Heading into the last trimester of my junior year at Penn State I had completed nearly all of my major course work in Political Science and decided to take a course in religious studies. The course was actually an ethics course taught by an American Baptist scholar, Paul Harrison. It was a life-altering class for me because it introduced me for the first time to the idea that it was possible to think critically about religion. It also introduced me to scholars and bright students who also had reasoned faith positions. I enjoyed the interaction in class so much that I filled up my senior year with classes on American religious history, ethics, and introduction to biblical criticism. The same Paul Harrison, who became something of a mentor for me, then convinced me to stay for another year after graduation and do a Master's program in the religious studies department. And then it was on to seminary and the rest is history, I guess.
What should a properly educated college graduate of the early 21st century know?
A Harvard curriculum committee proposed an answer to that question this month, stating that, among other things, such a graduate should know "the role of religion in contemporary, historical, or future events -- personal, cultural, national, or international."
To that end, the committee recommended that every Harvard student be required, as part of his or her general education, to take one course in an area that the committee styled "Reason and Faith."
I think it is a good thing that Harvard is considering making it a requirement that students take a religious studies class. If they do it other universities will likely follow. Why is it a good thing? The vast majority of students attending college hold religious beliefs and have religious backgrounds. As they have grown up and gone through high school they have learned to think critically about science and history and current events; but most have never had any exposure to critical thinking about religion. Most churches don't go there; many think it is dangerous or evil.
College is the first, and may be the only, opportunity many people have to learn that it is possible to bring thinking skills to bear on faith issues and bible studies. And in college they have the opportunity to have this exposure among people of different faith perspectives. Given the reality of an increasingly diverse world we live in and the heightened important religious differences are making in our lives today, no student should leave college without having at least the one-course opportunity to think critically about religion and its role in our lives.
Of course it would also be nice if more churches invited their parishioners to keep their brain turned on when they attend services.