When I was twenty-two and first started teaching religious studies at a college level, most of the students were around the same age I was (or, in my evening classes, older than me). In my Introduction to World Religions courses, I’d begin the first section exploring the general characteristics of religion, what students knew of religion—either firsthand or through previous studies, and ways in which they felt religion had had an impact on their lives or the world around them. Semester by semester, I’d have classes with more than half the students telling me that they were active Christians of one kind or another, another quarter telling me they were Jewish, and then a student or two who would come from other religious traditions. As we explored religion after religion in subsequent classes, students would compare that religion and what they were learning of its beliefs and practices to their religious experiences and we’d take on the insider-outsider problem and the biases that could come from doing comparisons in that way. The conversations could get heated but they were usually very interesting.
As I reached my late thirties, the make-up of my Introduction to Word Religions courses began to change. Instead of students who listed themselves as active followers of a religion, I began to have classes where the bulk of the students had been raised in a religion but had stopped attending after confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, etc. because they either didn’t see how the religion in which they’d been raised connected with their current life or because they couldn’t believe something that they’d been taught as children during religious education classes. The class discussions moved toward conversations in which we unpacked what doctrines, creeds, and rituals that they’d only understood from a child’s perspective might mean from an adult’s view and how such fresh looks at old beliefs might connect with their current lives. We also spent a lot of time doing “everything you’d always wanted to know about” Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, or whatever the religion of the week was. This gave people a safe setting in which to ask questions about things they’d seen, experienced, or heard about that had puzzled them. There were questions that came up about each religion, but the bulk of them often came from people who had practiced a religion but not understood why the religion had suggested they do or say something. The conversations could be challenging, but it was lots of fun to watch students often reconnect something they’d discounted back into their lives.
For the last several years, the make-up of my Introduction to World Religions courses seems to have shifted yet again. Now instead of active followers of a religion or former followers of a religion, the bulk of my students have never had any connection in their lives with a religion, nor are they aware of any connections that their parents may have had. In my Tuesday evening section of the course this semester, for example, only one student has had any connection with a religion (evangelical Christianity) and he no longer follows it. Religions of any kind—or spirituality in general- are something remote for the students and the challenge these days is to find a way to help them connect to the idea of any kind of religious experience or tradition.
As part of this course over all the years I’ve been teaching it, students have to attend a worship service in a tradition and then interview the clergy person leading that worship to learn more about the specific rituals and actions they’ve seen. In past years students have been able to connect that to their own former religious experience, but these students have nothing to which they can connect the encounter and so it becomes much harder for me to provide contexts for the religions they are studying. I think I’ve got to find a new way to teach the course to give them some more personal glimpses of what it might mean to have some spirituality in their lives, but to do so in a way that makes it clear that no one is trying to convert them to any specific belief system. The whole process is leaving me puzzling, rethinking, and trying to find some “Velcro” activities that will give them some feeling for what a religion can offer in an individual’s or a community’s life.