Friday, March 11, 2005

Public space and religion, Part III

In PartII, below, both Jen and Sabbatregent posted long and thoughtful comments, and since this post by Amy Sullivan that appeared yesterday over at Washington Monthly seems to speak directly both to my post and to their comments, I thought I'd thank them here in a full-blown post and both respond to them here and offer some tangential comments on Sullivan's post.
Jen talks about very real tension in classrooms that can occur when a student feels compelled to say his/her "faith" is challenged. As a teacher, I assure you that not only students feel that tension. I perhaps feel that tension less, though, in part because I'm a practicing Christian, but mostly because I have some sense of not just what the Bible actually says (and who says it) but also various schools of theology. What makes such conversations difficult is the terminology in use in such encounters: that "faith" is challenged. Nonsense. No one's faith is (or, rather, should be) challenged if Congress, say, decides not to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We are welcome to agree (or disagree) with such actions based on what we believe, but how can genuine belief in God's existing and His ordering of our lives in ways known/unknown to us be shaken by such actions? The student is mistaken in using the word "faith" in that way, and listeners and the instructor would be wise to make clear to the class a distinction between an individual's belief in God and the the intersections between issues of public policy and religious doctrine. But that discomfort occurs, I suspect, for the chief reason Sullivan notes in her post: that religious conservatives have shaped and dominated religious discourse in this country for the past couple of decades at least, and (this is my addition) in so doing conflate faith and doctrine. Hmm--sounds rather pre-Reformation-like to me . . .
At any rate, religious conservatives now dominate discourse on religion (both how it gets discussed and how our mainstream secular society thinks of it) because, as Sullivan says, religious liberals, for various reasons, have become reticent. Especially since the early-60s ruling against prayer in public school (which I agree with--prayer is a faith act whose institutionalization inevitably privileges some at the expense of others), religious liberals, who tend to honor the rule of law, unfortunately seemed to assume that that ban seemed to restrict ALL discourse about religion, which is just absurd. So, we now have produced two generations of intellectuals (and students) who, because they've not been exposed to practice in hearing and discussing even the basics of religious doctrine in an academic environment, become paralyzed or fearful or scornful when confronted with someone who speaks forcefully out of the courage of his/her convictions--be that person a student or a faculty member. What happens then is not true discourse, not true exploration of ideas on their own merits--what should be happening in college classrooms--but someone's pontificating that may make that person happy but is ultimately destructive.
And that brings me to Sabbatregent's comment. Whenever I teach my Humanities class and we're looking at religious art from the Renaissance, I experience something of the same phenomenon you describe in your Spanish Lit. class. Those paintings are all but meaningless if we don't have some background into the Bible, theology, etc.; indeed, Michelangelo's intent for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is lost to us, and if we appreciate it at all, we do so on grounds other than his. I tell my class, a diverse mix of Christians, practitioners of other faiths, and secularists of various sorts, that we have to talk about this stuff. I don't offer it as an apology but as something not just appropriate but crucial to our larger understanding. As for the church in Mexico: When I lived in Durango in the mid-'80s, there was no Lutheran church there, so I would attend Mass. I have never heard such lifeless sermons in all my church-going days, and while it just may have been that the priests lacked charisma, they certainly knew what was going on in those days, not just in Central America but even in Chiapas. I would have loved to have made it down to San Cristobal de las Casas and heard a sermon there. On December 12, 1986, though, I DID hear a powerful sermon at the basilica of the Virgen de Guadalupe, at which a bishop said the Virgin was more powerful than any government. He wasn't preaching revolution--this wasn't Miguel Hidalgo resurrected--but he WAS talking about the Church's symbols as (still) being full of potencia.
Ignorance of religion--specifically, of religious discourse, of knowing what someone (should) mean when s/he engages in it--inevitably leads to ghettoizing it, which makes it even more disruptive when it re-emerges in public space. In a nation (the U.S.) in which 59% of the population believes in some form of the Apocalypse, and in a nation (Mexico) where well over 90% of the population SAYS it's Catholic yet whose churches are rarely filled to overflowing, even on Sundays, it's crucial that all of us become more conversant in, paraphrasing William James, the varieties of religious discourse.

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