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