A college president asks: Why are students today so uncomfortable talking about religious experience?
By MICHAEL S. ROTH
Feb. 20, 2015 7:13 p.m. ET
It happens every year. In teaching my humanities class, I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about the immortality of the soul or salvation, and suddenly my normally loquacious undergraduates start staring down intently at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with an answer: predestination, faith not works, etc.
But if I go on to ask them how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their notes. They look anywhere but at me, for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In this intellectual history class, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when the topic of religious feeling and experience comes up, they would obviously just prefer that I move on to another subject.
Why is it so hard for my very smart students to make this leap—not the leap of faith but the leap of historical imagination? I’m not trying to make a religious believer out of anybody, but I do want my students to have a nuanced sense of how ideas of knowledge, politics and ethics have been intertwined with religious faith and practice.
Given my reading list, I often ask these questions about Christian traditions, inviting students to step into the shoes of thinkers who were trying to walk with Jesus. I realize that more than a few of my undergraduates are Christians who might readily speak to this experience in another setting. But in the classroom, they are uncomfortable speaking out. So I carry on awkwardly as best I can: a secular Jew trying to get his students to empathize with Christian sensibilities.
In recent years, I myself have become more accustomed to the awkwardness of my secular engagement with religious practice. After the death of my father, I sought out a place where I could say Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer. According to tradition, you don’t say this prayer alone; there should be at least 10. I stumbled upon a small, eclectic group that met early in the morning for a lay service (no rabbi). I could say the prayer with them, and eventually I would stay on for study sessions. Why was this atheist praying and studying? It’s about participation, I told myself. And that was enough.
The people with whom I said my prayer became part of my life. Prayer was like study—or was it the other way around? Studying with them wouldn’t mean I was abandoning my own secular worldview, I thought. I was learning about a tradition in which I’d been raised but had only dimly apprehended. I mostly ignored the question of belief; learning was enough.
The classroom is another kind of participation. As a historian, I want my students to learn concrete things about major events and daily life in the past, but I also want them to go beyond the facts and try to imagine how it felt to be at a certain time and place; I want them to participate imaginatively in the past while recognizing that this creative act can never be accomplished fully. When we read great books together, I want them to understand why an author made certain choices, how the arguments were first received and how they might be relevant to us today.
When we exercise historical imagination about secular topics, we have an easier time accepting the possibility that we might be wrong, that new evidence might change our minds. Religious questions seem to cut more deeply, arousing…well, some fear and trembling.
So why not just stick to the facts and timelines? Why not just show what is right and wrong in the work of the authors we read? After all, aren’t we now in a position to know the truth about many of the things that they could only guess at? Today we even know what parts of the brain light up when someone prays—or asks questions about prayer!
Those are the kind of objections I get from bright, confident undergraduates, and I try to show them that the questions asked by the philosophers, writers and artists we study have not been settled. Our job in the classroom isn’t to arrive at some definitive historical or philosophical truth about the past but to learn from exercising our intellect and imagination. The books we read together raise issues that challenge our assumptions, calling into doubt what many of us usually take for granted. The questions in these texts are ones to be wrestled with, not answered once and for all.
At Torah study, we begin with a blessing that echoes the commandment to wrestle with the biblical texts. We pledge ourselves not to memorize or obey but to engage with what we read. That’s what I want to offer my students, the opportunity to wrestle with basic questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. What they believe is none of my business, but I do want them to have a sense of what it’s like to be absorbed in robust traditions, including religious ones.
That would be enough.
—Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”