How to Organize the World Religions Survey (?)

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by Charles McCrary

Earlier this year, during the spring semester, I wrote a post about my teaching world religions and the possibility of using a tentative definition of “religion.” In the post I briefly considered how the course might look as a class on “world religions discourse” itself, including a critical analysis of the textbook:

Should we teach only a history of World Religions discourse itself—a meta-history? This is a viable option. Equipped with histories like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, intellectual frameworks from Wendy Brown and Russell McCutcheon, and maybe a few methodological tools from Foucault or Marx, students can use their textbook as a primary source, historicizing it and interrogating its normative assumptions. This would make for a good class. But I fear I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to accept total failure that this task would require, as I address a room full of students who are not well prepared for critical thinking and quite hesitant to give it a try. (Also, I know that “millennials” are supposedly marked by their ironic self-awareness, but that mood is characteristically absent from large portions of the demographic. My students resoundingly hate anything “meta.”)

For the reasons stated above—and others, such as fear of oversight as the university moves toward increasing standardization of content—I have not used my summer to rework my 1000-level world religions class into such a course. However, I have tried to create a course that incorporates some of the ideas above. Many instructors begin their introductory courses with a history of “world religions” and a critique of the category “religion.” I’ve done this too, but I always felt like I was undermining my own theoretical points. Hence, the previous post about a provisional definition, something to work with. Then, we could move on to specific case studies. This approach is loosely modeled after Bruce Lincoln’s books, which take case studies and analyze and categorize them in order to demonstrate processes of social formation, the maintenance and contestation of power, and so on. An approach like this would be difficult if the world religions course were organized by religious traditions, with a unit each for the five major world religions (and whatever extra categories, like Confucianism or “Chinese religions” or “indigenous religions.”) So, last spring I organized the course by topics, forming mini-units of two to four lectures, with titles like textual authority, revolution, prophecy, and religious freedom. It worked somewhat well, but it was disjointed and not clearly organized.

This fall’s iteration of the class is (I hope) clearer and better thought out. There are five units, each of about equal length, though the first two are a little shorter and might end up functioning more like units 1A and 1B. Students will have a 400–500-word paper due after each unit. I provide an overview of the course and the units on the first page of the syllabus, in the “course description” section. The first lecture—which I’ll deliver after students hold short small-group discussions of Steven Ramey’s recent blog post “The Harm of World Religions”—will be devoted entirely to explaining the section and answering questions about it. Here is that section, verbatim:

This class is about “world religions.” However, we will not attempt to “cover” everything that normally falls under that category. Instead, we will historicize and interrogate the categories “religion” and “world religions” themselves, and then we will use religious studies methods to examine a wide variety of historical developments. Rather than analyzing each religion as an isolated object of inquiry (e.g., an Islam unit, a Buddhism unit, etc.), we will study historical themes like empire, colonialism, and law, noting how religious actors and ideas, as well as the category “religion” itself, intersects with these themes.

The course will be divided into five units:

  1. The “World Religions” Paradigm: A History
  2. A Practical Introduction to Some Theories and Methods of Religious Studies
  3. Empires in the Ancient World
  4. Colonialism, Capitalism, and Globalization
  5. Religious Freedom, Secularism, and Statecraft in the Modern World

Perhaps I’ll do a post in the near future outlining specific lecture topics and how they relate to the units. Unit 3 includes lectures on the Babylonian empire, the Maccabean revolt, Confucian statecraft, and the Roman imperial cult. Unit 4 features a week on European Pacific exploration and colonization, two lectures on Mormon history, and one on Haitian Vodou. The fifth unit focuses on secularism and religious freedom in global perspective, inspired by and drawing from scholars such as those involved in the Politics of Religious Freedom research project (and the now-published resulting book.) I hope this approach will provide students with knowledge of a wide variety of case studies but, more importantly, some useful tools for analysis by which they can understand religions and “religion” today. As religious studies programs (and the humanities in general) must defend their existence, many have appealed to the importance of “religious literacy” in a diverse and globalizing world. As an undergraduate religion major myself not very long ago I often heard faculty from my department recruit students by saying that their courses would help students better understand world events—as well as their fellow students, neighbors, and, as we increasingly must think of college as job training, future coworkers and business partners. I’ve crafted this course with those goals in mind.

I know the issue of teaching world religions after “world religions” has been discussed quite a bit, including on this blog. But I hope my particular solution to the problem is helpful. What do you think, fellow Bulletin readers?

Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. He is writing a dissertation on the cultural history of sincerity and belief in 19th-century America. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.

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