A week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison held a candlelight vigil to mourn and commemorate the victims of that attack and others elsewhere. More than 100 Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and religiously unaffiliated students, after some moments of silence, began to comment on what had happened the week before. Despite their religious differences, there was a common thread in the short speeches that night. Every student rejected revenge and divisiveness and made a plea for the peaceful coexistence of people of all faiths. As they spoke, students acknowledged their religious differences and appealed to their common humanity.
Across the country, similar vigils and public prayers took place at many colleges. Much like what I witnessed on Madison’s Library Mall, these vigils exhibited a new spirit of interreligious conversation and solidarity. They showed the promise of interreligious dialogue to help students transcend real and perceived religious boundaries in times of crisis and despair, and to nurture a democratic space of freedom and difference on campus, which still seems so hard to achieve in too many parts of the world, indeed even here in America.
But what was a careful, proper, and welcome response for students in the face of terror is not enough of a response for administrators and educators. We cannot let the students do all of the heavy lifting in organizing such events, nor is it enough for us to organize them on students’ behalf. Doing so would mean that we, as their teachers, are simply reacting to terror. It would mean that the jihadists are setting the intellectual agenda for our campus discourse.
Instead, colleges need to stay ahead of the violence caused by religious extremists in a way that trains their students to better understand religion in the 21st century. In a globalized world increasingly threatened by religious extremism and fanaticism, educators must think about how religious education can play an important role in helping their students become global citizens. They must give students knowledge of the religious backgrounds of the disputes that dominate our world, and to train students to be ready to recognize when religious ideas and motivations are being hijacked by extremists abroad and at home.
Public and secular colleges — where finding and facilitating space for diverse religious expressions is understandably tricky — have a crucial role to play here. The secular, pluralistic campus is the ideal habitat to help students understand how religious ideas and identities work, how religious worldviews both open and constrain (geo-)political interaction, and how people of different core values and convictions can peacefully coexist. Colleges need to invest more in their students’ religious literacy — not proselytizing, not affirming any particular faith — but simply teaching vital competence about religion and its impact on global affairs that will prepare students for their future while enlightening our civic discourse along the way.
But educators should not just teach about religious diversity and difference; they should also train their students how to negotiate it. A requirement for a religious-studies course would be a welcome first step in ensuring that students are achieving basic religious literacy. There are exemplary religious-studies courses taught on campuses across the country offering a vital cognitive approach to understanding religion. Students examine sacred scriptures, narratives, and teachings; assess the religions’ sensual, aesthetic, and material dimensions; and analyze ritual, moral, and institutional practices.
But our students have inherited a world with a 24-hour news cycle that bombards them with images of suicide belts, vandalized ancient religious sites, and the lifeless body of a 3-year old Syrian refugee washed up on a Turkish beach, making the traditional cognitive approach to learning about religion necessary but insufficient to give them the understanding they will need to make their way in the world.
Studying another religious tradition is much like learning a foreign language. In order to speak a different language, it is not enough to know how to translate certain words or phrases. There are rules for grammar and syntax, but the meaning of words, phrases, and symbols may change depending on context. The ideal way to learn a foreign language is often to immerse oneself in a culture where the language is spoken. Language is learned best from native speakers in their own habitat.
How can colleges create a similar learning experience when it comes to their students’ religious commitments and convictions?
The best way is to establish interreligious learning communities on the campus. Collegiate interreligious education integrates a personal, noncognitive side of religion, in which participants are willing to share their perspectives on their own faith traditions while discovering those of others. In interreligious learning communities, students learn from one another instead of learning about the “Other.” These groups provide the space and time to create personal relationships that correct stereotypes and challenge unfounded prejudices. And they give students a chance to examine what they cherish and what frustrates them about their own faith traditions, thus showing that no faith is a monolith.
Interreligious education does not demand or even foster easy harmonies. Even in the hours before the vigil at Madison, members of the Muslim Student Association had to address concerns that holding candles to remember the dead is a Christian, not Muslim, tradition and therefore haram (religiously forbidden). But the articulation of such a concern can be real progress if it teaches Christian students about the particularity of their memorialization practices, Muslim students about the quiet beauty of such practices, and non-Muslims about what haram means. In the end, many Muslim students showed their solidarity by attending the vigil but decided against holding candles.
With or without candles, with head scarves, yarmulkes, and baseball caps, the students who participated in the vigil show the promise of interreligious communities for marking difference while upholding solidarity. Those who stood in the cold in Madison should remind us of the urgency to make our campuses successful models of communities of diversity and global citizenry that do not ignore but recognize — and draw on — the significance, beauty, and complexity of religion.
Adapted from http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Value-of-Teaching/234393