Religion in today’s Times

March 31, 2007

Steinfels covers the Secret Gospel of Morton Smith. Seems there are three new books out about it, one defending and two debunking. All the usual arguments. Paleography, anachronism, clues pointing back to Smith…

Stanley Fish on teaching the Bible in school. Time had a cover story you see, at least for their US edition; overseas they put the Taliban on the cover. There’s a dKos diary today blasting the magazine’s treatment of the topic. But as to the Fish op ed, it is quite incoherent, accusing the Bible-as-literature and other approaches that bracket truth-claims of “tearing the heart out of religion” because after all, truth-claims are what it is all about, at least for “religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam.” If you’re going to teach religion without taking truth-claims seriously, why teach it at all? he asks.

Where to begin.

First of all, what would Fish have us do? Getting into the actual truth of religious truth-claims is clearly something we do not want our public schools doing, so an ethnographic approach is the best we can expect: teaching the objective fact that certain truth-claims are or have been made, without getting into discussions of their validity.

Why bother? Because the subjet is out there. Not only do lots of people take these things seriously, but there is a lot of art and literature and general culture which are incomprehensible otherwise.

But the whole relationship between “religion” and its truth-claims, even the very coherence of “religion” as a category is something I have serious doubts about. I am not at all sure it makes sense to talk of “religions like x, y, x” because it first needs to be examined in what way they are alike, or not alike, and which of the similarities or differences we consider significant. Which in turn depends on our purposes.

Yes, it is a fact that people generally treat certain clusters of cultural phenomena as parallel things called “religions.” That fact can be taught. But the question of whether the classification is coherent is distinct from the fact that people make it, and needs to be examined separately.

Then, there is the confusion between the mass culture phenomenon of, say, Christianity – the large share of the world’s population which identifies with it in one or another way or form – and the specific sets of doctrines which have been put forward as “essential” to it.

I am as always suspicious of “essentials…”

But in any case the existence of the broader cultural phenomenon is an important objective fact, which surely can and should be taught as a fact, without making any assumptions about which if any of the purported “essentials” really are essential, or how many of the mass of identifiers really understand or assent to any such claimed “essential.”

It is all too complex for Fish’s rhetoric. Maybe too complex for High School also… but what can we do?


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