What I Have Learned from My Students After Half a Century of Teaching About Meaning

“There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.”                                

—Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature

I have been a college professor in a College of Education and Social Services in a “Public Ivy” University for almost five decades. The Dorothy Allison epigraph that introduces this article raises questions that have vexed me both personally and professionally all of my adult life. A possessor of five degrees, and trained mainly in English, anthropology, philosophy, educational theory, and religious studies, I have been on a search for meaning for what seems forever. In my 77th year, I am still an explorer. An evolving realization of my “own mortality” becomes more vivid as the decades unfold and as I near that (at least for me) dreaded ending called “retirement.” Reiterating Allison’s inspiring words above, I still yearn for a reason to believe, for something greater than myself to hold onto, some lasting belief that there is something more to this life than I have ever imagined.

House with white picket fence, blue skies. This personal drive to “take the world by the throat” in order to transcend the superficial ideals of the “American Dream,” along with its evanescent promises of attaining a lasting materialistic happiness, was my main motivation in creating the first applied religion course ever offered in a non-religious studies/non-divinity school in the United States. This brief essay is my account of what I have learned about the quest for meaning, and the practice of teaching about religion, from thousands of pre-professional, professional, and post-professional students throughout the decades. And, while it might sound like a feel-good cliché, I will say it nevertheless: I have learned at least as much from my students about making meaning of my life as they might have from me. Unequivocally!

During my earlier decades of teaching a variety of courses in the discipline of Educational Studies, most students I met, in their own unique ways, always managed to express a genuine sense of metaphysical wonder. They yearned to inch toward the discovery of some fundamental, and lasting, truths about their existence.  Some were hungry to belong to stable, church-based communities, especially if they intended to become, or actually were, parents of young children.  Others preferred the more private path of cultivating a richer interior life, a life of the spirit. Still others strove to give generously of themselves in furthering the cause of social justice, a cause they believed to be profoundly religious at its core. Even the religious doubters, who saw all too clearly that excessive religiosity has produced much demonstrable human misery throughout history, were eager to engage in conversations about a deeper, more lasting sense of meaning that might enlarge and enrich their secular worldviews.

And, so, during my first decade of teaching, I took the risk and created what I thought would be a one-time course in a professional preparation college called “Religion, Spirituality, and Education”—the first of its kind ever offered in the history of my university. In spite of many well-intended warnings from some of my colleagues that such a course would be unlikely to draw enough students to justify its existence, or that it would simply prove to be “too hot to handle,” or that it would only attract the “lunatic religious fringe,” the course has since played to full houses in the decades that I have offered it. Moreover, it has drawn as philosophically and religiously diverse a group of students as I have ever had in the various academic courses that I have taught over the years.

Because each semester I always ended up with a lengthy waiting list of curious students, I felt compelled to offer the course yet one more time to answer what appeared to be a virtually insatiable need for religious exploration in the academy. I realized during my first decade of teaching this course that my students were crying out for a designated, safe space in the academy for thoughtful religious dialogue. This is a space that encourages what I call “compassionate conversation.” Religion is such a fundamental part of human existence that to exclude it from the ongoing conversation about meaning in the American university, either intentionally or unintentionally, is to ignore, deny, or trivialize what has meant so much to so many for at least three millennia of human history.

I also learned during those early years that my best teaching self emerges only when I allow myself to be vulnerable with my students. Like them, I am still struggling mightily to make some kind of enduring sense of my existence. I teach (and write) as much from my heart as my head. I work as hard to be honestly self-revealing as I do to transmit with even-handedness the objective content of so many of the world’s major and minor religio-spiritual narratives. At this late stage in my career, what follows is a nutshell of what I have learned both personally and professionally about teaching religio-spirituality in a professional-preparation college housed in a public university.

Like John Dewey, the pragmatic philosopher of progressive education, I believe that religious faith does not necessarily have to be authoritarian. For me, and for many of my students, faith is trusting that human beings can interact with one another in sustained dialogue over what Dewey calls “a mutual quest for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race.” I firmly believe that my best classes on religion and spirituality have been open-ended in conversation. This is a conversation that is respectful, positive, practical, and consensual. We work best with one another when we try to achieve a consensus of values that will bind us together instead of tearing us apart. This pedagogical goal is much more difficult to achieve than it is to propose, and I am still working at it.

A man walking on train tracks.

Whether one is spiritual or religious, theistic or atheistic, we are all engaged in a journey to discover and/or create a meaning that transcends the self and the tribe. This is a meaning that motivates us to give our hearts and minds to something larger than ourselves, to some mystery far beyond our secular range of vision. It is a meaning that combines seeking, practice, place, and community while, at the same time, it requires discipline, sacrifice, and attention. It is a meaning that nourishes our moral growth, and gives rise to the compassion and love which will allow us to live rightly with others. I strongly believe that students ought to have an opportunity, if they wish, to discuss the personal meaning of this journey openly and publicly on non-sectarian college campuses, including both its benefits and its risks, its opportunities and its dangers, and its joys and its sorrows. In spite of the resistance from colleagues and administrators I sometimes face, I have grown to become an earnest advocate of personal meaning-making in the academic space.

I have learned from my students that the words “religion” and “spirituality” are interchangeable parts of the same experience. One without the other is like possessing an intellect without a heart to soften and deepen it, or feelings without a cognitive intelligence to give them direction and purpose. I, thus, created the term religio-spirituality, and although awkward, it best encompasses this interaction, and avoids the artificial dualism so rampant on college campuses everywhere. Religion is too often seen as what we do with others; spirituality as what we do within ourselves. Students experience the former as public faith; the latter as private faith. In principle, I hold that neither one is inferior or superior to the other, and both are complementary. Students ought to have an opportunity to use both their heads and their hearts in examining the best and the worst of what spirituality and religion have to offer them in the process of their meaning-making.

I support what Aldous Huxley once said: “God is an hypothesis constructed to help us understand what existence is all about.” So many of my students have different conceptions of what they call “God.” I realize that whatever tends to inspire depth, reverence, awe, and what Paul Tillich called “the infinite and inexhaustible depths and ground of all being,” is actually what the word “God” means to so many people. Thus, I have become an advocate for giving college students in every venue on campus an opportunity to examine, construct, and to share with others their alternative conceptions of God (or no-God). I am convinced that this is a very important way to plumb the “infinite and inexhaustible” depth that gives shape and substance to their lives.

“Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti”—“Truth is one, but the wise call it by many names” (from the oldest and most sacred Hindu text, Rig Veda 1.64.46). Although I have been a non-dogmatic postmodern, existential doubter most of my life, I have learned from my students that religion, spirituality, and God are the tentative and diverse answers we struggle to give to the following, universal questions about meaning and the search for a livable truth: What am I? Why am I? Where am I going? How should I act? What is worth knowing? What do I stand for? What should I believe? What should I hope for? Why should I believe? What is worth living and dying for? Whom should I love? Whom should I help? Who is my neighbor? To whom or what should I belong? What is my source of joy? What is my vocation? Why do others and I suffer? How can I further the cause of social justice and human compassion?  And, so, I am committed in all that I teach and write today to give my students the opportunity to explore multiple conceptions of religious truth. This, of course, includes the postmodern conception that there might be no absolute religious truth at all because, in the end, we made it all up.

Teaching, and learning about, religio-spirituality in a secular setting is not easy.  Ambivalence is ubiquitous. In all my classes over the years, my students struggle to accept that a genuine faith must somehow find a way to wrestle with the challenges of honest doubt. The goal is not to overcome the doubt, because this is neither possible nor desirable. The goal is to fully incorporate doubt into any final declaration of belief and call to action. A genuine faith, for some, finds expression in the humble understanding that when everything is said and done, one’s frail and wavering beliefs are all that are left to fill the interval between saying too much and saying too little about what is essentially incommunicable. No sentence about religion and spirituality should ever be regarded as an infallible pronouncement, but always as a humble question. I work very hard to make sure that my students have the opportunity to discuss openly (and with kindness) the strengths and weaknesses of any meaning that might be grounded in revelation, dogma, skepticism, faith, doubt, reason, or certitude.

Every faith tradition, despite major differences, has its universal elements. These exist mainly in the spiritual realm, and not in the dogmatic. It is in the spiritual realm, rather than in the institutional, that religious leaders throughout history have had little need to compel creedal conformity. Beyond all the ignorance, dogmatism, bigotry, injustice, tyranny, and hypocrisy that religions have spawned through the ages, however, their most noble aspirations are still in harmony. All the greater- and lesser-known world religions, each in their own distinctive ways, sing the praises of love, compassion, mercy, charity, peace, wisdom, justice, moral discernment, and hope. I have worked very hard to allow my students to raise honest questions about religion’s misdeeds throughout history as well as to celebrate religion’s contributions to the welfare of people everywhere. Obviously, how to do this without over exaggerating either the positives or the negatives of religion’s contributions to human beings in all times and places is a huge challenge, and one that I am continuing to deal with right up to the present time.

How my students and I talk about religio-spirituality is as important as what we discuss. Most of all, what I have learned professionally from my students is how to conduct a seminar where we can talk compassionately with one another about the hottest topic of all—religious belief and non-belief. I recall a particular time during my second year of teaching when the process was not going well. We were three weeks into the semester, and the class was falling apart. I did not directly address the communication problems during class time, because I was confident that my students would eventually come together on their own to resolve the difficulties. I thought that they liked and respected each other enough to make the effort. I was wrong. They seemed ready to strangle each other and me. I felt that I had lost control. After a very difficult, often contentious, third meeting, several members of the class were waiting for me outside the seminar room. Their words were harsh.

Statue of children having a discussion around a table.

Mary: “I’m afraid to open my mouth in there, for fear of getting killed.”

June: “Where the hell is the respect for each other that you always talk about?”

Phil: “Is this what our discussions are going to be like every week? If they are, count me out. I’ll just sit with my mouth shut, and let others hold court.”

Reagan: “Did you see what they did to poor Nate? They jumped all over him when he started talking about his own lapsed Judaism, and how he never felt he needed the comforts of his religion or his ethnicity. He was perfectly happy just being an agnostic outlier. If I were him, I wouldn’t open my mouth again.”

Lawrence: “I didn’t think you’d be able to pull this course off, given the controversial nature of the subject matter, Robert. There are just too many arrogant know-it-alls in the group for us to go anywhere this term. If you turn this unruly mob around, you will really be a miracle worker.”

Mary: “How can I ever talk honestly about my evangelical Christian beliefs when the cynics are ready to rip off my head? Why do you let some people get away with rudeness and snideness?” Are you anti-Christian?

Armando: “Why are we getting on Robert’s case? He’s just one member of our group. It’s true, he’s the seminar leader, but he can only do his job if people are willing to make an effort to open up their minds a little bit and join him in real dialogue. Where’s the cooperation? We’ve been scuffling with each other since the first hour of the first day of class. Robert must be exhausted trying to keep the peace with our grumpy group!

Armando was right. I was feeling the despair of a failed teacher! I decided to begin the seminar the next week by talking about what had gone wrong in our group process and how we might correct it. The processing that we did on that afternoon was lively, at times more than a little frustrating, but, in the end, very helpful. After three hours, we arrived at the following consensus as to what we needed to do for the rest of the semester in order to avoid “killing one another” with our certainties:

Recognize that declarations of beliefs are not necessarily conversations about beliefs. A compassionate conversation relies less on pontification and oratory and more on honest give-and-take, a patient, back-and-forth exchange of ideas. At its best, compassionate conversation is open-ended, inquiry-based, civil, and the outcome is never predetermined but always up for grabs.

Realize that either-or, all-or-nothing thinking is always a threat to destroy compassionate conversation. Either-or thinking oversimplifies complexity and dichotomizes diversity. Worse, when it dominates conversations about religio-spirituality, it frequently polarizes and anathematizes opposing beliefs.

 Understand that all views in compassionate conversation deserve at least an initial respect. We are each unique makers of meanings, looking frequently to express them, hoping that others will understand them, and wanting to live our lives in a manner that is consistent with them. It is highly unlikely, however, that any of us will actively seek out others to change the beliefs that are so central to our lives. Three moral virtues in particular—humility, trust, and kindness—are necessary for respecting the views of others. Only when these virtues are on full display in the conversation can we ask candid, non-aggressive questions about others’ beliefs.

Above all, follow the golden rule of compassionate conversation: be willing first of all to find the truth in what we oppose and the error in what we espouse, before we presume to acknowledge the truth in what we espouse and the error in what we oppose. This concept is not to suggest that truth is always an illusion or that every view of truth is equally true or equally false. Truth-denial and truth-equivalence—what some call nihilism and relativism—have nothing to do with authentic compassionate conversation. What is destructive of any kind of give-and-take conversation, however, is the attitude that one individual (or group) possesses all the truth, and those who disagree do so because they are in error or there is something wrong with them.

I hope my essay succinctly captures what I have learned from 50 years of teaching students of diverse ages and backgrounds—who, like me, know that they “must simply have something greater than themselves to hold onto.”

Robert J. Nash has been a professor in the College of Education and Social Services, University of Vermont, for 48 years. He teaches graduate courses on interdisciplinary studies, religion, philosophy, and creative writing, and he has published seventeen books, including several books on religious pluralism and education. He is an Official University of Vermont Scholar in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education.
 
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