Religious Studies is Too [?] for Education by Elisabeth Schilling

blue-fleur.jpegSince 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.


Lache S., 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. 

Author: Elisabeth S.

Elisabeth S. has a Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University (2014) and teaches philosophy, literature, creative writing and composition in Colorado.

9 thoughts on “Religious Studies is Too [?] for Education by Elisabeth Schilling”

  1. The UK has a well-developed religious studies curriculum that is multi-faith and multi-cultural. Here in Greece, the Syriza government has been criticized for trying to open out the study of religion in the public schools from what has been a Greek Orthodox catechism class.

    When I first taught at Pacific School of Religion, I had I Mary Daly on my reading list along with about 12 or 13 Christian feminists. I was not invited to repeat the class. I later learned that this was because my comment that “Mary Daly could be right” shook the faith of one of the students in the class, who complained to the dean, who by the way was a Christian feminist!

    I am so sorry this is happening to you. Teaching only what students already believe cannot be good for anyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your stories always. The “crisis” of a student engaging in intellectual inquiry is often simply the initiating of an evolution in thought, a transformation. It is amazing that fear caught hold of that dean that s/he could not know and celebrate this. Wow, what a great class. I would have liked to have attend.


  2. Thank you for this post, LaChelle. Most people I run into (and this includes academics) do not understand the nature of religious studies. “What do YOU do that Anthropology, History, and Philosophy don’t do already? As is the case these days in our “sped-up” society, the inquirer wants a concise, byte-size response. Most people have no patience to listen to just what it is that religious studies does/teaches. Like many places of public higher education today, the humanities are on the chopping block and religious studies seems to be shriveling up–at least in the institution where I teach. Lines not replaced. “Blended” degree. Etc. And yet, there is such a need for understanding how religion works in the lives of people–individually and collectively, such as in government. Many people use the phrase, “separation of church and state,” thinking this phrase is in the Constitution and use it as “proof” that studying anything in a public space that smacks of religion to be off limits. The phrase reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And, of course, the phrase is not self-explanatory and needs to be read aloud and discussed. However, I know you are familiar with all of this. So much work to do. Can we rise above the current political climate or will be silenced by our institutions?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for fleshing out these incredibly relevant points that add much to the discussion. I love this: “silenced by our institutions.” Thank you.


  3. Anything even touching religion in a public school English class can be tricky. I once taught English in a tiny high school (10 faculty members, and I was the “foreigner,” i.e., “not from around here”). This was not long after John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. So for their daily one-page essay, I asked my seniors to comment on John’s comment. Boy, did that stir up the hornets’ nest! I got my very own school board meeting to “discuss” what I’d done. The charges were that I was a communist and an atheist. (I was actually a Unitarian.) Even the principal was against me, so I called the Illinois Education Association, and they sent me a defender. I wasn’t fired. I resigned and went to graduate school. So much for freedom of speech in the public schools. Has anything changed?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh my, they called you in? Not to throw a party, I assume, as perhaps they should have. Getting students to be engaged. . . relating to their world. . . . that is to be met with gratitude and encouragement to press on. It is too bad that “communist” and “atheist” are still words to be feared and resisted in the unpacking of. But yes, the Unitarians. So many English majors are thankful for that community, I think. The literary as sacred! I remember my first time in such a church.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. With all the nonsense, hatred, violence, and isolation being spread today in the name of “religion”, I think it is more important then ever to encourage young people to study the texts, open their minds, and be a force for peace. Anyone who is afraid to question our concept of the Divine Mystery, is stuck in idolatry. (IMNSHO! :-))

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! Before I asked for permission (that might be my failing right there), I ended the last semester with a class on sections of the Greek scriptures since many of my Christian students felt slighted by all the Buddhist-inspired mindfulness texts. It was one of the most sacred times we had. Several students who were not Christian discussed how the selection of Jesus-centered readings seemed to promote kindness and empathy and an advocate for the marginalized when that had not been their experiences with more aggressive followers they knew. Some of the usually defensive students who were Christians were reminded of the kindness and equanimity, the non-judgment that is within the text, through our discussion as evidenced by some beautiful and unexpected comments by certain students.

      Idolatry. . . yes. Why would we want something we love so much to find death in our frozen, rigid demands?

      Liked by 1 person

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