I wonder if today, in our oppressive school environment where so much time is spent in sealing off things from discussion, cultivating the idea that all cultures and beliefs are equally to be respected, the pernicious ideas behind self-esteem (it doesn't matter what is real, it matters how you feel), etc., whether we haven't essentially created an intellectual environment which precludes imagination, critical-thinking, and judgment. I wonder if our school culture hasn't become one that punishes those who reach a distinct opinion based on reason and evidence, if that opinion is outside the narrow bounds of received wisdom. If, in the pursuit of diversity, we haven't simply cultivated a different version of conformity.
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.What if it is not religion that causes the fear and trembling, but the call to make a decision and defend that decision within the constraints of political correctness, post-modernism, cultural relativism, and hypersensitivities.
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.
The classroom is another kind of participation. As a historian, I want my students to learn concrete things about major events and daily life in the past, but I also want them to go beyond the facts and try to imagine how it felt to be at a certain time and place; I want them to participate imaginatively in the past while recognizing that this creative act can never be accomplished fully. When we read great books together, I want them to understand why an author made certain choices, how the arguments were first received and how they might be relevant to us today.
When we exercise historical imagination about secular topics, we have an easier time accepting the possibility that we might be wrong, that new evidence might change our minds. Religious questions seem to cut more deeply, arousing…well, some fear and trembling.