simply because what they already know about Christianity doesn’t let them get at what is particular about different thinkers. My favorite example is an exam response about Augustine and his influence on Western theology — the student said, “The most important thing about Augustine is how he talks about Jesus dying for our sins….”

  4. I would sure rather take a course on Buddhism from someone within the Buddhist tradition (though hopefully someone critical of it–sympathetic and critical) than from someone outside of it, and the same with Islam. Wouldn’t most people prefer to learn about a religion from someone with sympathetic experience, and a critical-scholarly perspective? I don’t see why it should be otherwise with Christianity.

  5. I suspect that a lot of the nervousness around Christians teaching theology, particularly ministers, is the perception that Christianity is a much more convert-seeking religion than most others — that “true” Christians can’t in good conscience NOT try to win converts. (This is of course yet another manifestation of liberals deciding that the most conservative or annoying form of Christianity is the most authentic.)

  6. 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 trying 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 starts with sympathy and works toward identifying internal weaknesses.

    More generally, though, 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?

    Well, no, of course not. But what you are describing is a kind of neutral, disinterested “objective” description of thought, which sounds a lot to me like. . . the history of religions approach to Christian “theological” tradition. But the main problem with this approach was its inability to take seriously the existential impact of theological reasoning on its practitioners. One may well encounter a “sympathetic description of the worldview underlying Augustine’s Confessions” and not become a fundie, but rather gain a deeper appreciation of his or her own Christian faith and the truth of the creeds to which that faith adheres. In other words, there are better alternatives to the problem you have presented than the religious studies academy has provides – – or can provide.

    I suspect that a lot of the nervousness around Christians teaching theology, particularly ministers, is the perception that Christianity is a much more convert-seeking religion than most others — that “true” Christians can’t in good conscience NOT try to win converts.

    Right, just like the “true” scholars can’t in good conscience NOT try to win converts. There is no such thing as critical objectivity.

  7. When I was in college, a very secular university in California, my favorite professor, a secular Jew, insisted that Augustine’s Confessions is one of those 15 or so texts that any person seeking to be educated in Western civilization MUST have read, and one should not be awarded an undergraduate degree from a top school without having read it. (Shamed, I hurried up and read it.)

    In a country packed with institutions that provide “faith-based” education, scholars of Christianity have to project a clear message to all–colleagues, administrators, students, the public–that we adamantly uphold a line of distinction. That we respect a strict distinction between teaching WHAT the various species and denominations of Christians have believed historically unto the present (a wide range of belief and practice), and what enormous difference that belief has made in the world, as opposed to advocating those beliefs in any way.

    It is understandable that people who’ve had limited contact with scholars of religion have trouble grasping this difference–because in the maleducated general culture no such line is respected or even conceivable. For example, some nonbelievers of vaguely Christian background think that to doubt that Jesus was the Son of God means you have to doubt that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. The critical distinction between “Jesus” and “Christ” never crossed their mind.

    I have had many Christian students in my classes tell me that they felt that they were really discovering their own religion for the first time: because they were seeing it from an outside, critical perspective. We need to help others understand this principle: the value of sympathetic objective-descriptive understanding of religion for all, believers and nonbelievers, part of this objectivity including the “sympathetic worldview” from within (per the theologian’s comment above). I aspire to teach Buddhism or Confucianism just as “sympathetically from within” as I teach Christianity. In a sense, you have to feel somewhat seduced by a religion to teach it with any depth at all; one has to be worldview-promiscuous. Part of the task of teaching is making this approach and purpose clear to your students. They need to be “in” on it.

    I disagree with the theologian above: I think the academy can and should have a deeper ultimate impact than faith-based education. Because the latter is indoctrination, it cannot be trusted intellectually, whereas the former is uncoerced existential formation of the mind and sensibility. If a student of mine becomes Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, atheist, agnostic, Platonist, scientist, Heideggerian, uncertain what to think, and/or whatever else, I have done my job.

    The de facto situation means, like it or not, the burden is on us in the hotseat to project a clear message conveying these much-needed distinctions–in the classroom, the faculty meeting, and all public communications having to do with our profession.

  8. “A theologian”: the point about a “history of religions” approach is well-taken, and I need to think more about how my approach is different (which I think it is). As for “existential impact,” how is theology any different from philosophy in that regard? People can be profoundly changed by an encounter with Judith Butler, for example. In conversation with my colleagues around this point, I actually said that I would be happy if Christian theology was simply moved over into the philosophy department — so I’d call my approach more of a “philosophical” one than a “history of religions” one (given that I don’t normally pay much attention to liturgy, etc.).

  9. Found you via the Grundlegung blog.

    I’m a scholar of South Asian Buddhism interested in deeply sympathetic approaches to Buddhist thought, and I would say things in my field are far more similar to this account than you realize. You say “We are perfectly able to imagine courses on Buddhist philosophy, rabbinic Judaism, etc., without worrying that this would represent some kind of toehold for religious indoctrination” – well, it depends on who “we” are. In my experience, most of the departments hiring in Buddhist or South Asian studies do worry exactly this. You can certainly teach a course on Buddhist philosophy without worrying them – as long as the way you bill it is something along the lines of “here’s some weird shit that those crazy Buddhists believe. Fucked up, eh?” (And usually they’re far more sympathetic to sociological or historical approaches than philosophical ones.) If you actually want to teach Buddhist philosophy as if it might be TRUE, you get exactly the kind of reactions you describe above for Christian theologians. There is at least one job I interviewed for where I was specifically told that I was not hired for this very reason, and I doubt that it is the only one.

    Overall, actually, I would say the situation for Christian constructive scholars is significantly better than it is for scholars of any other tradition. (Well, I can’t speak about Judaism, but certainly anything Asian.) There are at least some Christian colleges out there that encourage Christians to work from within the tradition; there are at least some jobs in Christian theology. For Christians, wanting to teach Christianity as a Christian is much more likely to be a plus.

  10. Thanks for the comment and the valuable perspective, Amod. You are correct that Christians have some advantages in this regard, and I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that a devout Buddhist would face many of the same difficulties. In my post, I can now see that I wasn’t clear enough — when making the comparison with Buddhist philosophy and rabbinic Judaism, I was assuming that all would be taught in a “non-proselytizing” mode and pointing out that it seemed like Christian theology felt inherently problematic to people even in a neutral setting. The fact that you’re feeling pressured to act like Buddhism is bullshit if you want to teach it is disturbing, though.

  11. Any sort of constructive study of traditions tends to be frowned upon, in my experience. You might find some chapters of Jackson and Makransky’s Buddhist Theology interesting food for thought about how these issues look for scholars of other traditions, especially Cabezón’s “Buddhist theology in the academy.”

  12. Thanks for the pointer. On the question of constructive work, Christians do have a clear advantage, although there are only a few places where theologians have genuine freedom to go where their reflections lead them.

  13. Not that this is lost on anyone, but I think it needs to be said that sympathetic descriptions of the beliefs of any religion may in fact themselves be quite persuasive. This seems to be the angle taken by dogmatic theologians like John Webster, who eschews apologetics for the simple reason that, for him, an accurate and orderly account of Christian belief is itself beautiful and persuasive. As Amod points out, then, the only way to appear ‘objective’ is actually to be subtly denigrative.

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