Saturday, March 31, 2007

Studying Religion in School

Stanley Fish is professor of law at Florida International University, and he is a guest columnist in the New York Times today. He weighs in on the the recent article in Time Magazine about whether religious studies ought to be offered in the public schools. Fish doesn't think it is possible to teach religion:

Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who is cited several times by Van Biema (in Time), describes the project and the claim attached to it succinctly: “The academic study of religion provides a kind of middle space. ... It takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” But that’s like studying the justice system and bracketing the question of justice. (How do you take something seriously by putting it on the shelf?)

The truth claims of a religion — at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity.

The metaphor that theologians use to make the point is the shell and the kernel: ceremonies, parables, traditions, holidays, pilgrimages — these are merely the outward signs of something that is believed to be informing them and giving them significance. That something is the religion’s truth claims. Take them away and all you have is an empty shell, an ancient video game starring a robed superhero who parts the waters of the Red Sea, followed by another who brings people back from the dead. I can see the promo now: more exciting than “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Matrix.” That will teach, but you won’t be teaching religion.

Honestly, did he get all the way through law school without ever taking a class in religious studies in college? Does he really think it isn't possible to "bracket" the truth claims of a religion and study its history and belief systems?

Not only that; he seems to be completely ignorant of the fact that there are lots of people in various religious traditions who take seriously the truth claims of their religious traditions but see no need to deny the truth claims of other religious traditions.

I think Mr. Fish ought to stick to teaching law.

1 comment:

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

Hope Maureen Dowd returns from vacation soon!

Those of us who have been to law school and not to seminary are equally familiar that one person's notion of justice is another's persecution!

Studying religious precepts is no different than studying legal concepts. Fish's editorial reveals more about his personal religious beliefs than it does his education qualifications!

One of my "strictist socratic" law school professors was a former Jesuit monk. Oddly he didn't teach abstract concepts of justice, he taught corporate law and securities regulation! As we were entering the Gordon Gecko (Wall Street) era of the mid 80s, he moulded students to work for Wall Street lawfirms that would handle one corporate takeover after another. But he could still relate the concept of fiduciary duty and other shareholder principles to larger concepts of Biblical and secular justice when appropriate. It was the same with the contracts professor--he freely quoted Faulkner and the Bible.