Ninian Smart claimed that, if we fail to set aside (at least temporarily) our reactions to and opinions about the people, communities, and traditions that constitute our objects of study, we are quite likely to generate more data about ourselves than about them. While this position is subject to important critiques, I believe that it offers an important epistemological insight from which our students might benefit: temporarily bracketing out our own judgments opens up cognitive and social spaces in which the self-understanding of (religious) others might emerge, providing us with information we are unlikely to come by sans epoche. Given that popular discourse in the larger culture displays almost none of this, students from virtually any disciplinary field stand to benefit from this methodological principle.
But how might we best teach it? In some eight years of adjunct teaching at a state university, I have found this lesson is far more likely to “stick” if wedded to examples students find either entertaining or upsetting. So, I begin not by elucidating Smart’s principle, but by showing the class a video such as Prophet Yahweh, Seer of YAHWEH, summoning UFOs for a Las Vegas TV news reporter in May 2005 (which most find entertaining), or an NPR audio-clip of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs preaching on “The Age of the Negro” and the proper place of women (which most find upsetting).
I also ask students to make two columns on a piece of paper. In column A, I ask them to write down their own reactions to and opinions about Yahweh’s or Jeffs. We then discuss the strengths of column A, for instance, that it helps students to work out what they think about our research subject. But when I ask what the weaknesses of column A are, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that this sort of data doesn’t really tell us much about Prophet Yahweh or Warren Jeffs, but about our own preferences and commitments.
Then I show the video or play the audio clip a second time, asking students to bracket or suspend their own opinions and fill in column B with our subject’s self-understanding as best they can from the limited data we have. We then discuss the benefits of column B: we have finally find out something about how our subjects understand their own religious constructions! We also discuss the limitations of remaining always in column B: at some point, we may want to formulate our own positions about those we study. Indeed, it is naive and unhelpful to expect or insist that students remain perennially in column B.
Of course, dispelling the cognitive illusion that column B provides unfettered access to the religious worlds of our subjects is an important task, though one for another day. Reflecting upon reflect upon the categories we use to receive others’ self-understanding is a task best performed once we’ve gotten students to the point where they can use these categories with some skill. You’ve got to get them in the boat before rocking it is worthwhile.