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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2003, Vol. 30 No. 1

Teaching Spirituality in Public Higher Education

Carney Strange and Judy Rogers

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." (Matthew 22:21)

As the above words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew remind us, our world indeed is sometimes divided between two very different obligations – those belonging to God and the Church and those belonging to Caesar and the State. Such a distinction is one with a long history in American higher education. Although Church and State were, in effect, one and the same in most colleges and universities well into the 19th century, events of the Modern era have drawn more carefully the line that separates them, and for very important reasons. Distinguishing one from the other is politically wise and, for some, a matter of survival. Furthermore, over time many a Caesar has perpetrated evil on the oppressed in the name of God. To equate the authority of religion with the authority of the state may construct a dangerous path as our own history has witnessed.

Although Church and State have coexisted side-by-side in our system of higher education, more common has become the distinction that has evolved over the years between institutions that are private and those that are public. This denotes not only differences of institutional mission and purpose, but also the very kinds of questions thought to comprise the proper focus of higher learning. However, deciding between God and Caesar on such matters is complicated and not all that easy for those of us who broach the subject of religion and spirituality in public universities. What are our choices in that regard? What are the boundaries if any that frame our work? Our purpose here is to reflect on our experiences as faculty members in public institutions who prepare professionals at the graduate level for careers in higher education and student affairs. It is our intent to identify some of the principal challenges we face in teaching courses in education and spirituality, as well as potential but differing solutions we propose for resolving them. We recognize clearly that people can disagree vehemently over choices in this domain, especially when it comes to addressing such questions in a public venue. Our hope is that, in sorting through the tangled skein of roles and purposes we face in delivering such courses, others might discover their own commitments and resolutions to this dimension of students’ lives.

Approaches and Contexts

Portrayed in Figure 1 is a mix of potential approaches and contexts encountered in the study of and teaching about questions of spirituality and religion. A familiar one is the intellectual focus, an approach typical of the traditional study of academic disciplines. Its goal is one of literacy and understanding, through the dispassionate and objective consideration of various propositions, but always with a critical eye and interest. For example, one might consider the veracity and value of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, placing them in the context of the culture and society that produced them, and exploring their transferability to other traditions and practices. Appreciation of their tenets comes in forms of critical consideration. The role of self in this analysis is incidental, inasmuch as what one holds or believes is distinguished from one’s understanding or ability to articulate key features of extant theologies or organized systems.

A different approach, which we label here convictional, seeks to integrate personal beliefs with common understandings. Rather than distant, the posture of this approach is positional and empathetic. Some might even recognize it as confessional. It is positional in the sense that personal beliefs and convictions enter the dialog for purposes of clarity and ownership. Individuals not only seek to understand the tenets of various traditions, but also the basis for their own personal commitments in contrast to other and different commitments. The goal of truth seeking is pursued in the context of various confessional opportunities to advocate one perspective in the context of another. For example, with such an approach, individuals would be encouraged to identify and justify their own persuasions, perhaps even to the point of engaging others of different beliefs in moral conversations1 about the benefits, shortcomings, and consequences of their choices. In the same respect, though, this focus also entails the development of empathy for how another might choose a different perspective. In that sense, this approach crosses the traditional lines of objectivity to recognize the nature of personal knowledge2 and to incorporate questions of personal identity into what is being studied. In addition to furthering one’s understanding of major tenets and traditions of spirituality and religion, an expected outcome of this approach might include the maintenance, accentuation, or conversion of one’s own beliefs.

A third perspective on these matters, which we identify as experiential, is the most invasive of the three. Not only do common understandings and personal convictions enter into the search, but also personal practices. The key here is, through initiation and immersion into the cultural artifacts (rituals, beliefs, and practices) of a particular tradition or system, one comes to experience directly its transformative and salvific benefits. For example, one might practice meditation and mindfulness for purposes of freeing oneself from standard forms of thought and into the direct experience of enlightened consciousness. Some would argue that such practice is essential to gaining an understanding of certain traditions. This last approach recognizes that reflection and action go hand in hand in the realm of spirituality and religion. To understand beliefs and ideas is one thing; to exercise them is another. Full understanding and appreciation depend on the quality of firsthand personal experience.

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