July 23, 2008

More on Religion Matters

Ethan Zuckerman points to a good column in Sunday's Washington Post that falls firmly into the category of "religion matters." It is written by a catholic priest and professor at Georgetown, Ryan Maher, who has been teaching the university's traditional freshman theology class in Doha, Quatar at a recently opened branch campus of their School of Foreign Service. The class, to say the least, was not typical of those he had taught on the Washington D. C. campus:
That was not an easy course to teach. I imagine it was not an easy course to take, either. We were all aware that we were engaging in something novel, a college class of mostly Sunni and Shiite Muslims exploring with one another and with their Catholic priest professor some of the basic theological issues: the existence of God, free will, sin, prayer and Judgment Day.

One day early in the semester, in the middle of a discussion on the definition of revelation, one of my students, an intensely bright Muslim from Bosnia, heaved a deep sigh and blurted out, "I hope we don't get blown up for talking about this stuff." I was writing on the blackboard, with my back to the class. I laughed. When I turned around, I saw that he wasn't joking.
Reading the rest of the article it is apparent that Maher feels that a personal experience with religious belief and not just an anthropological knowledge of religions is important for reasons that go to the heart of international relations and foreign service:
The majority of Georgetown students I know are fairly knowledgeable about religion. They can talk intelligently about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The glitch is that they talk from the perspective of anthropologists and sociologists and historians. These are valuable perspectives. But they are not enough. Of course we need to raise young people who can be smart, savvy, sophisticated participants in international affairs. What we also need are young people who can be all of those things while at the same time knowing and understanding what it is to live one's life with a commitment rooted in faith.
He gets to the heart of the matter when recalling a conversation with a friend over the place of faith in American politics, specifically in light of John Kerry's refusal to discuss his the role faith played in his own life:
I have thought about that conversation for a long time. It has helped me understand what hobbles American higher education when it comes to educating people for careers in international affairs. It's not that we don't know about religion; it's that we don't understand faith and its life-shaping power.

The majority of people I know in higher education would argue that there is nothing wrong with religion for people who feel they need it. Their sentiments come down to something like this: "You have your religious convictions, I have mine. Let's acknowledge our differences and agree to disagree with one another within the confines of polite debate." That makes sense, of course, but it is not enough to prepare a new generation of diplomats who will be asked to engage the Muslim world in the decades to come.

This template for discussing religion and faith is fundamentally flawed. It presumes that different groups of faithful people approach their religions in the same way football fans approach their favorite teams: I cheer passionately for mine, you cheer passionately for yours, and we all agree to play by the rules and exhibit good sportsmanship. For people of faith, religion isn't like that. A person of Muslim faith and a person of Christian faith engaged in honest conversation about religion are not like two fans pulling for their respective teams. They are more like two men in love with the same woman, each trying to express, safeguard and be faithful to his relationship with his beloved. Love brings with it complexities that football does not.
I think Maher is absolutely correct and as I've said, as recently as yesterday, religion matters. Whether we are engaged in international diplomacy or trying to communicate the benefits of leguminous cover crops, we ignore matters and factors of faith to our own peril, detriment and eventual failure when dealing with the vast majority of the world's peoples.

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