I teach religion. That someone who no longer practices religion teaches it seems an irony at one level, and more than a few students have been confused when I tell them I’m a skeptic.
“Why would you teach something you don’t believe?” One asked.
“If I was a Christian, should I let someone else teach the sections on Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and the others?”
They readily agree that the system would make no sense, and I wish every adventure in missing the point ended so easily. What follows is an explanation of pedagogy in the context of a religion class. I tell them I’m going to tell the story the way adherents tell it, and then we’ll look at it critically. Was Muhammad truly illiterate? Was Jesus born of a virgin? How does culture impact hermeneutics? The big one: what answers have you been taught that actually don’t answer the question?
An example. Nearly every horrifying punishment for sin detailed in the Tanakh will be “explained” away by Christians who are content that those words emerge from a construct known as “the old law” or “the old covenant.” We are now under grace, they say, with a self-satisfied smile. This is a college class, so the next question is meant to unsettle them, and quite frankly, someone in their church should have forced them to confront the question years ago, but that assumes someone in their church has actually wrestled with the question, a likely false assumption.
“So God used to be okay with stoning rape victims to death, but then Jesus died on the cross, and God is now against it?”
Usually, they didn’t know that was in the Bible, and after showing them the relevant passage, they freeze up. Completely. What do you say, after all? No one prepared you for this moment, and the tendency not to read the whole Bible, or to suffer through it only once, means that there are dozens of stories like this of which students are blissfully ignorant.
Depending on the context, we can substitute slavery, killing LGBT people, or killing witches. The impact is generally the same, and while some have said the question is too abrupt, the rupture is what I’m looking to cause. It’s a general education class about religion, not an in-depth look at hermeneutics, canonicity, canonical criticism, etc. If their pastors haven’t bothered to mention that the words “God’s Word” indicate that God has some answering to do—the blowhard speech in Job notwithstanding—then their pastors have not been honest.
More simply, someone should have introduced them to these difficult passages along with a conversation about inspiration and authority. That never happens. Never. Not until college. I have not yet encountered a student aged 18 to 65 (my oldest so far) who has been taught to craft a hermeneutical lens that admits to some textual problems. It is clearly not their fault that their system of religious education is badly flawed, if not broken outright, but that is also not my problem. My concern is to teach the material, and having presented it, to make them interact with it in ways that are often challenging, even infuriating.
What a college class with diverse perspectives cannot allow is permission for students to avoid a glaring contradiction in their own ethical constructs, especially when the contradiction grants a pernicious permission. Truthfully, no Sunday School class should allow that either, nor should a pulpit minister, but that requires a commitment to treating the text differently than as the totem it has become in American churches. It binds a community together, but it does not shape them. It grants them salvation, but it does not require more of them than a prayer for forgiveness. It tells them who the “other” is, but it does not require they love them. Jesus has made the only sacrifice that matters, and now American Christians, by and large, are borrowing Jesus’ merit, but they are never asked to repay the loan—to make their own sacrifices. The only demand seems to be a guiltless quest for their own self-actualization with appropriate gratitude directed toward God. #blessed
The wrestling does not happen because ethical formation is not required. Even the Sermon on the Mount—the longest, clearest discourse of Jesus in the New Testament—is interpreted as a means for God to show humans that they require His grace because it is simply too hard for mere mortals to obey, as if “don’t divorce your wife” and “love your enemy” are at the same difficulty level.
Yet, for those of us outside, there remains a singular problem. I make this argument regularly in class, and, yes, I’m defending the honor of a God they claim to follow, because if there is such a being, he or she ought not be morally repugnant. And so I insist that some things are always wrong. I argue for at least a few universal moral principles.
God cannot order the murder of rape victims and be morally blameless. That is nonsensical all the way down—and evil. (The Calvinist who offers that God can do whatever God wills is a juvenile in his thinking. Of course God can in their construct, but why use the word “good” at that point? In other classes, I simply have students read Twain’s Letters from the Earth to deal with that issue.) If God did not order it, then a new model of hermeneutics and new vision of the character of God are required. As I like to put it: “The kind of God you believe in determines the kind of person you are allowed to become.”