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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2002, Vol. 29 No. 1

How September 11, 2001 Transformed My Course on Religious Pluralism, Spirituality, and Education 

Robert J. Nash

In the fall of 2001, I taught a seminar on religious and spiritual pluralism to a group of fifteen undergraduate and graduate students, all of whom were preparing to be educators, either in the public schools or in higher education. Because the course was an elective, all the students who enrolled in the seminar truly wanted to be there. The composition of the group ran the religio-spiritual gamut from Mainline Protestantism, to Evangelical Christianity, to liberation and feminist Catholicism, to Reform Judaism, to New Age spirituality, to atheism and agnosticism. The youngest student was 20 years of age, the oldest, 50. In 35 years of teaching at the university level, this was one of the most professionally rewarding courses I have ever taught.

What brought us together, at the outset in late August, was our common interest in studying a number of the world’s major and minor religions in order to explore the current state of religion and spirituality in American culture, as well as its impact on our personal and professional lives. To this end I assigned a number of texts listed in the order that we read them: Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety; The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief & Behavior During the University Years; God of the Oppressed; Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras; Buddhism Without Beliefs; Why Christianity Must Change Or Die; and Faith, Hype, and Clarity: Teaching About Religion in American Schools and Colleges.1 I intended for these readings to represent what I believe are the four dominant religio-spiritual narratives extant in the United States today: Orthodoxy, Social Justice, Alternative Spiritualities, and Post-Theism.2

As the semester evolved, however, a purpose far more urgent than merely reading interesting texts and writing rigorous research papers emerged. And it ended up bringing all of us together in an unprecedented, common cause: Each of us, in our own ways, despite our differing religious, spiritual, and political loyalties, and professional objectives, found ourselves desperately trying to make meaning of the calamitous events of September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on that fateful, sunny day in the early fall, occurring only two weeks into my course, not only changed the geo-political-religious landscape forever, as many pundits noted almost daily in the media. On a more microcosmic level, they dramatically changed the educational focus, objectives, and trajectory of my little seminar in ways that I could never have imagined.

[Spring 2002 Issue Contents]