Teaching Beyond the World Religions Paradigm?

By Philip L. Tite

western_religious_symbolsCurrently I am teaching an undergraduate course, Introductions to Western Religions. This introductory course (along with its companion course, Introduction to Eastern Religions) is a common one in universities across North America. These are the basic “feeder” courses, or foundation courses, that support the religious studies major. Often they are designed to teach the basic content associated with such religions: historical survey, beliefs system, ethics, social/community structure, and (perhaps most importantly) the major religious texts associated with each tradition.

These introductory courses are supported by academic presses, especially those which specialize in textbooks. There is a plethora of textbooks out there on the market that continue to compete for that coveted “intro textbook” status. Many of these books are constantly being issued in new editions, forcing students to purchase expensive books with little opportunity of re-sell. From a purely commercial perspective, there is definitely a market for “world religions” in textbook publishing. And likely this is due to the continued market for such courses – courses that may be keeping some departments above water in an era when the humanities have once again come under fire as students and parents react to the Great Recession and the astronomical cost of higher education (especially in the United States).

The entire approach to the study of religion that is exemplified in such world religions courses (whether covering the major world religions or divided into the eastern and western camps) falls under what has been dubbed the “world religions paradigm” (WRP).

In the past few years, the WRP has been challenged by scholars. Suzanne Owen’s (Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10.3 (2011): 253-68) has offered an excellent analysis of the paradigm, pointing out several problems with the WRP and calling on educators in the United Kingdom (and beyond) to discard it: The WRP largely emerges out of European colonialism; it universalizes and thus essentializes a cultural tradition (a sui generis product that transcends the historical); it obscures the distinctly local cultural practices, thereby decontextualizing those cultural practices while authenticating a constructed “core”; it imposes Western (i.e., Judeo-Christian) models of “religion” that have emerged since the Enlightenment as normative for cultures encountered through colonial expansion and thereby creates and defines that very “other” in terms of the “us” (e.g., religion as a private, internal belief system separate from public or mundane matters); it tends to stop at the descriptive level, albeit with a moral agenda of promoting pluralism and tolerance, and thus avoids – indeed resists – reductive explanatory approaches.

Owen has noted the challenge facing scholars who reject the WRP but are required to teach the basic introductory courses. Many end up teaching these content driven courses, following the standard layout of the world religions textbook. A further challenge I have noticed in North American religious studies departments is the implicit presence of the WRP in those very departments where the paradigm has be overtly rejected. I recall one university I taught at where I was told “we’ve rejected that model” (i.e., the WRP), yet then I saw that they organized their major into eastern and western traditions with the standard “intro to” Judaism, Islam, Eastern Religions (an odd conglomerate of traditions!), etc. So while there may be no “Introduction to World Religions” or “Western/Eastern Religion”, the WRP continued to be the subtext (with all the implicit problems that Owen highlights for us) driving the entire degree program. For me the problem was not only the inconsistency of “rejecting” the WRP while embracing it on the larger structural level of the degree program, but more importantly the blindness in even seeing that they were still following this model. I felt that there was a failure to really challenge the WRP.

Since teaching at that university, I have tried to think through possible ways to teach such required courses in a way that would guide students to not only learn content about diverse religious traditions (I do think we can know something about the world around us), but also, and more importantly, to critically discern and analyze the constructed nature of “religion” and in particular the WRP. This summer I have had the opportunity to experiment with such an approach when offered the “Intro to Western Religions” at the University of Washington.

My basic idea is that we shift our focus away from just studying the major traditions from the West (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and instead look at “Western Religions” as a constructed category that shapes data into commonsense categories. Thus, the very category “Western Religions” (and not just religions of the West) becomes our object of study. My claim is that the intro course can be the site where we deconstruct the very nature of the course we are signed up for. I tend to do this a lot in my teaching; i.e., to take the course title and description and to work with my students to undermine (or to look at the underlying presuppositions of) that very course title. The intro to comparative religion course offers an excellent opportunity to overtly challenge the WRP, not only in scholarship but within the broader, media-driven view of religion that we continually find imposed upon students as the “obvious” construction of reality. By bringing these “Western” religions together in such a course, we can finally look at the underlying power dynamics involved in the construction and internalization of the WRP.

So for my Intro to Western Religions course, we do not use a standard textbook. Rather, we are taking three or four mainstream intro to world religions textbooks that are on the market today and comparing the ways in which the authors construct/present as normative the three so-called “Abrahamic faiths”. The textbooks have become our object of study rather than our guide into our object of study. The idea is that while we are learning “content” (i.e., something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we are also looking at the “spin” given to those traditions. We began by setting the stage for our critical analysis by discussing theoretical problems in the study of “Western Religions”: the definitional problem of “religion” (reading J. Z Smith and incorporating Craig Martin’s insights on the “delimitation” underlying definitions of religion); the WRP (reading Owen); the exclusion of certain “fringe religions” or those cultural processes that are often excluded from the category “Western Religions” (New Religious Movements, Native American cultures, hybridization of African cultures within North American contexts, civil religion, etc); and the entire eastern/western division of world religions. This opening module helped establish the analytical lens by which we looked at the various “narrative mappings” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Certainly we are learning descriptive “facts” about these three religions, but more importantly we are learning how those facts are created and given a spin by each author – and this critical gaze has been applied as well to any lecture I may give (such as an historical overview) or to a documentary (such as a BBC documentary we watched on Andalusian Spain).

So far this has been working in class. It has been fun to identify and compare structural components in the presentation of the “same facts.” For example, Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions (I have the 7th edition published in 2007) begins and ends with a focus on 9/11 and the “war on terror” – a framing mechanism that allows her to try to correct misunderstandings of “authentic” Islam in the wake of 9/11:

In fact, ignorance about Islam and perceived targeting of Muslims in general by the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ have exacerbated a dangerous and growing divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in the contemporary world. Therefore it is extremely important to carefully study the origins, teachings, and modern history of this major world religion (376).

Thus, the construction of Islam in this textbook and importance of studying Islam through such a construct is needed in order to correct misunderstandings of Islam within current geo-political crises. This tells us something about the contingency of scholarship (and teaching!), moral undertones driving pedagogy, and the role of the scholar (at least some scholars/teachers) in “saving” a religion as authentic (e.g., in the close of this chapter, Fisher spends a great deal of time arguing that violent acts by Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda are not authentic or correct understandings of Islam, specifically the concept of jihad). In these discursive moves, Fisher makes a normative claim about Islam, its future hopes (via inter-faith dialogue and progressive ideology), and its inherent goodness.

With a very different “spin”, Warren Matthews makes a different normative claim about Islam. In his World Religions (I have the 6th edition published in 2010), Matthews opens with the following statement:

The ensuing account tries to present the facts of history with respect for the Muslim views that Muhammad’s actions, words, and teachings were inspired by his own religious experiences. Nevertheless, other forces interacted with his recitations of the Qur’an and his actions based on them. In the history of this religion, as I have with others, I try to present a sympathetic, understanding account of the religion’s beliefs about its origins and development  (327).

Rather than authenticating this “religion” via geo-political conflicts currently affecting public perceptions of Islam, Matthews exemplifies the very theoretical approach of the phenomenologist of religion, where sympathy with those being studied stands alongside giving interpretative force to the insider’s private experiential truth claims (which also evoke the notion that religion is essentially a private, irreductive experience that the outsider can only approximate in his or her understanding of the insider’s truth claims).

My students were quick to note that these framing mechanisms were not as overt in the chapters on Judaism and Christianity, where the presuppositions underlying the presentations are more tacit. While the overt articulation of the authors’ agendas were convenient for us in our analysis of the construction of “Western/World Religions”, they also helped us discern something about the target audience (or the assumed Christian demographic of the North American classroom). The other two chapters in Matthews in particular began with historical surveys that re-presented biblical narratives as historically reliable (we discussed some possibilities for such presentation for the likely target/assumed audience of the textbook). The assumption that students entering these courses would have a background in Christian tradition also was evident to me when I read the study questions at the end of Matthews’ chapter on Christianity (e.g., “What major social issues should Christianity address in the twenty-first century?”).

We were also able to note normative – or universalizing – assumptions in the discussion of Judaism. For example, Fisher opens the discussion of Jewish beliefs with the following claim: “The central Jewish belief is monotheism” (271). On the surface this does not seem all that problematic. After all, aren’t we talking about the three great monotheistic faiths? Doesn’t the Jewish Shema embody a commitment to monotheism? But then we looked at what is excluded by such a totalizing, universal claim by Fisher. Not only are possible polytheistic and/or henotheistic aspects in the changing understandings of God within the emergence of Judaism omitted from discussion, but we also fail to include the rise of Jewish atheism and secular Zionism in the 20th century. We also fail to consider the ancient ideas of the manifestation of God in, for example, the Shekhinah, the Kavod, or Wisdom/Sophia (and the whole process of divine attributes being personified extensions of the divine).

At the end of the course, we will come full circle to the theoretical problems with the WRP, the colonial and post-colonial power dynamics underlying that paradigm, etc. My hope is that my students will not only learn something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but will also (more importantly) learn that these traditions are socially constructed, contingently presented and evaluated, and consumed by particular audiences as commodities or products that shape perceptions and social interactions. They are not “things unto themselves” but are built up as “things unto themselves” for particular, underlying agendas to which those constructs serve.

So should we be teaching courses such as “Introduction to Western Religions”? Absolutely. But not in the way that these courses are often taught. I like to see the course as an opportunity to expose my students to the very idea that religious traditions are discursive products; i.e., narrative maps that guide and shape human interactions and social perceptions of reality. Even though an introductory course, I think that we can use such courses (and should use such courses) to encourage critical “looking below the surface” rather than simply stopping at the descriptive level of content to which the student is expected to memorize and re-articulate on an examination. In my own view, that’s what higher education should do, especially within the field of religious studies. Graduates of our programs should not simply have overly expensive pieces of paper declaring that they are culturally sensitive and can ace a trivia game at the local pub (if religious topics ever arose), but rather they should be culture critics. They should be able to discern and analyze the constructed, normative world around them that is often taken for granted. “Religion” – as a discursive object – continues to be one of those very “taken for granted” discursive maps. And our students should not simply be map readers or map makers, but analysts of the purposes, mechanisms, and assumptions in the very production of those maps.

This task does not (or should not) be pushed off to graduate school or even upper level undergraduate courses. This should start at the get-go. My current course is a pedagogical experiment for me. It is an attempt at teaching beyond the world religions paradigm by teaching through the world religions paradigm.

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4 Responses to Teaching Beyond the World Religions Paradigm?

  1. Randi Warne says:

    Once again, excellent and helpful insight. Thank you.

  2. I really appreciate how your framing of how and why the WRP lingers in spite of attempts to jettison it. I’m currently experimenting with a course in response to some of the issues your raised. Rather than a traditional WRP course, I’m teaching “Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview.” The idea is to use African American history as a case study with which to think about (1) manifestations of the phenomenon, (2) various approaches to the study of religion, (3) and the explanatory limits of the category. While students will encounter a range of traditions touched on in the AfAm experience (many highlighted in the WRP, but some that the approach misses), the focus is on, as you named it, “the colonial and post-colonial power dynamics underlying that paradigm.” Anyway, best of luck this semester. I hope we can compare notes.

  3. Philip L. Tite says:

    Thanks, Richards. I’m glad my post was of use for your own teaching. I would love to hear about what you are doing in the classroom. Sounds interesting.

  4. Hi Philip. I recently did a write-up on the previously mentioned course. If you or your readers are interested, you can check it out on my blog: https://sowingtheseed.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/signifying-on-the-world-religions-paradigm-my-introduction-to-religion-course/

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