Heresy 101?

Remember that faculty breakfast and dog and pony show? Well there was more to it. One other interesting point in the recent faculty breakfast and cattle show was the address by the university president Without giving too much away, the University president is among other things, a fairly good natured person, concerned with faculty ideas (or at least that's the sense I get based on his regular invitations to take faculty and students to lunch or dinner), and a Catholic priest. And in his address to the incoming and old faculty, he did something not so surprising, all things considered: he suggested that it wouldn't be a bad idea for faculty to begin classes with a moment of prayer.

Now this prompted all the usual responses:
  • you can't make us pray, we take public money
  • you don't have to pray, you can have a moment of silence
  • we're at an institution with a religious bent - and with a priest as president - so you can't really be surprised at this
  • etc, etc, etc.
Part of the president's point was that it wouldn't be strange to ask one part of a university to support another part of the university's mission. My thought, choked down as so many of them have to be considering my own views on religion, was "Great. I'll pray at the start of class when you spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each mass talking about proper grammar and punctuation."

But in the interest of charity, Christian or otherwise, I want to try and avoid the usual negative rant that this might inspire. After all, in some ways the sort of debate discussed in this New York Times article becomes so strangely polarizing as to be useless. So instead, let me set the stage with a bit of background.

Like many people I know, I've got a distrust of religion that's deep and glaring. I'm not comfortable saying it is because I'm liberal - I think it would be interesting to see what a liberal religious movement would be capable of politically. I've even debated tackling a book that would play with some of those ideas. And I don't think it's because I'm well-educated. I know plenty of well educated people who have some strong faith or other.

The roots of my distrust that I'm willing to point to come from direct experience with religion. I spent some time in a middle school affiliated and run by members of a particular religion, and the experiences there were more than enough to make me shudder at all manner of things. It's because of my time there that I don't trust big groups clapping at the same time. It's because of my time there that I feel a little nervous any time a large group of people does anything in unison. And there are later experiences that have only deepened this distrust. And I would be remiss to ignore that I do feel like I benefited from being dragged to church as a child when the choice was still my parents. There were moral lessons that I take from there that I think were quite valuable. And there were communal lessons as well.

But sniping aside, there's a big question that wouldn't hurt to play with. Let's assume for a moment religion isn't going away. Not here, not in the larger culture. If that's the case, sooner or later, those of us who are liberal, well-educated folks are going to have to offer some notion of how to integrate religion of all varieties into education (in the same way that I think the left must sooner or later claim some religious space as well).

Part of the difficulty seems to be the assumption that the only way to be sensitive to religious beliefs is to facilitate religious practice. Why is it that the notion of appropriateness of timing seems to fly out the window in the American context (perhaps it does this elsewhere, but I couldn't say)?

I suppose, as a colleague of mine noted, we could do simple things to bridge the gap. In his case, it was designing a syllabus that was so frightening even non-believers would hope for divine mercy. That's one solution.


2 Responses to “Heresy 101?”
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amelie said...

But would the university president have even made that suggestion if he wasn't a priest? I think not.

August 29, 2007 at 6:14 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I don't think you have to be a priest to suggest that prayer in classes is a good thing. Even ignoring the protestant religious authorities who have argued for it, there's also considerable pressure from various government officials.

I'm less concerned with someone saying it than the fact that the response to it - mine included - seems equally reactionary. I'd like to avoid that tendency. I hope, even with religion, that the solution to screaming loud doesn't have to be screaming louder.

August 29, 2007 at 9:56 PM