Liberal Education

When "Understanding" Is Not Enough

When this issue of Liberal Education was first envisioned, the editor and authors intended to illuminate quests for spiritual meaning and communal identity that are increasingly important on campus. The articles rise elegantly to that aspiration, casting fresh light on the interplay between religious affiliations and the formal study of religion for both undergraduates and institutions.

Rich though they are, however, these pages will also strike you as incomplete. For in the fall of 2001, the study of "religion" has taken on newly somber connotations.

Without warning, Americans now find ourselves at war. And our enemy, extraordinarily, is a far-flung, if deviant, movement within Islam. From Palestine, to Pakistan, to the Philippines, there are many thousands, collectively professing an antagonistic understanding of their own religious commitments and drawing from these commitments the determination to conduct a "holy war" against the American Satan.

Thrust abruptly from what now seems our previous condition of both innocence and ignorance, Americans are struggling to come to terms with this transformed awareness. On campus and off, we are taking an improvised crash course on the views, sociology, and biochemical capabilities of radical fundamentalist Muslims. And we are learning from this inquiry that these antagonists not only despise our entire way of life, but also can call on broad networks of developing countries for sympathy and aid for their cause.

The driving question for many has become: "Why do they hate us?" One answer seems to be that Americans' fundamental conception of the desirable separation between religious belief and public life is itself a profound and deeply antagonizing affront to many Muslims, both terrorist and not.

Fundamentalist Muslims--like all of Christendom, in centuries past and some Christians today--see the truths they hold as a public imperative which ought to guide all aspects of society, including government. In such a context, Americans' very conception of public neutrality on religious obligation is itself offensive. These differences would not lead most Muslims to war or terrorism, of course. But the terrorists' resistance to the dominance of a Western-shaped modernity--including the privatization of religion and acceptance of "liberated" gender mores--plainly strikes sympathetic chords throughout the developing world.

And so we are suddenly caught in an unsought encounter with what appear to be incommensurable differences: the views about the separation of religion and the public sphere which guide our own society, and the views about religious control of society which inform not just the Taliban but many Islamic nations.

In encountering what appear to be such incommensurable differences, we in the academy also confront the limitations of the respectful pluralism which for the most part governs our approach to both liberal education and a pluralist society. As Cherry, DeBerg, and Porterfield report in these pages, the majority of religion professors take an "empathetic/analytic" stance when they teach religion. Their intention is to cultivate "an attitude of respect for religious people and religious traditions of all kinds," with respect taken as the right basis for analysis and a fuller understanding.

I recognized this stance at once when Cherry, et al. described it, because empathetic/analytic so perfectly summarizes my own approach when I taught pre-modern religious history. As a humanist, I wanted my students to "stand inside" very different ways of looking at the world; I wanted them to understand how and why and with what results such different views were held. It was not my goal to have my students argue for or against the views of medieval popes or mystics; all I asked was that students be able to take others times and places seriously, on their own terms.

As Americans adjust to our post-September 11 circumstances, cultivating empathy, analysis, and understanding continues to be fundamentally important, not just to our way of life, but to our ability to prevail in this struggle. But respectful engagement stalls when opponents have no interest in dialogue. And when incommensurable differences hold life-altering consequences, as they so plainly do now, they force us beyond the practices of empathetic exploration and dialogue into the less familiar humanist domain of evaluation, judgment, and decisive action.

Educators can take enormous pride in the degree of sophistication with which many Americans have reaffirmed our commitment to respectful pluralism in the tumult of the past few months. We have had much to do with the embrace of diversity as a core commitment of our democracy.

But educators also need to take new lessons from our altered circumstances. As individuals and as members of a society at war, all Americans will be making very difficult judgments and choices in the years ahead. Beyond the day-to-day choices--to volunteer for service or not; to profile or not; to support the administration's policies or not--there are also fundamental questions about the nature of life-affirming society that all in our society need to confront.

It seems entirely likely that we will see worldwide struggles well into this new century between modernity--encompassing democratic principles, human rights traditions, and religious pluralism--and fundamentalism determined to fight each and every one of these in defense of both tradition and theocracy.

In this context, the question that needs to be asked, not just in religion but across the academic disciplines, is how well we prepare our students to make grounded, knowledgeable, and yes, respectful choices, when they are confronted with incommensurable differences that hold life-defining consequences.

To support these kinds of assessments and decisions, the academy generally and humanists specifically, will surely need to develop new practices, affecting both process and content. In terms of process, we know from research on intellectual development that many students never integrate their values choices with the analytical skills they are asked to practice in our courses. For the twenty-first century world, however, this is surely a separation that we need to learn how to overcome.

But there are content issues as well. Most Americans never have any occasion to actually study the principles and premises that undergird pluralist democracies, much less to evaluate them critically against alternative conceptions of the way society should be organized. In the new world after September 11, the danger of that vacuum needs to be confronted.

And in both these emerging agendas, a renewed engagement with religious traditions and worldviews will surely be central for many years to come.

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