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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2007
Vol. 34 No. 2

Talking with Students about Faith in an

Era of Religious Extremes


Francis Dominic Degnin


"faith...should make it possible to live with uncertainty, it shouldn’t provide certainty"

William Sloane Coffin


Faith and truth are among the most commonly used and least understood terms in American culture. In many religions, the two function less as clear ideas and more as a sort of password or code. One is asked whether one has faith, usually in Jesus. If the answer is yes, it means that one has access to (or has accepted) ultimate truth. One is part of the club.

Faith and truth are, thus, intimately related. Both are also deeply misunderstood. I deal with truth in a companion piece. In this article I propose a definition of faith, along with a pedagogy for talking with students, which enables one to become more self-aware and self-critical in one’s faith(s). My approach is to invite students to reflect on how faith functions and has a role in their own experience. We then use those experiences to derive a richer, non-literalist notion of faith. This process, involving as it does the students’ own explorations, is convoluted and can easily fill two class periods–the first to deconstruct uncritical assumptions, the second to rebuild a new definition from their experiences. To simply outline that procedure, however, would mean that the reader would not even see my definition of faith until the last third of the article. While very useful for pedagogical purposes, this approach might prove frustrating to scholarly readers. Thus, while the practical nuts and bolts of these two "class periods" form the second and third parts of this essay, I begin with a discussion of the philosophical and religious origin of this notion of faith, some of its potential limitations and assumptions, and some of the developmental and pedagogical issues which underlie this approach. I also offer some direction as to where this notion of faith has taken me in terms of both philosophy and spirituality.

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