theories and methods
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Christian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters
Date Reviewed: May 29, 2017
As a womanist biblical scholar working in the context of a theological institution, Christian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters helps me understand my role as a theological educator. Authored by Dorothy Bass, Kathleen A. Cahalan, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, James Nieman, and Christian B. Scharen, this volume takes seriously the concept of Christian practical wisdom (the ability to “render a proper assessment of a situation and to act rightly as a result”) (4). Theological educators are called to instill this virtue within students.
Divided into three parts, the largest sections (Part One and Part Two) loosely interrogate embodied knowing with interdisciplinary conversations. Part Three serves as an invitation to collaboration and experimentation and expresses gratitude for the gift of collaboration that the authors experienced while working on this project. Indeed, collaborative work is rare within the academy of religious scholarship and makes me wonder what theological schools would look like if faculty from across disciplines gathered together to collaborate in their own contextual spaces.
Here are brief highlights of a few essays. In “How Bodies Shape Knowledge,” Miller-McLemore engages the modern biases that separate bodily practices from our modern practices of worship. Thinking across denominational differences, Miller-McLemore ponders a theology of sensory movement that, while seemingly easy for children, becomes more difficult as we age. Realizing that we have a long history of “damning the body and its temptations” (29), Miller-McLemore uses the apt metaphor of “spooning” within the marital context to illustrate “everyday body wisdom” (30). Spooning serves as part of a discussion around how a body knows, enacts, and evokes love even in a state of unconscious sleep. As bodies lead, oftentimes thoughts follow. Miller-McLemore argues that the wisdom of God is bodily wisdom gained through everyday reminders of death and love together. Since sleep is like death as it mirrors the body’s vulnerability, the act of spooning while sleeping serves as a reminder of the love within the context of death. Miller-McLemore argues that there is disconnect between the spooning that we experience in relationship with God and how we traditionally teach within a theological context.
I found two essays particularly edifying as a woman and a scholar of color. First, Scharen’s essay entitled “The Loss and Recovery of Practical Wisdom in the Modern West” evidences the need for a kind of knowing that is both concrete and universal, timely and timeless, practical and abstract (174). To highlight his point, Scharen engages the feminist history of the Bohemian Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate and her letters to French philosopher Rene Descartes. Even though the mind-body dualistic legacy of Descartes ruled for a time in Western philosophy, Elisabeth’s recovered feminine voice rightly pushed Descartes to discuss his maxims for public life instead of relating his pontifications only to himself (160). For Elisabeth, practical wisdom had to relate to the practical ethics of public life and duty. Attention to the feminist revisionist history and philosophical debates behind these letters allows Scharen to converse with contemporary theologians such as Fergus Kerr and Sarah Coakley and the “taken-for-granted notions we live by” (166).
In the essay “Biblical Imagination as a Dimension of Christian Practical Wisdom,” Bass rightly argues for the concept of biblical imagination as “a knowledge of, which cannot be had without life-shaping embodied participation” (236). As a womanist biblical scholar within a theological context, I am constantly advising students to embrace the “both/and” nature of academic biblical scholarship in combination with their embodied participation with the biblical text. Indeed, we need both.
While I thoroughly enjoyed reading and pondering deeply the issue of Christian practical wisdom, please allow one critique. I wonder how the conversation and collaboration would have changed if there were a visibly identified religious scholar of color working on the volume. While each of the scholars involved are esteemed in their own right, I am left wondering how Christian practical wisdom looks different from other perspective such as, but not limited to, global South, African American, Latino/a, or Asian Christian perspectives. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reviewing such an important volume.
Contemporary Views on Comparative Religion
Date Reviewed: November 14, 2016
During his time on the editorial board of Teaching Theology and Religion Tim Jensen brought a distinctive, and often provocative, sensibility to that group’s discussions. Rooted in his own experience as a teacher in secondary schools and in universities, and based on his research into systems of “religion education” both in Denmark and throughout Europe, Jensen’s position vigorously argued for a strictly secular (and scientific) study of religions throughout the educational curriculum. Even when they did not carry the day, Jensen’s arguments were always “good to think with.”
Although they do not focus as directly on Jensen’s teaching as they do on many of Jensen’s essays (the volume includes a bibliography of his writings), these essays honoring Jensen on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday address many of his persistent concerns. As an ensemble, the essays present a vision of the field of the study of religion that will challenge teachers in North America to articulate their own understandings of what the study of religion entails. More importantly for this context, several of the essays link their broad considerations of the study of religion directly to issues concerning teaching.
Gustavo Benavides offers an essay that stands out in linking theoretical concerns to the classroom. He argues that whatever the subject matter may have been, at the end of the term students in any course in the study of religion “will have thought, however intermittently, about the various but nevertheless recurrent ways in which what we call ‘religion’ is generated and kept in place” (223). Beyond that broad learning goal he proposes – convincingly in my view – that “Ideally, anyone teaching a course that has to do with any of the aspects of what is generally known as ‘religion’ should be engaged in the elaboration of a theory that could accommodate – however provisionally, however tentatively – most of the topics being discussed in any given class” (225). Benavides shows clearly how conceptions of what is – and should be – involved in the study of religion is not simply the concern of a handful of scholars specializing in “theory and methods.” One’s conception of the nature and purpose of the field has a direct and pervasive impact in the classroom.
Several other contributors propose interesting links between their scholarly concerns and their practice as teachers. Russell McCutcheon discusses his use of popular music videos “to illustrate the unexpected appearance of religion” (157) where it is least expected. Drawing on a thorough reading of Jensen’s own work, Wanda Alberts carefully maps out not only what “Religious Studies-based Religion Education” looks like in K-12 curricula but also how it contrasts to other, more confessional, understandings of “Religious Education” and what is at stake in the competing understandings. Satoko Fujiwara provides a persuasive account of why the “world religions” paradigm has persisted in Japanese education, linking it to a particularly Japanese understanding of Max Weber.
Though this volume does not focus directly on teaching, it nonetheless provides the interested reader with both some very pointed suggestions about classroom practice and an array of essays about the state of the field that will provoke and perhaps even inspire careful rethinking about what we are teaching when we teach about religion.
Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices
Date Reviewed: August 3, 2016
Discerning Critical Hope is a continuation of the work of Paulo Freire, whose famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) formed a basis for critical and liberation pedagogy. While his early work included hope, he reiterated the importance of that portion of his framework in Pedagogy of Hope (1992). A small but growing literature on critical hope is extant in the field of pedagogy, but this idea has not yet made many inroads into the published works of theologians, despite its connections with liberation theology and the other contextual and critical branches of theological discourse and activism. (Works on critical hope in the religious education and theology literature include: Bock, “Climatologists, Theologians, and Prophets,” Cross Currents; Kim, “Seeking Critical Hope in a Global Age,” Religious Education; and Kuhne, “A Community Pedagogy of Critical Hope,” PhD dissertation). Many readers of the Wabash Center’s publications will undoubtedly already teach in a way consistent with the critical and liberative themes in Freirean thought, critiquing oppressive social structures and advocating for a world grounded in God’s justice and love. After deconstructing oppressive systems and our complicity in them, however, it can be difficult to provide hope in the theological classroom. I personally find it challenging to move students beyond critique and not simply leave ministry students and seminarians with the task of reconstructing their shattered beliefs and worldviews on their own.
Critical hope provides a way forward. Within this framework, critique and hopefulness cannot be separated: the point is that we need both. We need to be able to critique the world as it is, while retaining hope for a different future. Within this framework, the educator engages history with a critical lens, invokes students’ imaginations, envisioning a different way, and provides space for practical steps to enact that vision.
Discerning Critical Hope includes chapters by a number of scholars, educators, and practitioners. The authors distinguish between critical hope, naïve hope, and false hope. Naïve hope is optimism without a sense of personal responsibility: expecting that things will turn out alright even if one puts forth no effort to make it so. False hope refers to the idea that working hard will result in one joining the oppressing class, a personal rather than systemic release from injustice. Several chapters critique neoliberal education and other forms of supposedly equality-based educational practices that promise merit-based successes, while in reality supporting colonial and patriarchal systems of power. These can serve as cautions for those who teach religion as well. Which of the forms of hope offered in classrooms are naïve or false hopes? Are faculty willing and able to be drawn to a deeper level of hope that can handle the paradox and mystery of critique, of looking in the face of real suffering and injustice, and struggling – hope-filled – toward a better world?
Although each chapter has its helpful points, I found chapters 2, 5, and 10 most useful. Chapter 2, “Teaching for Hope: The Ethics of Shattering Worldviews,” by Megan Boler, provides hope for my own teaching. Boler recognizes the real difficulties in engaging critical hope in the classroom: intentionally invoking a pedagogy of discomfort is, not surprisingly, uncomfortable for students and educators alike. Boler states that, when utilizing this pedagogical method, about a third of students will be receptive, about a third will be vocally and angrily resistant, and another third will be numb or apathetic. She shares a difficult classroom experience, including her fears and other feelings as she navigated dealing with resistant students. It gave me courage to continue practicing this form of teaching.
Chapter 10 provides a brief history of thinkers who have written about hope, from the Greek myth of Prometheus to Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ernst Bloch, and Paulo Freire. This provides a helpful entry point into different explications of hope throughout history, especially since many of these philosophers had such a major impact on Western culture and on theology. This chapter delineates how and why critical hope differs from previous understandings of hope.
Chapter 5, “Plasticity, Critical Hope and the Regeneration of Human Rights Education,” by André Keet, explains critical hope through the lens of deconstruction, bringing Derrida and other philosophers into the conversation. Keet describes critical hope as that leftover form present after deconstruction occurs, that kernel of truth or “trace” that remains when one strips away all the systems and structures that get layered on top of that essential form. Forms must be physical, must be enacted: these traces cannot remain metaphysical or theoretical, but must be lived.
For theological educators, as we critique and deconstruct, we hope and trust there is an essential kernel there for our students to discover, a trace, a divine encounter or transcendent truth, a knowing that goes beyond the laws and organizational structures with which we so often burden our faith. As we critique, we also hope: we sense something there, something infinite, personal and universal, a never-changing essence and a dynamic Spirit of creative transformation. We can never pin it down; it is always a process of becoming. Hope is a means and an end, a way of being and a goal to strive for, but we cannot know for what we hope without critiquing the present context and imagining a different world. Nor can we truly hope unless we embody that hope in praxis, naming the problem, developing a solution, enacting it, reflecting, modifying, and trying again in a constant cycle of transformation.
Though the authors of this text do not often discuss religion or spirituality, these topics do come up at points, and the struggles to name injustice and enact a truly just and hope-filled form of education will be recognizable to many religious educators. I recommend this book to educators in the religious academy who want to enact a form of education that goes beyond the banking model, who want to challenge their students to engage in critical thinking, who need courage and a sense of solidarity from knowing they are not alone in this struggle, and who also sense a deep undercurrent of hope in taking one step, and then another, toward that imagined future.
The core learning goal of my introduction to Islam is that “Islam” is not a thing. Islam does not say anything. Islam does not do anything. Islam holds no power over anyone. Given the incredible diversity across time and space that marks the practices, habits, desires, sensibilities, beliefs, and feelings ...
Engaging with Living Religion: A Guide to Fieldwork in the Study of Religion
Date Reviewed: March 3, 2016
What is “religion”? Many would argue that religion is the single most important element of a person’s existence: “I am [Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, et cetera] and my understanding of reality is predicated by my religious affiliation.” Others would argue that it is nothing more than a sociological aspect of a person’s existence. “I am [Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, et cetera], and it is important to me in the same way that my Irish, Indian, or Russian heritage predicates my social interactions.” On one hand, we have persons who understand themselves within the context of their religion. On the other hand, we have persons who understand their religion within the context of themselves.
Yet, how does one define religion? One definition that I have found helpful for many years is from Winfried Corduan’s tome Neighboring Faiths: “A religion is a system of beliefs and practices that provides values to give life meaning and coherence by directing a person toward transcendence” (InterVarsity, 1998, 21). This definition provides a simple construct for understanding what religion is and what it does without taking sides. Whether one is on the devout or the affiliated end of the spectrum, people might generally agree that the purpose of religion is to teach people values that will give life meaning.
The next question, then, is how should students in higher educational classroom contexts study religion? Talk about a tricky wicket! Any student of religion is going to have shelves of books that all make the same claim – this one has the answer! Some offer tremendous analysis on the all-encompassing and captivating nature of religion. Others provide summative studies of various religions that may stir the reader’s appetite for meaning and transcendence. Still others provide a sociological approach to the study of religion, a field manual for understanding why persons cling to religious belief and practice that belief as they do.
Authored by religious studies professors Stephen E. Gregg (University of Wolverhampton) and Lynne Scholfield (St. Mary’s University, Twickenham), Engaging with Living Religion offers a practical introduction to the field study of religion. The intention of the book is not to develop religious ideation or affiliation in its readers, but to provide a professionally-appropriate way for researchers to analyze and comprehend why Christians pray with their eyes closed, why Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca, and why Jews light a menorah. While this last statement may sound simplistic, it is anything but – each of these actions are essential expressions of that religion and, as the authors argue, one cannot understand Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion without understanding the liturgy and locations that provide structure to the world’s religions.
Designed as a guide for the fieldwork student (or as a study companion in a lecture course on religious sociology), Gregg and Scholefield create not only a keen eye for studying religion but also a deep respect for religious adherence. Although the volume does take more of a sociological stance – religion is more akin to a social activity or organizational membership than a guiding force for one’s life – the authors keep the idea that religion is living ever before the reader/researcher. Each chapter is bursting with sidebars, such as passages from foundational readings or case studies, discussion questions, recommended bibliographies, and websites for further research. Although this is a book about the study of religion, one thought comes through subversively on every page – Religion, however it is defined, is living and active, and it provides meaning and direction to individuals seeking transcendence. Therefore, treat it with care and respect.
Overall, I found this volume to be both intriguing and engaging. In addition to a chapter that advocates why studying religion is important, there are chapters on where to study religion, how to study religion through class field trips or study-abroad programs, how to use case studies and social media to understand religion practically, and how to develop an ongoing appreciation for the sociological study of religion.
My recommendation would be that this volume be read alongside a more extensive volume on ethnography. Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field (University of Chicago, 2011) or Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw’s Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (University of Chicago, 2011) would constitute good choices.