Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Religion is...

Tried something very cool in class today and it nearly worked.

A little context: it was the penultimate session of “Theorizing Religion.” I almost always end my classes with two assignments, an academic one (graded) and a final reflection (ungraded). The former, an essay “contextualizing, critiquing and/or correcting” one of our classic theorists of religion with the help of three of our contemporary readings, was due yesterday; the ones I’ve had a chance to read so far are really good. The final reflection, which can be in any genre students choose so long as they’re prepared to share with the class, is due in class Thursday.

Today we had our last reading – Ann Taves’ “building-block” approach to religion by way of the idea of "specialness," which is incidentally also a critique/correction of Durkheim. Taves argues that debates about “religion” – is the term too western, too critical, too protective, etc – shouldn’t mean Religious Studies should hang up its hat. But we might still be better off not using the word “religion” or its various not-quite-cognates in other languages as a second-order term… I’ll spare you the details. The piece is at once liberating and frustrating, clarifying and banal (“specialness”?!) – but that’s the point. She wants us to get on with things.

So I decided it was time to give the students a chance to come up with their own definition of religion. Borrowing the speed-dating format from last semester I had students do this…

Design your own theory of religion!
-- Questions to any definition of religion (as a group)
-- Draft your definition, with three examples (5 minutes)
-- Exchange 1 (5 minutes) - 1 minute to revise
-- Exchange 2 (5 minutes) - 1 minute to revise
-- Exchange 3 (5 minutes)
-- Finalize and share if you're comfortable

It would have worked flawlessly without step 1, which got everyone spooked. (Besides, it turned out,  the questions I guided us toward - self-serving? culturally specific? etc. - were the wrong ones. What we should have asked was: Is it too broad? Is it limiting? What is it for (practical, political or academic purpose etc.)? Still, once we started, it was fun, and by the end everyone was happy to share what they’d come up with. We had a little of almost everything: deities, comfort, meaning, community, transcendence of self and of this planet, personal, universal, cosmic. Some were very long; one, following Taves' lead, abandoned the term - though apparently only after the exchanges. One student semi-seriously offered “Religion is living!” (When pressed she said this included non-humans. What about yogurt, I asked. Sure, she said. Observed another student: So it’s all about culture!) I think the difficulty, the fun, and the variety will have seeded the emerging personal reflections in a good way.

What was my definition? (As you may know, I always do whatever I ask students to do.) I used Karl Barth’s “Religion is atheism”—the fallen creature’s denial of its createdness. This was an idea I included in “Theorizing Religion” once or twice in the past (only one student got it) but not recently. Do you really think that? asked the friend of yogurt, somewhat taken aback. I'm pleased my own view has been backgrounded enough over the course of the semester that this seemed possible. (This is just the kind of backgrounding the New Yorker reviewer deemed "anti-intellectual" in my book.)

No comments: