Perry Glanzer on Why Religion Departments Aren’t Exactly Religious
I have come to the conclusion that teaching religion is useless and religion departments should be renamed. I say this as someone who was trained in a religion department and occasionally teaches religion courses.
When I teach a religion course, I like to ask a series of questions in the first class. “What do professors try to teach you to be in history classes?” One of my bright-eyed students chirps up, “To be a historian.”
I continue, “What are they trying to teach you to be in a psychology class?” An aspiring psychology student understands the game: “A psychologist.”
“What are they trying to teach you to be in a biology class?” Everyone now gets the pattern and answers, “To be a biologist.”
“ Okay, what are we trying to teach you to be in a religion class?” The students pause, because they sense the trap. “Are we trying to teach you to be religious?” I ask. On most college campuses, even religious ones, to be called “religious” remains an insult.
A muffled but audible series of denials escapes from their mouths. They sense what history professor C. John Sommerville, author of The Decline of the Secular University, notes: Teaching religion “is rather like learning Language without learning any particular language.”
“What, then, are we trying to do?” My students stumble through some answers: “To learn about the Bible”; “to learn about the historical and literary context of the Bible.” To these answers I respond, “Why not just put this course in the history, classics, or literature department? It sounds like we’re merely trying to make you historians or classicists.”
Indeed, many religion classes at universities really belong in another department. Their subject matter is the Bible or the Christian tradition, but little distinguishes what they do with the Bible from the work of the historian or classicist, or the anthropologist or sociologist, for that matter. Even when I talked with a student from a local seminary, he told me his Bible course was actually an ancient history and literature course. It left me asking him, “Do they talk about God in the course as something more than Israel’s tribal deity?”
At the end of my series of questions, I usually follow up with one promising line of thought. “Are we teaching you to be Bible scholars, and should the religiondepartment instead be called the Bible department?” (which, in its early, some would call unenlightened, days, it was called at our university).
Dealing with God
The measure of where a Christian university or college is on its path toward secularization is often best discerned by looking at the name of the department that deals with “God stuff.” You’ll find a variety of names such as “Bible,” “Christian Studies,” “Religion,” and “Religious Studies.”
Usually, even at Christian universities, the students are uncomfortable with the “Bible” title, and I’m sure the faculty are as well. One of my colleagues from the religion department even described the purpose of the course as equipping students to teach Sunday school. I thought that sounded like a reasonable goal, but neither one of us believes the religion department should be renamed the “Sunday-School Teacher Department.”
Perhaps “Christian Studies Department” would be an appropriate title. “Studies” reveals only the subject and tells you nothing about the methods used, although “studies” departments usually fall into the ideological advocacy of the causes associated with a particular identity (think African-American studies, feminist studies, or queer studies).
While Christian studies departments may seek to enrich one’s Christian identity, by what method do they do so? Teaching someone to be a Christian, after all, involves acknowledgment of a previous commitment to Christianity and engagement in the life of the Church and in spiritual disciplines such as worship and prayer.
This difficulty reflects the problem with religion departments at Christian universities, and, for that matter, at all universities. They are built on the assumption that religion can be studied without involving a commitment to become a particular type of person who engages in particular practices. Instead, they merely ask the student to commit to the methods of some other discipline. Perhaps religion departments are afraid of commitment.
In some classes, but by no means all of them, Ioccasionally have a student who offers the suggestion that I believe makes the most sense. It is also what was found at the medieval universities and some contemporary Catholic universities. The student suggests, “We’re trying to teach students to be theologians.”
The Oxford English Dictionary calls a theologian “one who is versed in theology,” which is the study of “God, His nature and attributes, and His relations with man and the universe.” The theologian makes a fundamental commitment to study God and God’s relationship to us. Such study, by its very nature, requires avoiding the methodological atheism or agnosticism associated with “scientific” methods in other disciplines.
In contrast, religion scholars in religion departments, while including God as an object of study, usually take their methods from other disciplines. Not surprisingly, the methodological atheism or agnosticism of these methods does not mix well with the study of God.
A Unique Subject
Hence my students’ inability to answer my question. They do not know the unique methods religion professors offer and therefore do not know what professors teaching religion courses are educating them to be.
Therefore, I suggest that if religion as an academic subject does not have its own approach, one appropriate to sacred subjects, the subject should be treated in other departments. If courses discussing the Bible do not discuss in what way it contains God’s revelation, the study of the Bible should be given to the history, literature, or antiquities department.
Certainly, serious Christian universities should rename their religion departments and educate students to be theologians. At the very least, students taking courses from the theology department would know what the professors are trying to make them.
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“Course Correction” first appeared in the September 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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