|Teaching Religion in Community Colleges|
Mary Karen Solomon, Colorado Northwestern Community College
Mary Karen Solomon is Humanities/Social Science Division Chair at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Colorado’s beautiful and rural high plains, teaching humanities, philosophy, literature, and English composition. Her particular interests are the religion, philosophy and literature of both Russia and China; she is a student of Zoroastrianism, Sufism, Confucianism, and Daoism, and is working on an anthology of essays and poetry concerning religion.
The mission of a community college is quite different from that of a four-year college or a university. According to President Joe May of the Colorado Community College and Occupational Educational Services, "Our mission is to help our state realize its human resource potential and enhance its robust economy. Our vision is to be the leading provider of vibrant, high performance learning, for anyone, anytime, anywhere." (CCCOES, www.cterc.cccoes.edu/) This cannot be accomplished without opening wide the doors and services to the public, so community colleges have open enrollment, or policies very close to it: all students (or almost all) students who apply are admitted. The object is to educate all the people of the community, whether traditional-aged students or older students with non-traditional needs, to meet their educational goals. Such a goal may be obtaining a four-year degree at a university, which means teaching the student general education transfer courses, effective study habits, and the necessary academic rigor and methodology to be successful in the baccalaureate course. Another common goal is to guide the student into the correct vocation for his or her talents and abilities, and to train him successfully in its skills, in the process giving the student the best-rounded education possible for his vocation. Another frequent goal is to re-educate people: to help those who through health challenges or changing circumstances need to adapt their skills or even change careers to do so successfully, to offer guidance, support and the necessary skills and education. The community college also serves the needs of its community in a broader manner. Particularly in small, rural, and/or isolated communities (such as mine), the community college plays an important cultural role. From guest speakers and multi cultural film festivals to musical entertainers to museum, drama, or even overseas trips, the community college should offer cultural enrichment to its residents.
Because the community college is a state institution, it is required to respect the separation of state and religion: this emphasizes the importance of a sensitive and equal presentation of all religions in the Comparative Religions class. Bias and favoritism have no place in the classroom: the less familiar a religion is to the students, the more important it is that it be taught with respect and equal handedness.
Practically speaking, the above characteristics of the community college and its mission mean that when teaching religion in a community college, the instructor needs to be sensitive to the various needs and abilities of class members, present the subject in a way that will help all members to meet their various educational goals, and encourage students to keep their minds open and endeavor to understand sympathetically that which may seem very alien to their way of life.
My most basic objective in my Comparative Religion course is to help the students gain understanding of the role religion plays in thought and civilization; in this course we study world religions, or, as Huston Smith expresses it, the great wisdom traditions, which sum up a culture’s unique insights, values and development. Secondly, students must gain and express knowledge of the various religions and their influences upon mankind; third, they need to better understand the forms and development of religions in both primitive and sophisticated civilizations. Of course, they do these mainly through reading, research, and writing, though both lecture and class discussion play an important part in understanding the various religions.
There are various approaches to teaching religion, but they seem to coalesce into two main camps: the historical approach and the phenomenological approach. The historical approach places each religion in its context, temporal and spatial, and traces its development throughout cultural history. The phenomenological approach treats religion as a system of values, cultural phenomena, in a sense: traditions of wisdom arising from the depths of cultures. It attempts to explain religion from within, to clarify for the student the particular wisdom, insights, and spiritual developments of these traditions. The first choice for the community college religion teacher is to select which approach will work best in his or her situation.
Various texts have various approaches: Niels C. Nielsen, Jr. in Bedford’s Religions of the World describes his approach:
Another proponent of the historical approach (whose work I admire greatly) is S. A. Nigosian, who writes of his World Religions: A Historical Approach,
In developing his account of the great world religions, Nigosian analyses the origin of religious tradition, the growth and spread of the religion, its sacred texts or literature; the central concepts and philosophical views, and the important practices and ceremonies of each religion, pointing out that one of his main goals in to help the reader understand the values that individual religions transmit to their followers. How people in different times, different cultures and under different circumstances thought, felt, and acted is inherent in these values.
My difficulty with the historical approach has two components: first of all, where does one stop? Events and their effects, religious figures and their influences, multiply endlessly until the student loses his way in a mire of historical data. Particularly in a survey course, attempting to introduce the student to all the great religions of history, this can be a problem, as there is so much to cover. Students get culture shock: one religion’s complex history blurs into another’s. Secondly, it seems to me that the historical approach can defeat the course’s most important objective, to help the student gain understanding of the religion’s role in developing a culture’s thought and values. The student can lose the forest for the trees; anxious over memorizing the names and histories of various Hindu deities and their avatars and the dates of scriptures and important events, she can lose sight of what Hinduism means. Studying eight to ten of these traditions in such a manner can leave the student exhausted and confused.
The approach that looks at religion as a system of thought and behavior, a wisdom tradition providing a culture’s most innermost and particular inspirations and insights, seems to better accomplish what I want to do. An excellent example of this approach can be seen in Huston Smith’s The Illustrated World Religions (the text that, after some trial and experimentation, I have settled on using):
I like this understanding of religion as inner truth and cultural accumulations of wisdom, as opposed to institutionalized systems answerable for much evil. As Joseph Campbell pointed out in The Power of Myth, paraphrasing Carl Jung, religion is the great defense against truly religious ideas.
Structure of the Course
The course covers the great religions of the world, still in existence. This means we study Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in that order. I begin the course with a unit on primitive religion, examining characteristics of early religion such as the numinous experience, prayer, divination, use of magic, the role of shamans and fetishes, animism, taboos, and totems. We also study the several functions of ritual: ritual as fulfilment of expectation, ritual as expression of anxiety, and ritual’s association with mythology. We discuss the function of these characteristics in native religions in Africa and the Americas. On the second day, after our initial discussion, we watch "The Storytellers," from The Power of Myth, with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. They discuss in particular primitive and early religion’s covenant between prey animals and the hunter, how myth, and ritual reinforce the value of the animal, the understanding that the animal gives itself to the humans, with the reservation that it be valued and not wasted. Students are always responsive to the native American tradition, probably because it is nearer to us and more familiar. They like the story of the Buffalo’s Wife, which Campbell retells, about how a buffalo herd covenants with the Blackfoot tribe to allow themselves to be hunted and eaten, as long as they are hunted in the right spirit, with reverence, without waste, and with the proper attention to the dancing and rituals that will allow the herd to be constantly renewed. We contrast the "I-Thou" attitude of the Native American towards the buffalo with the colonial white "I-It" attitude, hunting the buffalo to extinction for trophies and robes, without needing or valuing the meat.
Because Craig is provincial and isolated, there are no temples, synagogues, or mosques to visit. As we continue to study the world religions, we must create our own introductory experiences. Studying Buddhism, when covering Diamond-Way Buddhism in Tibet, we discuss the Dalai Lama’s story as well as the religious differences. We watch Kundun, and research the sufferings of Tibet; I offer the option of sending letters of support and/or money to the Help Tibet Campaign, and most participate. When we study Daoism, I have homegrown yarrow sticks from my father’s orchard (lots of good chi there) that we use to do an I-ching reading in class. We also burn incense and pass around hell-notes, discussing their function. When discussing Islam, I bring my Iranian chador and let the students alternate wearing it; carrying things, passing out papers, moving books across the class all become a new challenge that gives them insight into the restrictions on women.
If I could have my way with the state system, I would blend Phi 115, Comparative Religions, with Lit 201, Masterpieces of World Literature I, for one 4-credit combined course: World Religion and Literature. In Lit 201, we read Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Sun, large portions of Genesis and the stories of Joseph and his brothers, Jonah, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Ark from the old Testament. We also read Gilgamesh, which makes a fascinating comparison with the Noah stories. There are selections from those most exciting Hindu scriptural stories, the Ramayana, Bhagavid Gita, and Mahabharata. We read selections from the Chinese Book of Songs and Confucius’s Analects. Then we read Socrates’s Apology and Phaedo by Plato; we read Luke’s birth story of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew’s Passion of Jesus, followed by The Confessions of St. Augustine. We then turn to Islam, and read suras from the Qu’ran, selections from The Biography of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq, two stories from The Conference of Birds by Farid al-din Attar, the mystic and sufi, followed by the ecstatic sufi poetry of Rumi and Sa’di. And for a chaser, there are the delightful satires of religious figures in The Canterbury Tales and a final accounting of sin and virtue, Dante’s Inferno with selections from Purgatorio and Paradiso, by Dante. We even have a highly entertaining Buddhist fable, "Monkey" (an abridgement, translated by Arthur Waley, of the four-volume Journey to the West, a fantastic account of the historical journey of a ninth century monk to bring the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures to China). As a course in primary texts of world religions, it would be outstanding.
At the close of the section on Islam, (at least, those times when we have been disciplined and stuck closely enough to our syllabus that enough time remains) we close with a unit on mystical thought in Islam. I point out the similarities between the experience of Christian mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila, or St. John of the Cross, with the Hindu mystic experience, and the Islamic Sufi experience. It is amazing that such diverse traditions come together so similarly, almost as though the weather below may be varied and cloudy in religious experience, but when one transcends these differences, the mystical light above is concentrated, clear and unified...One of the best definitions of the stages of the mystic experience, common both to the experience of St. John of the Cross and to the path of Raja Yoga in Hinduism, is given by Farid al-din Attar in "Conference of the Birds."
The sufis themselves describe a twofold approach to God. Hujwiri (d. ca. 1071) claims, "There is a difference between one who is burned by His Majesty in the fire of love and one who is illuminated by His Beauty in the light of contemplation."
Jami distinguishes between two types of advanced Sufis, one type "to whom the Primordial Grace and Lovingkindness has granted salvation after their being submerged in complete union and in the wave of tawhid (unification)...." The second type "are those who are completely submerged in the ocean of Unity and have been so completely naughted in the belly of the fish "annihilation" that never a news or trace comes to the shore of separation and the direction of subsistence...and the sanctity of perfecting others is not entrusted to them" (Anne-Marie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975, 7).
I enjoy closing the course by discussing the common characteristics of the mystical experience in these different religions. It is as though we have distilled the essence of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, clarified and purified from the muddy, imperfect, and very human domains of history. It gives me hope that below our layers of cultural accretion, the prejudice, weight of experience, sorrows and injustices of history, we can find a common spirit of love, unity and agreement. And to me that is what religion should be about.