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On Proselytization in the Classroom

April 17, 2010

Recently I was in a conversation with some religious studies teachers from a private Christian high school. A colleague and I were try to explain how our teaching in religious studies is fundamentally different from theirs in key ways.

My colleague said: “We can’t proselytize.”

Their immediate response was: “We can’t either.”

In fact, I believe them. I doubt that they proselytize.

I would have said this: “We cannot let devotional concerns set the framework of our courses.”

I know that their courses are motivated by devotional concerns, even if they don’t proselytize.

By contrast, my courses have to be motivated by historical concerns, anthropological concerns, sociological concerns, or whatever. Not only do I not proselytize, but I also cannot let Christian concerns set the agenda, even if I teach at a school with a religious affiliation.

This means that when reading Augustine, for instance, they might ask questions like: “Why do people still find Augustine’s teachings meaningful? Do they shed any light on human nature or the human predicament? Can you think of ways you might apply Augustine’s teachings in your own life?”

Whereas I would ask questions like: “What material interests might Augustine’s writings have supported in his social context? How might appropriations of Augustine’s ideology—by the Reformers, for instance—have been coordinated with class interests?”

These are considerably different sets of questions, and that difference is not very well identified by the language of proselytization.

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