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.