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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Winter 2008
Vol. 35 No. 1

Wholeness and Creativity in Religious Studies Teaching

David Sander

"A God comprehended is no God."
-Gerhard Tersteegen

If religion implies an experience of totality, what does it mean to say we have, or teach, knowledge “about” religion? While religion can be understood as a mode of relating humanity to an infinite ground of being, human capacity to be conscious of reality is finite. Can rational words and ordered curriculum encompass a whole that, presumably, lies beyond rationality? This paradox has occupied thinkers and educators at least since the time of Plato. Two questions prompted me to investigate the subject of wholeness. The first relates to the paradox stated above, and underlies the works of founding scholars in the Religious Studies discipline: Is it possible that scholarly methods may violate the nature of the subject matter of religion?

Those who, for me, are central founders of the Religious Studies discipline (including Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade and Carl Jung) were concerned with the question of whether intellectual or scientific methods can violate the autonomy of religion as a subject matter. Is the purely cognitive and intellectual understanding of religion enough, or does it, by its very existence, create a hidden curriculum?1 Scholars like Eliade and Jung wanted to understand human experience as a totality, and religious experience in particular as an irreducible whole. Consequently, they were cautious about allowing human rationality alone to define or in any way reduce the subject matter to its own scale. They began the search for a scholarly method that would respect the autonomy and wholeness of the subject matter. Their work contributed to a methodology that underlies the History of Religions and much of the modern discipline of Religious Studies.

Recent critics have asked whether this methodology poses its own form of hidden curriculum, in which a hermeneutic vision of wholeness dominates the discussions and definitions of religious experience. Thus the second question I wish to address in this paper is, do methods of teaching Religious Studies perpetuate, or help resolve, an educational paralysis? As to the educational questions, I believe the founding scholars in Religious Studies left some important dimensions of the modern pedagogical dilemma relatively unaddressed. Scholars of education such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire were also keenly interested in the totalistic nature of human experience. But they were primarily engaged with how that experience is treated in the classroom. I find their critiques extremely relevant to the central concerns of Religious Studies.
By connecting these educational insights with the founding concerns of the discipline I argue that creative work, or poiesis, is an essential, and much overlooked, element in the knowledge of religion. Preserving a sense of the irreducibility of religion demands that we recognize teacher, students, and topic as interdependent subjects. Preserving the irreducible wholeness of religious experience, without creating a subjugating hermeneutics, requires the creative element of poiesis. In the words that follow, I intend to show why I think this way, and briefly describe some of the implications for my own teaching. Plato’s theory of knowledge serves as a background for these questions, and is an indispensable starting point. Poiesis, as the embodying counterpart to abstract rational knowing, was disparaged by Plato and has been marginalized by Western scholarship ever since. Knowing as a matter of passive theoretical seeing was the province, for Plato, of the philosopher king alone. Hence, the privilege of the knower has also been an issue throughout our history.


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