Return to Singleton Blogs Main Page Return to Singleton Home Page
SINGLETON DRONES ON ABOUT RELIGION AND CHURCH
A Retired Old Duffer's Blog Spot
SPEAKING OF FAITH:
A BOOK NOTICE AND A PERSONAL LAMENT
August 8, 2008
My wife and I recently acquired a copy of Krista Tippett's Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters-And How to Talk About It (New York: Penguin, 2007). It is a good book and I recommend it, but this is not a review. The book has already received the blessings of Stephen Prothero, Khaled Abou El Fadl, and Rachel Naomi Remen. I personally am more impressed by their endorsements than I am by mine.
I was delighted to see something like this in print. It is sorely needed. Actually, it has been sorely needed ever since the "Establishment" and "Free Exercise" clauses of the First Amendment were written. In a nation that is both intensely religious and steadfastly opposed to religious preference, we need all the help we can get in negotiating the turbulent waters created by the contrary currents of zeal and tolerance.
This is one of three times in my life I have been in a position to regret not having gone forward with an idea for a book that I abandoned. Back in 1989, after several frustrating attempts to bring academic rigor into a class on the History of Christianity, I wanted to address the root problem-the inability of most of my students to discuss religion dispassionately and analytically. The problem was not a lack of interest in the subject matter. Indeed, the subject matter was of such great interest that students had firm and devoutly held opinions (in contradistinction to ideas), whether they were Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran. . .and the list goes on to include Jews, Muslims, secular humanists, and hard core atheists.
I devised a handout to address this problem and gave serious thought over the next year to develop that theme in a book-length essay. The idea got lost in the shuffle of my involvement in academic politics and the continuing crises of daily life.
Thus, I picked up Tippett's tome with a sense of regret. Oh, please do not misunderstand! It is a fine book, and I am not suggesting that mine would have been better. It was simply the third reminder over the last decades of an idea I should have developed, and didn't.
That having been admitted, I thought I would share with any who stumble onto this blog the few thoughts I shared with my classes on the matter of religious conversation:
SPEAKING OF RELIGION
Suggested Guidelines for Fruitful Discourse in
HIST 380 (History of Christianity)
Professor Gregory Holmes Singleton
Discussion in this class (as in any class) should be lively, honest, candid, well informed by the assigned material, and thoughtful. A statement need not be offensive, aggressive, or "in-your-face" in order to be lively, honest and candid.
Why would I even bother addressing this issue? Do I anticipate difficulty?
In most courses I do not feel compelled to make these caveats, but History of Christianity is different. Few topics are as interesting as religion, and few topics tend to generate more heat or less illumination in discussion. This is as true among highly accomplished and sophisticated scholars engaged in sober reflection as it is in neighborhood bars where the exchanges are more casual and less sober.
An example here might help to underscore my concern.
In the 1980s I was part of a colloquium on American Religion made up of about 20 scholars from various universities in the Midwest. We would discuss our own work in progress each month. Twice a year we would also invite someone from outside the group (and outside the Midwest) who had recently published a noteworthy book in the field.
In 1984, we invited Richard L. Bushman, a highly regarded specialist in Early American Social and Cultural History. He had just published Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984). Bushman, a life-long Mormon, mentioned an important problem in his presentation. In order to develop a sense of the complex personality of Joseph Smith, he read every document he could find written by his subject. He did not, however, treat The Book of Mormon as one of Smith's writings. As a matter of faith, Bushman accepts the document as a divinely inspired ancient text discovered and translated by Smith.
Bushman brought this up because he was aware that everyone else in the room quite reasonably (his words) believed The Book of Mormon to be a product of Smith's imagination. He, however, was unable to accept this secular interpretation, and acknowledged that his position had profound implications for historical methods.
This should have turned into a useful discussion of perspective in the writing of History. Unfortunately, just as Bushman finished his disclaimer a well-known Roman Catholic historian shook his head incredulously and exclaimed, "Surely you can't really believe that Smith found ancient tablets and translated them!" To his credit, Bushman kept his cool and said that he was not surprised at the response, but yes he did indeed thus believe. That was met by similar incredulous outbursts by a conservative Calvinist, a Baptist, and an Orthodox Jew.
Bushman kept calm, with a look of resignation. The discussion he thought he might stimulate was not about to happen.
Another member of the seminar did not keep calm. He had recently entered into full middle-aged status, had a beard and a bald fringe (which had not yet turned white), and was not yet overweight. He found himself blurting out, "How dare people who believe that the Earth was created in six days, or that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, or that Moses parted the Red Sea with his staff give this man a hard time because he believes The Book of Mormon is a divinely inspired ancient document!"
The fellow was asked point blank by one of the scoffers, "Do you believe that The Book of Mormon was written by anyone but Joseph Smith?"
The fellow responded, "Of course I think Joseph Smith wrote it and don't believe for a moment that it is a divinely inspired ancient document. I also don't think that the sea parted, but would never say to one who does, 'Surely you can't really believe that the sea parted!' I don't believe Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, but I would never say to one who does, 'Surely you can't really believe that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven!' I don't believe the world was created in six days, but I would never say to one who does, 'Surely you can't believe that the world was created in six days!' What I would say in each case is, 'We obviously see things differently. Let's talk about how that makes a difference in how we each do history. More importantly, let's find ways of communicating with each other as scholars, recognizing these differences.' Dick Bushman has invited us to do just this, and I think we are missing an important opportunity."
Alas, the point got lost under a barrage of comments such as, "What do you mean? My beliefs are perfectly rational!"
From this incident we can learn a variety of pointers when speaking of religion:
1) Accept that the world is pluralistic and there are people who hold beliefs you consider absurd, and some of your cherished beliefs (even it you are a devout atheist) are absurd to some people.
2) Seek to learn from these differences rather than be frightened by them.
3) Asks questions that are likely to lead to discussion.
4) Avoid statements that will likely give offense. (How can "Surely you can't believe that. . ." do anything other than give offense?)
5) Seek clarification. Rather than "Surely you can't believe that. . .", try "Let me see if I understand this. Is it your belief that. . .?"
6) Seek to understand the whole rather than discrete parts separately. "Tell me how that fits into your general belief system."
And we can learn one additional thing from this incident. Do not, like the not yet overweight, bald but not yet white-haired, bearded early middle-aged historian attempt to be the peacemaker by pointing out logical absurdities in the attackers belief systems. That is rather like fighting for peace. The fellow doesn't do that sort of thing anymore; at least, he does them less frequently.
For purposes of this class, we need to expand these considerations to those we study, as well as each other. There are two reasons for this. One is that we may well study a belief in the context of, say, the fourth century, that is still an active belief of someone in the class. The other is that the point of historical study is to come to understand the human condition in all of its complexity, ambiguity, and contradictions. The moment one begins to dismiss others-in the present or historically-because of dissimilarities, one is no longer involved in the study of history. One is then only involved in an infantile search for self-validation at the expense of others.
PLEASE NOTE: These suggestions do not require you to give false validation of anything you do not believe. There is no problem with saying, "We see things differently." There is a problem with saying, "Your view is wrong and absurd." There isn't even a problem with saying, "I understand that this is your belief, but how do you deal with empirical evidence to the contrary?" The caveat here is that having asked the question, be prepared to listen to and consider the possible validity of the answer.
In conclusion, make me proud: behave better than those learned scholars back in 1984, including that not yet overweight, bald but not yet white-haired, bearded early middle-aged historian.
Please send replies to Gregory Singleton. Please indicate whether your reply may be posted to this page. I can't promise to post them
all here, but I will attempt to post a representative sample.