Wesleyan University President Michael Roth Explains Religion’s Role In the History of Ideas

‘I’m not trying to make a religious believer out of anybody, but I do want my students to have a nuanced sense of how ideas of knowledge, politics and ethics have been intertwined with religious faith and practice,’ writes Michael Roth. (GETTY IMAGES)
‘I’m not trying to make a religious believer out of anybody, but I do want my students to have a nuanced sense of how ideas of knowledge, politics and ethics have been intertwined with religious faith and practice,’ writes Michael Roth. (GETTY IMAGES)

Wesleyan President Michael Roth on the importance of understanding religious experience—and the difficulty teaching it

It happens every year. In teaching my humanities class, I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about the immortality of the soul or salvation, and suddenly my normally loquacious undergraduates start staring down intently at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with an answer: predestination, faith not works, etc.

But if I go on to ask them how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their notes. They look anywhere but at me, for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In this intellectual history class, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when the topic of religious feeling and experience comes up, they would obviously just prefer that I move on to another subject.

Why is it so hard for my very smart students to make this leap—not the leap of faith but the leap of historical imagination? I’m not trying to make a religious believer out of anybody, but I do want my students to have a nuanced sense of how ideas of knowledge, politics and ethics have been intertwined with religious faith and practice.

Given my reading list, I often ask these questions about Christian traditions, inviting students to step into the shoes of thinkers who were trying to walk with Jesus. I realize that more than a few of my undergraduates are Christians who might readily speak to this experience in another setting. But in the classroom, they are uncomfortable speaking out. So I carry on awkwardly as best I can: a secular Jew trying to get his students to empathize with Christian sensibilities.

In recent years, I myself have become more accustomed to the awkwardness of my secular engagement with religious practice. After the death of my father, I sought out a place where I could say Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer. According to tradition, you don’t say this prayer alone; there should be at least 10. I stumbled upon a small, eclectic group that met early in the morning for a lay service (no rabbi). I could say the prayer with them, and eventually I would stay on for study sessions. Why was this atheist praying and studying? It’s about participation, I told myself. And that was enough.

The people with whom I said my prayer became part of my life. Prayer was like study—or was it the other way around? Studying with them wouldn’t mean I was abandoning my own secular worldview, I thought. I was learning about a tradition in which I’d been raised but had only dimly apprehended. I mostly ignored the question of belief; learning was enough.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”

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