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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Summer 2009
Vol. 36 No. 2

Conflations and Confrontations:
Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Liberal Arts Classroom

Davina C. Lopez

Setting the Terms of Conversation

I begin this short exploration of spirituality, religion, and values in the liberal arts classroom, from my own perspective as an undergraduate teacher of religion at a small, private, church-affiliated liberal arts college,1 with two statements related to perceptions of knowledge about religion and spirituality. The first has been used as a pull-quote for a growing body of literature on spirituality in higher education, particularly in the service of publicizing and sifting an apparently large amount of data collected about college students and faculty by the Higher Education Research Institute (or HERI) at UCLA. It reads like this: “Research conducted at UCLA reveals that most students want their college or university to help them develop spiritually. Are institutions ready?”2 Perhaps not surprisingly, according to this literature, the answer is usually no. The second statement has recently been made in relation to Steven Prothero’s recent book Religious Literacy, a New York Times bestseller. It reads like this: “The United States is the most religiously active, diverse, and ignorant country in the world.” This statement is often linked to a 15-question quiz available online3 and at the end of the book, the results of which may bolster the point since informal data suggests that many people apparently fail.4 If we were to take both of these statements together at face value, in the midst of all of this unpreparedness for the deep spiritual commitments of 18-year-olds and a perhaps equally deep lack of knowledge about religion amongst the citizenry of this country, it seems that teachers of religion on college and university campuses have our work cut out for us. 

I submit that it is indeed the case that those who teach the academic study of religion in, and are accountable to, institutions of higher education have some pre-cut work to do. However, I also suggest that such work should be centered not on simply addressing the lack—the spirituality- or religious-literacy-shaped hole—in our classrooms, curricula, and campus lives, as literature on the spiritual life of college students and religious literacy seems to advocate. Both the HERI researchers’ call for increased pedagogical attention to what has been called students’ spiritual development and Prothero’s call for education toward religious literacy benefit from further consideration and questioning from the standpoint of identifying, and laboring toward, pedagogical best practices in religion and theology.

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