Since I am teaching in a charter high school this year, this is the level of education I am speaking about. I teach college English, and often craft my writing classes in thematic ways. This semester, I did units on mindfulness and the environment. Some of my younger students were resistant to the texts that were Buddhist in tradition, and when I suggested, perhaps to take a more comparative and inclusive approach, we actually do a world religions unit for my classes next semester, the administration was very kind and supportive, yet hesitant due to the “conservative” nature of our institution. I am grateful that the administration is willing to work with me and possibly allow me to do the unit next academic year with some guidance and advisement. But, again on the younger student level, I hear “This is an English class and not a Religious Studies class” or even the question, “Can we study religion in school?”
I myself have had a mottled relationship with religion, having been introduced at a young age to an intensive, evangelistic, charismatic version of Christianity that consumed my formative years. The incredible communal space created by this version applied extreme language to relationships with others and ourselves in terms of those who followed other religions or none at all (they were confounded by that tricky devil), in terms of those who were not straight (sin is sin), and in terms of our young bodies, since self-pleasure was cheating on our future (different-sexed) spouse.
Feminist and queer theology was a way, for me at least, to begin to soften the harsher, violent edges of such messages in a tradition. Celebrating difference (in ourselves as well) and honoring our bodies were healing messages to me. Even understanding Jesus as a feminist, despite how anachronistic some people said that would be, redeemed Christianity. This, actual experiences with the vast diversity (and possibility for myself) in the world once I was no longer sheltered within the church or my childhood community, as well as my studies in mindfulness, helped me see religions in their esoteric layers.
Why do we need religious studies in high school, specifically comparative, world religious education? When it comes from an informed, mindful, and contemplative perspective, I feel it can 1. help students begin to think critically about their own traditions and 2. develop a practice of compassion for themselves and others. To look anew and make the familiar strange and also the strange familiar is the task of the classroom. I only wish that I would have encountered the Yoga Sutras, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, and Confucius when I was a teenager. Even more the popular contemporary spiritual writers of Eckhart Tolle, Pema Chödrön, and Ram Das. I feel there is a place in high school for religious, spiritual, and philosophical study simply to help teenagers cope with their own suffering and develop healing relational patterns, to be aware of what is available concerning coping strategies. On the inverse, I also think that trade book contemplative literature, despite its non-academic label, could be included in the classroom in the university setting, especially a religious studies class because it offers another theoretical lens, one that is relatable and practical, to these primary texts.
I tell my students that anything is literature. It is not the content of the text but how we approach that text that makes it a scholarly venture. Perhaps religious studies seems too radical, too controversial, too liberal, too political because of the assumptions on how it might be taught in high school. My suggestion is that we approach life with curiosity rather than fear, examine our assumptions, and imagine the positive outcomes of yet another aspect of human culture being critically discussed and examined in the nurturing, intellectually-stringent space of the educational institution. Socrates instructed us to “know thyself,” but how can students do that if elements of who they already are will be off limits in the place they spend the majority of their day? What message does that send about what subjects are off limits to question and engage in dialogue about outside of the classroom?
I leave us with a section of Flannery O’Connor’s response to the college freshman Alfred Corn when he was afraid of losing his faith in an academy of diverse ideas and she was 37, the age I am now:
I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith. [. . .] As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe. [. . .]. One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, [Islam], etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. [. . .] The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life.
May we, as Flannery O’Connor suggests, keep our imagination and never cease to look for God in new ways and new places.
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.