This will be my last blog post for three weeks. I’m taking a short break to work on a rewrite of my novel The Color of Electrum.
I’ll be back on May 15, with the first of a two-part post on the precognitive dream reported by Mark Twain–one of the many extraordinary things I’ve learned from the book I’m now reviewing: Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms, by Jeffrey J. Kripal, with Ata Anzali, Andrea R. Jain, and Erin Prophet. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
I left you last week with the question: how can a textbook like Comparing Religions be used in a real-world college course?
It’s a fantastic book, an extraordinary book, a textbook like no other I’ve ever seen. A textbook designed by its author “to confuse and baffle, but also to enchant and bedazzle“–and “enchant” and “bedazzle” it does. But it’s also likely, as Kripal is well aware, to confuse and baffle the students who need it to guide them. And that’s not what a textbook is supposed to do.
My mind goes back to the summer of 1977.
I spent that summer in Israel, where I’d lived a few years while researching and writing my doctorate. I’d just finished my first year of teaching in the Department of Religion (as we then called it) at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I was not quite 30 years old.
While I was in Jerusalem, I visited my mentor, the late Professor Moshe Greenberg of the Hebrew University. From the perspective of my 60s, I can look back and say that Greenberg was about the kindest, purest person I’ve ever met or am ever likely to meet. He was my teacher long before I saw his face–I first learned Biblical Hebrew, as a college freshman, from a textbook he’d written. To a graduate student setting forth on the uncharted seas of a Ph.D. dissertation, he was the wisest guide.
Now, a newbie college professor, I came to Greenberg again for guidance.
I’d done pretty well in my first year of teaching, I told him. There was rapport and affection between me and the students. But they were impatient with, baffled by the complexities I’d introduced into the study of Jewish history, which back then was the subject of all my courses. They wanted things to be simple, straightforward. And that wasn’t the way they were.
How I wish I had a tape recording of what Greenberg said to me! Here’s something of how I remember it:
“The essence of learning, in every subject, is exploring the far boundaries of the known. That’s where you are; that’s where you’re trying to engage the students. But you must remember that what’s long ‘known’ to you is dark and unfamiliar to them. Your task is to indicate to them where the uncertainties begin, while at the same time providing the solid certainties their souls long for.”
As the years passed, I was to discover that in doing this a textbook–an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes, kind of boring sort of textbook–was an indispensable aid. The textbook could be counted on to provide the ostensibly “solid certainties” the students needed, the kind of stuff they could feel safe knowing for the exam. I could hint (not for the exam) that there might be something more than the book was telling.
Suppose I’m teaching a course on World Religions? Shall I use a ho-hum conventional textbook, with one chapter apiece on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and all the rest of the “isms”? Or a thrilling one, like Comparing Religions?
I blogged last week about the virtues of Comparing Religions. But it has some disadvantages too. Suppose a student comes into the course with only a vague idea, or none at all, of how the various faiths developed and what their beliefs, sacred practices, sacred books are. That student will notice, as I suspect Kripal didn’t while he was writing his chapter 1 on the different religions and their comparative practices, that a pretty fair amount of knowledge–which has been second nature to Kripal for so long he takes it for granted–is already presupposed.
One example, out of many that might be given:
Speaking of Judaism, Kripal refers almost from the beginning to “the Torah,” without saying what it is beyond that it’s “Jewish scripture.” (Nor does the term figure in the glossary.) The student is never told that the most basic meaning of “Torah” is the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, or that the “Torah” is part of what Christians call the Old Testament.
But surely most students already know that, coming into the course? Surely they don’t. That’s why many of them signed up for the course–so they could learn that kind of stuff, which maybe they should have been taught in high school but never were. And surely they could learn it from reading outside the course? But one of the points of taking a course is to clear away a stretch of time for reading you couldn’t do otherwise.
Kripal is plainly aware of this gap in his textbook. To his “Student Companion” website, he’s posted “a set of ideal summaries of the standard world religious systems,” which goes some distance toward filling it. But this supplement isn’t an integral part of the book, and that makes all the difference.
It’s easy to say he should have done it differently. The fact is, Kripal wrote the book exactly the way he needed to. To go off on the kind of nuts-and-bolts information I’m talking about would have undermined the integrity of the structure, which is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Yet these details are important, and the instructor needs to work around their absence.
I actually think the “Student Companion Site” ought to be revamped into an “Instructor Companion Site,” with detailed suggestions for ways in which Comparing Religions can be integrated into religious-studies courses of different kinds, with a forum in which teachers can discuss their own ideas and experiences.
For example, when I taught a freshman course comparing Judaism, Christianity and Islam–the closest thing I’ve done to a “world religions” course–I made it the first assignment for the students, divided into groups, to prepare encyclopedia-based reports on what the class most needed to know about each of these religions. Could something like that serve as a preparation, occupying the first 2-3 weeks of the semester, for the really exciting work with Comparing Religions? Maybe someone should try that, and then post to the website about how it turned out.
And another suggestion:
In the first part of this post, I referred to Kripal’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Visions of the Impossible: How ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness.” I also mentioned the fierce attack mounted on Kripal’s article by professor and science writer Jerry Coyne. (“Science is Being Bashed by Academics Who Should Know Better.”) I’ve since read Kripal’s rejoinder, again published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
My idea: use the Kripal-Coyne set-to, while teaching Comparing Religions, as a preliminary to reading the book.
The “visions of the impossible,” about which Kripal speaks in his article, are the marginalized data (like Mark Twain’s precognitive dream) which suggest to Kripal that material reality isn’t all there is, that the human nature and human history that have created human religions “cannot be fully explained by human reason, that something else or more, and often something truly fantastic, appears to be shining through” (Comparing Religions, page 367). It is this notion that Coyne, an outspoken materialist and atheist, lambasts.
Distasteful as I find his polemic style, I have to admit: Coyne makes some powerful points.
I think there’s a really good chance he’s right–that there is no God, no transcendent reality, and no consciousness outside the few cubic inches bounded by our skulls. What he seems to miss is, why we humans not merely wish but need for things to be different. Why religious faith and practice is not just a beneficial but an essential part of who we are.
This understanding, though it goes deep into my own life as a scholar and (in spite of everything) religious person, has been reshaped by my reading of Comparing Religions. Which conveys, as a brief Chronicle of Higher Education article couldn’t possibly do, how an episode like Twain’s dream fits into the majestic panorama of the human religious experience.
So my idea is: let the students learn, from the tussle between Jeff Kripal and Jerry Coyne–a miniature of the culture wars of our era–how high the stakes are in the initiatory experience that Kripal has prepared for them. Let them take sides. My bet is that most of them will side with Kripal, cheer for him to win. I certainly would. I certainly do–in spite of my wavering disbelief in the Deity, my firm disbelief in precognitive dreams. (I’ll post my thoughts on Twain’s experience three weeks from now.) Kripal may be wrong about material reality, about non-material consciousness. But he understands me, understands all of us, in a way I doubt those with Coyne’s perspective possibly can.
Let the students, equipped with this energy, set forth on their Kripalian initiations in the classrooms of a hundred universities.
They, and we, will come out the better for it.
by David Halperin
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This will be my last blog post for three weeks. I’m taking a short break to work on a rewrite of my novel The Color of Electrum. I’ll be back on May 15, with the first of a two-part post on the precognitive dream reported by Mark Twain. See you then!