Metasacralities #1 – May 2019

Welcome to the inaugural issue of the Metasacralities Newsletter!

 My name is David McConeghy and I teach and write about religion and religious studies. If you’ve already signed up for this newsletter in order to receive the first issue, thank you for joining me at the start of something new. I hope to share my exploration of how I can help our field to express its value to the academy and work to expand the public’s awareness of our work. As a contingent faculty in an Interdisciplinary Studies Department at state school, I have a unusual perspective on our field and a freedom to experiment. Thank you for your interest in the ongoing conversation about the changing landscape of higher education specific to religious studies. On that front, however, I have some concerns.

Just a few weeks ago there was an antisemitic terrorist attack at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California. Media coverage quickly said the alleged perpetrator was inspired by earlier attacks in March at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and in October of 2018 at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The latest in what feels like a never-ending string of attacks on Jews, black Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs makes it harder than ever to turn attention into action that helps reduce violence. Nor is it specifically a problem with religious sites, with shootings at UNC Charlotte on April 30 where two students died and then another in Colorado at Highland Ranch a week later. By a thousand cuts, we are wounded each time we must rise to grieve and confront a new tragedy.   

With our schools and religious sites under attack thanks especially to emboldened white nationalists, we see that another generation must endure the trauma of the loss of safe spaces for learning and worship. America has been built on such traumas from the displacement and murder of Native Americans to the inescapable horrors of American slavery and Jim Crow or the torture of gay conversion therapy. Our history is now one of intersecting traumas and an ongoing cycle of trauma-attention fueled by a ravenous media culture. The trauma itself is now a valuable product for the media as it cycles to identify the latest community–adjunct teachers, fast food workers, grocers, Uber/Lyft drivers–for whom sympathy can be measured in thoughts and prayers, click-throughs, and ad revenue.

In the final for the comparative religions class I taught this term, I asked students to reflect on what they learned. What was their takeaway from the course? I try to make learning “stickier” using experiential models, so I expect to see many answers about my qualitative personal interview and religious site visit assignments. This is especially true since the last weekend to attend a religious site before the assignment was due was Passover/Easter when Chabad of Poway was attacked. Students confessed in class discussions about their experiences that the warm welcomes they received in churches, synagogues, and temples in greater Boston made the attack even more anxiety-producing as they connected to the trauma and violence of Poway. Especially for my students who said they do not regularly participate in religious activities, the media coverage cast dark shadows on their (mostly) positive experiences. We had found ourselves in quite a place:

We were in class and hearing new stories about violence on another campus. We were discussing our visits to religious sites and hearing about violence at other religious sites at that same time.

Experiential models that ask students to “do” as the learning can be challenging for religious studies. Not everyone can practice t’ai chi or learn different meditation styles as coursework, as I did as an undergraduate. The debates over yoga in public schools show that simply divorcing a practice from its religious roots doesn’t appease upset parents. I have always prepared my students for the experience of observing a religious site with custom and context, but now my students are expressing a sense of anxiety in a Greater Boston classroom hundreds of miles from Charlotte and about having been at a religious site thousands of miles away from Poway.

It seems fair to say, we teach in sites and send our students to places that are potentially dangerous. Don’t mistake the potential for violence as a likelihood of violence. I don’t want to fear-monger, but rather to point out the consequences: there’s a desperate need for the work our field does to combat religious illiteracy, bigotry, and violence. If we see that opportunity for every student, then that raises the stakes on us to teach about religion in way that confronts and reduces those forces.

For anyone who has the privilege of still thinking they participate in a fair or neutral academic space, the daydream has to be over. We can no longer pretend that the skills our students need to navigate the world are not deeply political. Nor is our current incline toward neutrality (or a self-aware attempt to limit bias) a shield from our field’s legacies in colonialism and Christianity. The same is true of our sources. Will you use the work of those whom in their lives openly supported obvious immoralities such as Nazism or White Nationalism? As Steven L. Jacobs wrote in a Studying Religion in Culture blog post in April, the contributions of such figures “cannot be divorced from their own moral lapses” nor “wholly divorced from their persons.” The corollary of this claim is that our work–my own work–will be judged on my whole person. Therefore my work is not only infused with academic merit (one can hope), but also my own values.

So my work in the classroom has become intensely political to me, because I feel it can and should be a safe space where we cultivate the skills to understand and talk about the issues that help us navigate a religiously diverse (and divided) America. This is not neutral work. There are views we deem out of bounds, though we all try to preserve our students’ rights to civil disagreement about fundamental beliefs. Such rights aren’t immutable and the current fight over the shape of our civil rights includes debate about the value of pluralism, multiculturalism, and the secular public sphere. For a significant number, these values are the problem, not ideals for the common good. They are also the framework for religious studies in public education. No wonder our discipline feels especially vulnerable right now.

Share your thoughts: How do you deal with current traumatic events intersecting your classroom? Have you reached a pedagogical or personal tipping point like I have? Do you feel like you’re doing enough? If not, what’s stopping you from doing more?

For more on teaching as advocacy I recommend bell hooks Teaching to Transgress and Howard Zinn’s You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. For handouts on addressing inequality–such as the unequal experience of trauma by students in our classes–head to the Equity Literacy Institute.

I appreciate you taking this leap with me to imagine religious studies as ideally positioned to help our students face 21st century challenges.

If you have suggestions or comments, please share them with me by email or on twitter.