I love and enjoy teaching social and cultural history to that of political history; I am sure this comes as a bit of a surprise in that many of my blog posts address political matters; however, I like to relate the political to venues and constructs related to elements of gender and race. And to an extent, it is difficult to ignore the impact of religious history. Much like my love of art, I avoid the technical elements that relate to paint and style; instead, I prefer to relate art to the historical periodization that promulgated it. This is true of religion, too. I, as is the case for many historians, prefer to address the impact of religion on culture. This affects the political as well. My interest in religious history greatly relates to my interest in African-American studies. As an active member of the American Historical Association, I receive one of their journals entitled Perspectives. In a recent issue, author Robert Townsend addresses the increase in religious history. According to Townsend:
A significant number of the respondents also described the renewed attention to religion as an extension of the methods and interests of social and cultural history—noting a growing interest that extended back to E.P. Thompson. A number of the specialists noted that social historians had highlighted the interests of common people and cultural historians had supplied the tools for studying the influence of religion, but until recently, much of the work treated religion as aberrant. There was a perception that this left a significant opening for new research that treated religion on its own terms.
I am not a biblical scholar, nor do I pretend to be one; much of what I do focuses on religion in the context of both historical analysis and philosophical theory. This past Sunday while attending a religious service, the speaker focused on the topic of reaching heaven not by faith or by believing in Jesus Christ, but by the actions of faith, such as baptism. In doing so, the speaker went on to list a number of verses regarding the actions of Christians in a secular society. I have long wondered why churches focus much of their time dropping and quoting scripture? Do not get me wrong, there is a place for this; however, Christians seem to interpret scripture in vastly different ways. Hence the vast number of different denominations. To me, this is a simple process. I think it is more important to look at what Christians and other people of different beliefs do and have done to address societal vice and ills as an active interest of WORKS. I did not completely agree with the speaker. His talk is a denominational matter — one in which he contends is the WAY. Of course, if he is correct, then there are a number of practicing Christians that are wasting their time because their way is not the right way. Thus it is here that religious history plays a major part. Academics must teach the importance of religious pluralism in a diverse world. Religious instruction at religious schools must avoid guiding curriculum in a narrow and directive way. Religious schools are not churches nor should they take on that role; in doing so, it opens Pandora’s box: Thus, in what way and to what extent are students permitted to think freely about faith and the impact of religion? Historians have a duty to be objective as well.
My friend and colleague Stephen Hebert has been discussing the direction of our Bible Department on his blog; he wrote a post regarding what he deems to be the best direction for a department teaching religion; I should make it clear that the emphasis is more on the Bible and less on religious studies. However, according to members in the Bible department, after they visited a number of other independent schools, the consensus from those schools was this: a school is not a church but a place to study religion and how it impacts the lives of people and societies; I agree with this. It is a dangerous game to play when “folks” want to assign a church label to an institution of learning. In doing so, such an assignment limits the processes of free inquiry and intellectual thought. Case in point: the speaker this past Sunday on his message regarding how one gets to heaven. This was presented from one view-point… his denominational position instead of a more universal process. I say this only because there are Protestants that believe one can get to heaven without baptism. The speaker did not see it this way. This is a matter that divides Christians in how they worship.
An issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece by Stephen Prothero on the religious ignorance of Americans; he did a nice job addressing how some liberal Americans are quick to anger when the Christian right states that homosexuality is wrong, but do not know why they hold such views. Moreover, those who are a part of the Christian right are quick to claim all Muslims are evil, but have not read the Qu’ran . I have stated this before: All students should be required to take at least a year of required religious studies. This should be the case for both high school and college students. I am not asking for a doctrinal course on how to be Anglican, Baptist, Muslim, Methodist, or Catholic; I am talking about a religious studies course. Even if a person has no faith in a “holy spirit,” part of being educated is being aware of various cultures, beliefs, and norms. Stephen Hawking is a physicist who has devoted much of his time to discovering and understanding black holes. His premise states that if black holes exist, God does not; yet, his religious IQ is not bad. How can he argue against God if he does not know what God has to say. Here is Prothero’s article on religious ignorance. You can read it here; it is pretty good.