by Dr. Norris Frederick
The fall semester – finally – has come to an end. And even though I don’t have a real job – like welding, for example – I’m exhausted, just as I have been after every semester for the past 40 years or so. You’d think a rational person would be ready to hang it up and walk away. Instead, I’m thinking about the spring semester classes I’ll teach, especially about my upcoming class on the philosophy of religion.
As I write this, the people of the United States are perhaps more divided than ever on major issues of politics, ethics, and religion. In the last year we’ve seen raging hatred, mass murders of citizens and police by individuals, senseless killings by police, international slaughter in Syria, and a vicious political campaign season. Confidence in political figures is at all-time lows.
Many of our students — in response to these hatreds and fears and in their desire to welcome others — confuse acceptance of differences with subjectivism: “Whatever you believe, that’s right for you.”
My philosophy of religion classes attempt to model a sympathetic approach to deeply held beliefs, and also to move beyond “whatever you think is true” to critically examine current beliefs in order to move toward more adequate beliefs, thus benefitting both the individual and our society.
William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience, with its basis in human experience and pluralism, is the backbone of my approach. The book contains hundreds of often first-hand accounts of the religious experience of various forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. James focuses both on the differences and also on the underlying psychological and philosophical similarities.
I also find a guiding idea to my teaching in his Talks to Teachers. On its first page, he urges teachers to “reproduce sympathetically in [our] imagination, the mental life of [the] pupil as the sort of active unity which he himself feels it to be.” Note that this respect is both ethical and pedagogical. It assigns a worth to the current life of each student as that student experiences it. It’s a worth very different from the “I respect your right to be an idiot.” It’s different because we’re asked to sympathetically imagine the unity that the student feels. The ethical is based in the fact that the mental lives of the students and our own as teachers are based in the same processes of the stream of consciousness, association, habit, and so on. Every person’s life – including that of the professor — is built largely on the same principles.
We hardly feel that everyone in the profession of teaching philosophy – let alone in teaching other disciplines – should come to the exact same conceptions about the nature of the good life and what the aims of life should be. Our lives and our democracy are better to the extent that we can sympathetically imagine the lives of others and thus extend respect to their lives. So it is with the lives of our students.
As I think back upon my teaching, some of the best moments in class and I hope some of the best learning took place with assignments that allowed the students to think about their lives and at the same time allowed me to sympathetically imagine their lives. In my introductory Philosophy of Religion class last time I taught it, the assignment for the second meeting was to write a couple of pages on “What influences did your parents have on your worldview? Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?” The students were told in advance that I’d ask them to discuss or read part of their papers in class, although they could pass if they weren’t comfortable with sharing what they’d written.
There were a wide variety of responses that led to a lively class discussion which offered the opportunity for the students to sympathetically imagine the mental lives of each other. Many chose to describe their religious upbringing or absence thereof. Some asked others for more details about their upbringing. The second question (“Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?”) allowed for students not only to further describe their parents’ influence and the student’s actions, but also to develop a definition of “determine,” and to offer evidence and reasons.
The assignment was connected to the topic of the day’s reading on “worldviews,” and it appealed to each student’s strong interest in the self and to their curiosity about concrete and lively details in the upbringing of others.
The discussion gave me an opportunity both to learn more about my students’ lives, to strive for distinctions (such as the difference between “influence” and “determine”), and to ask whether some of the evidence offered was sufficient or relevant to claims being offered. When I commented in class and later when I read and wrote comments on the papers, I not only sympathetically responded to the student’s present self, but also invited her to grow into a wider and deeper self. As James makes clear, sympathetically imagining the unity of a student’s mental life is not mutually exclusive with challenging a student’s thought. We who teach philosophy have an obligation to our students to move them toward a broader and deeper set of ideas that is more adequate for meeting life.
With that introduction to the course, the students felt more free both to express their own views and to realize that critically examining those views might get to a more adequate response. In my most recent philosophy of religion class some memorable discussions occurred between two of my students who in many ways could not have been more different. She was a middle-aged African-American woman from a rural town in the South, whose strong Christian faith was formed in youth and sustained by community. He was a 20-something white male from the Northeast whose major in biology and military deployment in several countries had led to a sort of reverse conversion, through which he now happily found himself a naturalist, an atheist.
These students played a leading role in class discussions in which several realizations occurred over the course of the semester. She came to realize that there are plausible arguments for atheism, even though she would never find them strong enough to become an atheist. He was particularly interested in reading and discussing instances of conversion and transcendence. He had at first dismissed these experiences as non-scientific and thus non-veridical, but as we discussed and read the arguments of James and others, he came to see the value of the experience of transcendence. For him, the object of that transcendent experience was not God, but nature. Both he and the theist came to realize that each found value in a transcendent experience.
While they might have left the semester’s discussions alienated and estranged, instead they found themselves companioned, in community. And both had deepened their understanding of philosophy, religion, and self. That’s one valuable thing philosophy can offer to the modern university, and to our culture.
And that’s one reason I’m still teaching after all these years._____________________________________________________________________
A slightly different version of this article appears at https://philosophyofreligion.org/?p=524968
Photo credit: Norris Frederick