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Teaching Religion in the World History Class

Michael C. Weber

Gettysburg College

    Recently, a student of mine wrote a good paper on the ancient Greek cult at Eleusis. She detailed the myth, recapitulated what was known of the ceremony, and discussed the scholarship. It did not seem to occur to her to discuss the people who participated in it. This is not a problem unique to her: I think that, being a good student, she just talked about a religion in history the same way she has learned about it—as an intellectual system of thought or belief that somehow seems to exist without flesh and blood humans defining and enacting the requisite cults and rites. This, it seems to me, is one of the major weaknesses we must address as we teach about religion in the world civilization survey course because World History instructors teach a lot of religion. As we survey the main human cultural groupings, the major world religions all take a turn on our stage of presentation. This is important material because in the premodern world (and, seemingly, increasingly in ours) religion is one of the most important forces in history. Yet religion is only a force when it is embodied—its effect is in humans. Ironically, this crucial human dimension is often ignored. 1
    Unfortunately, most of us have not been trained in religious studies or philosophy to any significant degree and some of us only learned what we know about these religions by staying one day ahead of the students the first time we were thrust into this course. In addition, it is probable that each of us has her or his own belief structures and have come to some personal conclusions about religion in general and about particular religions more specifically. Given this circumstance, it is quite reasonable to ask, How can I, or ought I to, present this material? As a scholar trained in both religious studies and history, I want to delineate what I believe to be the central problem in teaching about religions in the world history class and to describe an approach to how a class can successfully be presented with this important material in a manner consistent with the rest of our history teaching. This approach is informed by the difference in how religion is studied in a religion class and a history class and the somewhat different goals of religious studies. 2
   Generally, the study of religions falls under the broad heading of cultural history and, often, the history of ideas. Thus, our textbooks usually treat religions as conglomerations of ideas: they are primarily belief systems. It is surprising how many texts do this. But while religions are belief systems, they are also social organizations. Without a doubt, we need to present the content of the belief systems so that students understand what the religion is about (often something conceptually new to them to which they have had no prior exposure). Consequently, for most of us, teaching about beliefs and the philosophy behind religions is outside our field of training and expertise; furthermore, the study of religion is complicated, regularly utilizing anthropology, sociology, philosophy and even scientific understandings of people and the world. When we try to go into detailed explanations, our presentations run the risk of becoming mired in theological arcana. So, instead of presenting any religion in all its complexity, books and teachers usually opt for a quick essential description of the belief system: with this essentialist approach Judaism simply becomes a series of beliefs about ethical monotheists, the covenant people of the one God who controls history; Buddhism about following the Eight Fold Path to Nirvana; Islam is reduced to being a radical, legalistic religio-socio-legalistic monotheism of the Arabs; and the Christian religion is summed up in the somewhat tragic narrative of the "life of Jesus of Nazareth" and the idea of love of God and fellow Christians. However, I wish to suggest that from the outset we as teachers need to recognize and acknowledge that such presentations are idealistic and that deviations from such assumed, standardized presentations of religion are normal. 3
    As an introduction to complex systems, I understand how this set of circumstances has evolved. While these characterizations have some truth to them and are easy for students to retain, they are all ultimately reductionist. As intellectual abstractions they miss something fundamental: the believers! As my student of Eleusis demonstrated, the reality of lived religion (which I would define as religion as it is actually practiced by individuals) is nowhere to be found. And yet, if we think about it critically, we realize that religious belief does not exist outside human persons. Just as in political science or economics, any effective idea finds its vitality only in practice. There can be no religion without believers and, with no practitioners, religion ceases to be a social force in the world and only becomes an intellectual curiosity like, for example, ancient Greek polytheism. As historians, our actual interest in religions is precisely in the role they play as social forces while they are lived realities and not as antiquities or intellectual curiosities. It is my contention that in history courses our focus ought to be different than it now is, and that we should concentrate more upon peoples' practices than ideas. In other words, I mean we need to focus more upon biography and less on intellectual history. I am not advocating a return to the "Great Man" presentations of history, but rather for a change in emphasis. We can learn and teach about the range of actual religious experience, including popular religion—even if we don't have a plethora of primary texts available. Furthermore, this does not mean abandoning presenting the intellectual or philosophical content of religion, but instead illustrating religions primarily on the basis of their human context rather than the world of ideas. This method has an additional advantage: it allows historians to "work from strength," for by training we are more adept at handling biographical material than philosophical ideas. 4
    I have come to this conclusion as a sympathetic critic as someone who was trained in the study and practice of western religions as well as history and who teaches courses in religions of the world as well as world civilization. Over time I have abandoned the essentialist approach, and have concluded that the most useful heuristic for teaching religion is the simple definition of religion as "the way an individual constructs reality." Put slightly differently, the Ultimate Focus of a religion provides devotees with a sense of the meaning of human existence. Anthropologically, that is one of religion's functions in society: it is one of the primary "meaning makers" within a cultural system. When we carefully study religions on their own terms, we quickly discover that there really is not an essence of any religion but a consensus—or consensuses—of experience and belief that describes a shared construction of reality. Furthermore, even within that shared vision there is inherent variation, often of a wide degree. If we wish to be historically accurate in presenting a religion, it is usually better to talk about that variation in terms of its individual incarnations/constructions than to pose the problem in terms of "essence" and "deviation from that essence," of orthodoxy and heresy.1 In other words, we need to teach about Christianities and Buddhisms (and, dare I say it?) even Islams as streams or trajectories of belief and practice and experience from which different individuals draw different emphases. In truth, in extremis, there may be as many different emphases as there are believers. While we could never present that, we can nuance our presentation so that a religion becomes a shared construction of reality but with distinctive and individual emphases. To do that, teaching needs to shift to the believers and all the dimensions of religious experience rather than staying focused upon the ideas themselves. We can see the truth of this when we look at what often appear to be contradictory movements within a religion: the role of the human Buddha in strict Theravadan tradition vs. the god Buddha of the Mahayanists, the Gnostic Christian Jesus as a semi-divine teacher of secret wisdom vs. the Orthodox view of a Christ who was "coeternal and consubstantial" with God, sacrificed for the sake of sinful humanity. The ideas may be mutually contradictory, but nevertheless they are all held by people who consider themselves true believers. Moreover, all of the people who held to contradictory beliefs, beliefs that were considered by the official hierarchies of religions to be heretical, were people who lived and died believing themselves true followers of their religious leader, believing that they were sharing his or her construction of reality. 5
    Thus, if we succumb to the essentialist position, we are simply propagating orthodoxy rather than presenting religion as it was lived in the lives of people. In our world civilizations classes, we ought to seek to present the course of history as much as possible as it was lived, not as the religiously orthodox (or, for that matter, politically or economically orthodox) would have it. In fact, were we told that we had to teach religious orthodoxy, most of us would object in the name of academic freedom. When by using this essentialist model we do it unintentionally to our students, who know next to nothing about religions (including their own), we do them an intellectual disservice. The only benefit I see in this essentialist approach is to those who wish to uphold an orthodoxy in its root sense, i.e., having the correct opinions, which is more the concern of religious clergy than historians. Yet the problem remaining with this approach is that it overlooks the historical facts of the variety of religious experiences, even within the same religion, in the service of manageability of material. No one in a modern university religion class would teach religion this way. 6
    How has this predicament come to pass? Quite simply it is part of the history of the scholarship in religion that we inherited. Religious studies began in universities in support of particular orthodox religious sects, first in the medieval Islamic world in support of Sunnite orthodoxy according to one of the "schools of law" and later developed in Christian Europe, intentionally advocating for the truth of Catholicism or, again later, Protestant Christianity (witness the Catholic and Evangelical faculties of theology in major German state universities). Gradually, and only in the 20th Century, the departments of religion expanded their focus (usually under the guise of Comparative Religion), but their raison d'être was still to provide rational, academic support for a brand of orthodoxy. The study of any religion as composed of a true essence and heretical variation is the logical—though perhaps subconscious—consequence of those initial frameworks for study. This was the universal approach of theology departments or schools until very recently. A second and mitigating factor was that when religion eventually was taught outside of theology departments, it was generally in departments of "Religion and Philosophy," wherein religion is considered much as all the other subject matter of philosophy: i.e., as ideas that are examined logically and historically in their development. Thus, the theoretical preoccupation of religious studies for most of its existence was in seeing religions as conglomerations of ideas. 7
    With the advent of the anthropology, sociology, and psychology of religion, the phenomenon of religion came to be studied as part of human culture; but this was only a late 20th Century occurrence and old ideas die hard.2 Modern religion scholars look upon religion as a polyvalent construct, with many significant dimensions. Many follow the path of Ninian Smart, who created a useful heuristic when he laid out his classic work on the comparative study of religion, The Religious Experience of Mankind (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969). In the book, he identified six major dimensions under which a religion could be studied: the Experiential, Social, Doctrinal, Mythological, Ritual, and Ethical. Each religion puts forth each of these characteristics in different measures just as individuals display them differentially. By using one or more of these categories, we can present religions as they are experienced. 8
    Finally, from my perspective this focus upon lived religion gets us out of another, more important though extremely subtle difficulty, though we may be only dimly aware of it. If we only echo the textbook-style, essentialist presentation as we teach about religions and how they are put into practice, we invariably get drawn into value judgments about how well or badly a particular individual incorporates the essence of that religion. For example, in teaching about Ashoka Maurya, Indian Emperor and Buddhist advocate, all textbooks invariably emphasize his Buddhist conversion and most happily display a Pillar Edict as evidence in an accompanying illustration. However, the texts also must deal with the contradiction that Buddhism has been presented as the following of the Eightfold Path, which clearly forbids killing another human being. In light of this, Ashoka appears as somewhat of a hypocrite for continuing to employ capital punishment and preserving his power by military means. The same pertains to Constantine the Great and most of the Caliphs of medieval Islam. The resulting conclusion seems to be to stress the flaws of these rulers as religious practitioners: they didn't live up to the essential ideal of their own religion. The cynical student will even see the shrewd but predictable manipulation of the masses by a clever ruler's pretensions to belief, who perhaps used religion as, if not the "opiate of the people," at the very least a subtle social control mechanism. However, setting aside saints and bodhisattvas for the moment, I doubt seriously that these rulers' appropriation of religion was much different from anyone else's within their societies. By the essentialist standard anyone less than saints are more or less hypocritical failures: it's just a question of degree! This is another problem with the essentialist model: it feeds a kind of agnostic, positivistic attitude which putatively displays that, based upon the evidence, no one can live up to the essence of the religion and that no one ever did. So, the logical conclusion runs, the religion must be flawed. But consider this: whenever any interpretive standard ends up describing most people as abnormal—people whose own contemporaries thought were doing perfectly well—the problem is with the standard rather than the people. 9
     Consequently, my call is for world historians to go their own way in presenting religions by presenting the varieties or trajectories of practice within those religions. I believe that the best way to do this is through biography and popular religious practices. I would suggest that after presenting a sketch of the " construction of reality" that is generally shared throughout the religion (for it is unavoidable that we discuss something of the central content that makes the religion what it is), we offer biographical examples of the behavior of people who considered themselves followers of the religion in question—and those examples should be as contradictory of examples as we can find. Perhaps my own training in Islamic history is responsible for this aberrant idea, for in medieval Islam scholars traditionally spent as much time studying biography as theology. I think this can be fruitfully applicable to all religions. Let's pick up those saints we left aside earlier: Consider contrasting the life of Ashoka the imperfect Buddhist not with some "ideal" standard but with that of a real, contemporary Indian saint. Take up St. Antony of Egypt—who fled the urbanized Roman Empire of the 3rd Century because in his vision it was going to Hell-in-a-handbasket—alongside Constantine the Great. Compare Rabia al-Adawiyyah, the mystic of Basra, with a caliph like Haroun al-Rashid. Contrast the life of a Hildegard of Bingen, poetess and songstress of piety, with Richard the Lionheart, Christian King going on crusade, glorying in Holy War—each hoping to expiate some sins and gain salvation. 10
    Needless to say, resources for this kind of teaching are not easy to find: most of the major textbooks in religion do not address the material as I have suggested here. Yet I believe that we can comb available collections of biographies to find the raw material for such comparisons. Indeed, I have found much useful in older collections (sometimes out—of-print). Eric Schroeder's Muhammad's People and Roland Bainton's histories of Women of the Reformation are full of examples. Ken Wolf's small reader Personalities and Problems is good on some of the important figures and has the advantage of being geared to the undergraduate student. The contemporary series of Textual Sources for the study of Religion (ed. John Hinnells) out of the University of Chicago Press have some fine biographical material. There are also numerous internet resource pages with especially good material on Byzantium and the European Middle Ages, especially the Internet Sourcebooks project of Paul Halsall ( As far as I know, there is no collection of historical biographies of religious figures in existence, though Gary Comstock has a nice collection of contemporary Religious Autobiographies (2nd edition, Wadsworth, 2003). In all the world's classical religions, which are mostly patriarchal, we should be especially attuned to consider the roles available to women in contrast to those of men and to pay attention to how women constructed their own versions of reality. 11
    Add to this the evidences of popular piety seen often in religious art and fables in contrast to the work of learned theologians. By doing this, we have a better chance of presenting religion as at least an approximation of "how it really was" than the orthodox/heretic model ever could provide us. More importantly, it will help students think critically about one part of life that, in most cases, they have been taught never to think about. It gives them material to consider that is much more varied and interesting than the simplistic, monochromatic, orthodox views of religion they bring with them from home, school, and religious institutions. Another advantage is that it makes the study of religion accessible to the student who has a hard time understanding the importance of ideas standing alone in history, a very abstract enterprise, and instead places those ideas in an individual life. Surprisingly, it makes the comparison and contrast of religions easier to see and the relations of religion to the wider society clearer. For these reasons, I believe that this method is an effective way to present the religions of the world in their human context. 12

Biographical Note: Michael Weber is currently visiting Assistant Professor of History at Gettysburg College. His Ph. D. work studies the assimilation of Islamic educational, scientific, and philosophical ideas by medieval European scholars, both Christians and Jews.  For the past 20 years he was in New England, most recently as Associate Professor of History at Salem State College in Massachusetts.  He was trained at Boston University in an interdisciplinary program in Medieval Studies, combining the study of history, religion, philosophy, and literature into one degree program. He has been active in the World History Association at the regional and national levels since 1996.  

1 Among religion scholars there is exciting work being done on the question of essence (i.e., orthodoxy) and deviation (i.e., heresy) in most of the world's religions. While the terms orthodoxy and heresy were generally considered Christian and historically primarily utilized by Christian theologians, there have been such concerns in most of the world's religions. In other words, there has always been a problem of multiplicities of belief and practice. John B. Henderson discusses this problem extensively for Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in his book The Construction of Orthodoxy and Heresy: Neo-Confucian, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian Patterns (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998). For some time religion scholars have considered this bifurcation as a distortion of religion. Henderson delineates the very similar processes within these four traditions that lead to the construction of both orthodoxy and deviation from it. It is important to see that this was a dynamic process, two or more competing visions trying to win adherents to their ideas and organizations. Neither group's positions were understandable apart from the other. One of his important conclusions is that, as much as ideas, the political forces played a role in the ultimate triumph of the orthodox vision and this can readily be seen when orthodoxy changes with political change. One lesson we draw from his work should be that even if we want to present an essence for a religion (i.e., the orthodox opinion) even it is not static and really cannot be understood apart from the competing visions of the same religion.

2 To be fair, the contrast between how religions are presented in world civilization classes and religion classes is partially the result of the subject matter to be covered. When I taught "Religions of the World" I had thirteen weeks to teach about six or seven major religions. When I teach World Civ I, I have about four days to cover all the early religions—and I have to teach economic, political, social, and intellectual trends on top of that. However, historians still have tended to take an older, ideaistic approach to religions. Religious studies has left this exclusive approach behind. The clearest historiographic introduction to the study of religions is Eric Sharpe's Comparative Religion (original edition: London: Duckworth Press, 1975 with various reprints and editions). In his first chapter he gives an overview of the history of religious studies, see especially pp. 21-26.

In his presentation, one characteristic that becomes very clear is that for a very long time there was an implicit acceptance of the superiority of Christianity (and, by necessary implication, of Judaism as its antecedent). Sharpe notes that the study of other religions was seen as an attack on Christianity and Christian scholars perceived little worth in such activities as the "religious traditions . . . had traditionally been regarded as at best worthless, at worst as the work of the devil." (Sharpe, 144). Even great scholars like Adolf von Harnack had little use for comparative religion (see his comments on p. 127). He seems in these comments to be not much more enlightened that Fielding's Parson Thwackum, whose religious horizon of understanding he summed up with these well-known words: "When I say religion, I mean the Christian religion; and when I say the Christian religion, I mean Protestantism; and when I say Protestantism, I mean the Church of England by law established." The comparative study of religion, like that of all comparative history, takes us out of our comfort zone, where we "know" exactly what religion is and how it functions. I would even argue that part of the reaction against world history seems to me to be a result of this dissonance. This seems to explain why we keep coming back to essentializing: we are comfortable there, with manageable ideas. But religion scholars would no more limit their study to ideas than they would to, say, prayers. As Joachim Wach, the great professor of comparative religion at University of Chicago put it, "The scholar of religion will never base his research and conclusions on material drawn from a sing area of religious life. Before him spread all the phenomena that desire to be called a religion." ("The task of the History of Religions," in Wach, Joachim, Introduction to the History of Religions, ed. Joseph Kitagawa, New York: Macmillian, 1988:19)


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