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Peter Fitch

Religious Studies and Community Engagement

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As the 21st century proceeds, there is a longing in academia to make bridges to a “real” world, to connect abstract ideas to the places where people actually live. At St. Stephen’s University we feel this, too, and it has led us to a determination to develop a major focus on community engagement. Each department, each discipline, is turning its attention to this task. What will a more practical application look like as it emerges from the world of ideas that is specific to each particular course of study?

My field is Religious Studies. As I thought about this challenge for my own work, I had a hard time imagining possible scenarios. In the past we have sent students to various faith communities to sing or to teach something, but that seemed a bit beside the point. How could a serious academic focus on Religious Studies contribute to deeper levels of involvement in the larger context in which we live?

Gradually, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a way. I think that the particular gift of Religious Studies is to help students attain a posture that will be most helpful for community engagement. In other words, the main role of this discipline may be preparation. Students that are drawn to religious studies, as well as the institutions that they inhabit, may be filled with ideas that make it hard to work in a synergistic way with others. Religious exclusivism can be very real. People with good intentions may find it hard to learn from peers that hold different worldviews. Such people may present a kind exterior but quietly reserve the right to filter out the contributions of others. I think that I have seen this time after time. What might help?

First, Religious Studies can help people learn to dialogue and to value a “spirituality enriched by difference.” After all, in many traditions, Christianity included, there is a high value on treating others as you would like to be treated yourself. This includes giving fair hearing to others and learning from them wherever possible. We would all like to be treated like that.

Secondly, Religious Studies can help people learn to appreciate sacred texts without being forever imprisoned to ancient decrees. Our discipline can help people see that many mistakes have been made through the ages by authoritarian interpretations and it can help people learn to be comfortable with humbler, and probably wiser, approaches.

Third, Religious Studies can help people see the need to learn from the real-life difficulties of individuals and groups. It can help students step away from idealism and appreciate the complexity of some of the dilemmas that other people, including minorities in various societies, actually face.

Fourth, Religious Studies can help to re-focus the passions so that people are ready to lend their hand to efforts to make the world more just, more compassionate, and more beautiful. There is a great temptation, for those who are drawn to religious studies, to use their energy in pursuit of the priorities of their own communities. At best, this can be an important stage in personal development and maturity. At worst, it can be a distraction from making a difference in a real world. It’s like flowers or vegetables that are started in a hothouse but never replanted in a larger garden. The shelter is appreciated but the benefit to the larger community is lost.

I can think of some other ways as well, but this may suffice as an indication of the kind of the value that Religious Studies may bring to the table as universities seek to find deeper and better ways to engage the world that surrounds them.

Peter Fitch, D. Min.

Professor of Religious Studies

November 2019



In ________ We Trust

By Peter Fitch No Comments

There are many possible choices about where truth lies in its purest form. For some people it’s a religious perspective; for others it’s more of a societal or cultural blend. For some it’s built from a confidence in science; for others it’s adherence to a form of political philosophy. Whatever you decide is the best ultimate authority or truth source in your life will have a profound influence on the decisions you make.

At St. Stephen’s University, we acknowledge that there are people in our midst who have made different choices, whether conscious or unconscious, regarding the source of truth. It can be a great challenge for people who are coming from different perspectives to get along! Each new topic in a class or a mealtime conversation or a social media fight will be affected to some degree by the underlying assumptions that people have within their heads.

If people are coming from a religious perspective, they may define truth in line with the teaching of their church or with a sacred text like the Bible. If someone is coming from a less-well-defined religious perspective, or is an agnostic or atheist, it may be difficult to understand the motivations and thoughts of people who are trying to be obedient to something outside of themselves. This difference can be seen in conversation after conversation; it can cause an impasse which makes the breakthrough to community quite difficult.

What can help? First, learning to listen. This sounds simple but is actually one of the greatest of life skills. French genius Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Learning to hear what others are actually saying, rather than using the moments when they are speaking to create strategies of attack against them, is an essential component of maturity.

Second, it is possible to have a “teleological suspension of disbelief.” This is an offshoot of an idea by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who spoke of a teleological suspension of the ethical. He suggested that normal ethics might need to be put aside at times for a good reason or purpose (that’s what “teleological” means). A teleological suspension of disbelief is different. It means temporarily taking what you believe about something and pushing that to the “back-burner” of your mind, so that your concentration can truly be on the perspective of the other. This is about laying down your defenses and your sense of right and wrong, not forever, but for as long as you are listening to a person who has a different belief. In this way, it is possible to get a better glimpse of what the person is saying. An attempt can be made to imagine the world as the other person is seeing it. There can be benefits to this. Perhaps there are ideas that will improve your own way of thinking when you return to them to sort it all out. Perhaps there are not. Even so, you will have conferred a sense of dignity to the person you were speaking with as you listened as though they had something important and true to say.

Third, it is very helpful to remember that all perspectives are incomplete. Even if you are very confident in the truth source you have chosen, there will be acknowledgements from those who represent it most deeply (priests, scholars, scientists, politicians, philosophers, parents, movie stars, etc.) that there is a level of mystery in life. Our perspectives are finite. So is our knowledge. So, probably are some of our cherished beliefs. Different groups may have different opinions about how much mystery is involved but remembering that mystery exists allows us to have something we might call an “epistemology of humility.” This is an open-handed approach to life, thought, and belief. It means that there is always more to learn. Life is always deeper than we know. The clue that will lead us to the next life-changing thought may very well come from an unlikely source. It’s important, then, to stay open, awake, with a sense that learning is a privilege and a journey. We do not yet know all that we need to know. We keep learning as we go.

Fourth, and finally, it is worth it to place a high value on synergy. It is possible to have the opposite, to be “right” and to be lonely. At times this is admirable. It means that you are holding on to a sense of conviction in the midst of many others who think you are wrong. At times it is less about conviction and more about stubbornness, refusing to listen or to learn from the perspectives of others. A good deal of wisdom is needed in order to know which is which! Am I being a hero or a fool?! Most of us will try both of these on from time to time. However, just as harmony enhances melody, synergy enhances life with others. This is the beauty of community, when we offer our gifts, perspectives, learning, beliefs and concerns in a way that produces a deeper vision for all. Valuing this, knowing that it is possible, allows people of different perspectives to share in life together with the hope that moments of breakthrough can be achieved. Life can be richer than it has been. Perhaps we will never agree on all aspects of thought or belief, but we can learn from each other as we go, and we can make better societies if we learn to care about the perspectives of others.

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