Mar. 29, 1999
Volume 51, No. 25
New course crosses new boundaries in religion instruction
Three faculty members from the Department of Religion have pooled their expertise to teach "Introduction to Sacred Texts," an undergraduate course that tries to avoid the superficial "If it's Tuesday, it must be Buddhism" teaching of comparative religion. The course, open only to freshmen and sophomores, explores the sacred texts of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
"We feel that comparison of religious traditions can best be done collaboratively by a panel of experts who are linguistically trained in their fields," said Associate Professor Laurie Patton, who specializes in early Indian religions. "All three of us are very deeply committed to teaching students the lost art of reading a text carefully and the lost art of appreciating a classic."
For the past three years Patton has taught the introductory course with Middle Eastern Studies Professor and Chair Gordon Newby and Religion Professor Vernon Robbins. Newby specializes in the interrelationships between Islam, Christianity and Judaism between the seventh and 12th centuries--the formative and middle periods of the Islamic religion. Robbins' area of expertise is the Christian Gospels, in which he looks at ways the rhetorical style of the Gospels match and intersect with those of other religions and traditions in the ancient Mediterranean world. He has developed a holistic method of reading the Gospels that he calls "socio-rhetorical criticism."
As Patton explained, "What we do is focus on themes within each of these religious traditions and choose texts that address those themes." The four themes they study are creation, apocalypse, sacrifice, and text and community--the ways in which texts are used by religious communities and in religious rituals.
The class also compares texts from the different religious traditions. "Quite frequently, comparison is done very superficially in the study of religion," Patton said. "We want not to compare themes but actual texts that address the same kinds of themes," she said, noting that translated texts are read "line by line, verb by verb."
"We try to show that ancient religious texts always existed in a culture of argument and debate," Patton said. "We also want to emphasize that religious texts are alive-the class itself is part of the tradition of debate about all of these sacred texts. Once you put students in the position of being part of a thousands-of-years-old debate, they have a stake in reading carefully."
Said Newby, "Our way of doing comparison is a method and a practice of reading texts interactively, rather than just comparing piles of facts." This method goes beyond "same and different," he said, and teaches students that "the understanding that comes from reading one text can be transferred to reading another, which in turn deepens the reading of the first text and makes possible the reading of a third." He termed this type of comparison interactive and dynamic, rather than static and passive.
In addition to comparative readings, students make site visits to at least three houses of worship in religious traditions outside of their own and follow up with written site reports on what they observed. Students also answer questions about each theme using the class LearnLink discussion group, and their responses are used in class. While very labor intensive, "[LearnLink's] an incredible learning device," Patton said. "It resurrects the art of letter writing."
In the early 1990s students were more inclined to take courses in their own religious traditions, Robbins observed. "One result of this class has been to nurture a strong desire among students to learn a significant amount about other religious traditions," he said.
"They have discovered that they learn much about themselves and their religion when they study another religion. They also have discovered that students who [practice] another religious tradition regularly are very interesting people with highly admirable abilities and commitments." Robbins added.
The professors' collaboration that began with this course has extended to two seminars on comparative religion--one for faculty and another for graduate students. In addition, the three are planning to write a textbook for other scholars interested in this new way of teaching comparative religion.