Belief Unbracketed

Scott starts teaching this week, a course similar to one that I taught for many years at Simmons College; a freshman expository writing course that uses texts relating to religion and cultural studies. One of the challenges that I faced in the classroom was how to not only be objective and allow all the students their own beliefs , but also how to not let my own beliefs bleed through in my teaching. And yet, I still struggle with whether or not this is an appropriate response in a religion class.

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, there was very little discussion in the classroom about individual belief, which is as it should be in a scholarly discussion of religion. And yet, at the same time, there was always a sense of something lacking. There was a point at which engagement with texts and ideas had to hit a wall, as we were all afraid to let our own religious views actually come to the surface.

In a compelling essay for the Harvard Divinty Bulletin, “Belief Unbracketed:
A Case for the Religion Scholar to Reveal More of Where He or She Is Coming From,” by Stephen Prothero, the BU professor writes that “More than any other idea, Edmund Husserl’s notion of bracketing, or epochē (from the Greek for “holding back”), has defined Religious Studies as a discipline. What do folks like me do? We enter empathetically into the worlds of religious people in an attempt to understand the believers who inhabit them. We set aside questions of cause and effect, good and bad. We check our world views at the door.”

But Prothero, in a critique of Robert Orsi’s idea that religion scholars need to “suspend the ethical” argues that we should take the risk to tear down the wall that sperates the scholar from her subject: “In homage to Husserl, Orsi, Chidester, and all the ghosts of Religious Studies past, let us continue to suspend the ethical and understand with empathy. Let us delight in difference and tear down the barriers between ourselves and our subjects. But then also tear down this barrier: the barrier against our own judgments. If we really want to resuscitate religion as a moral enterprise, make bracketing a temporary strategy rather than an eternal imperative.”

It will be interesting to see how Scott confronts religiosity in his own course, particularly as an atheist, but also a religious Catholic.

Next part

Before Monday, I’d never read the Stephen Prothero essay that Peter mentioned on this blog, although I had read the book that Prothero was busy promoting — American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon– when questions like “Which Jesus is your favorite Jesus?” got him thinking about the trouble with Religious Studies departments. (Prothero’s favorite Jesus, by the way, is the one celebrated in many African American churches, Jesus as “black Moses.”) My life in at Union Seminary is a fairly distant memory these days. Although I recall “bracketing” my belief quite a lot while in class. And I think Prothero’s complaint, like Peter’s about Harvard Div., is a good one: academic Religious Studies departments are not good places to talk about faith. But then, where are those good places? Where are those safe places?

Prothero’s essay gets at that, too. Admittedly, I find his reflections a little naive and nostalgic, not to mention still college-centric. And with all we busy people have going on these days — families, jobs, lesson plans and books to write — how do we find the time, or an outrageously caffeinated assemblage for this:

“When I was in college, a group of students gathered regularly a bit after midnight and argued, often for hours, about politics, economics, and religion. It was an eclectic crew. We had Marxists, liberals, conservatives, an atheist, a Jew, a born-again Christian, and a conservative and a liberal Catholic. We went at one another, no holds barred, consigning our friends to heaven and hell, calling Christianity (Marxism as well) an opiate of the masses, and otherwise making all manner of outrageous judgments about the world and ourselves. As far as I know, none of us was hurt by any of the provocation. And I learned more about myself (and real friendship) in those sessions than I did in all my college courses combined.”

For Prothero, like for us, understanding faithfulness is ultimately not about college or caffeine, Marx or Christ or Muhammad. It’s been about friendship; one that can handle doubt and questioning, silences, bad church-going, and, as Peter said, even my atheism.

Funny, though, that in an essay about the virtue of unbracketed faith, Prothero still brackets this most important thing: “(and real friendship).”


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