My colleague, Dr. Lisa Battaglia, has written a very helpful essay explaining how we teach about Asian Religions at Samford University. It was published last week in Teaching Theology and Religion 22 (2019): 216-22 (DOI: 10.1111/teth.12497). The empathetic approach she describes is also how we approach other courses in the “Introduction to World Religions” course that we both teach.
The technical word for this approach is “phenomenology.” Dr. Battalgia introduces it in her classes and in the article with a Zen koan.
A Cup of TeaLisa J. Battaglia, “A Cup of Tea, Beginners Mind, and the Phenomenological Approach,” in “Forum on Teaching Asian Religions in the American South” Teaching Theology and Religion 22 (2019): 216-22.
Nan‐in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868–1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan‐in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan‐in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
In religious studies, “beginners’ mind” is normally spoken of as “bracketing” ones beliefs about the truth or falsehood of the religion being studied, and also “bracketing” any ideas one might have about the sociological, psychological, or biological origins of the religious activities. That this the approach is both non-reductive, and non-theological. As Dr. Battaglia explains
As the koan expresses, the mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, and open to all possibilities. To aid my students in navigating the path toward beginner’s mind, I invite them to enter empathetically into the religious worldview of others. Rita Gross describes studying religion with empathy as a two‐step process: (1) temporarily bracket your worldview, presuppositions, and values as much as possible while engaged in study; and (2) imaginatively enter into the milieu of the phenomenon being studied.Battaglia, “A Cup of Tea,” 217-18
In the words of religious studies scholars Lawrence Cunningham and John Kelsay, “A phenomenological approach leads to an effort to understand religious thought and behavior from the point of view of religious persons” (cited in Battaglia, 218.)
For religious believers, such as most Samford students, this approach is especially important because it enables them better to understand people who follow other religions, or other forms of Christianity, and to be open to discovering both similarities and differences from their own religious beliefs and practices. This equips them better to interact with followers of other religions whether they do so for the purposes of mutual understanding, neighborly collaboration, global politics, or evangelism. As Dr. Battaglia states at the end of her essay, many of our Christian students report that our courses on Asian religions or religions of the world have strengthened their own faith and given them a better understanding of their own Christian faith tradition (Battaglia 220).
I encourage you to read her entire essay. The full-text of Teaching Theology and Religion is available through Academic Search Premier and Wiley Online Library on the website of Samford University Library and many other libraries. If you have trouble obtaining her recent article, let me know.
Her essay appears as part of a “Forum on Teaching Asian Religions in the American South.” The other contributors are Natasha L. Mikles and Brett J. Esaki. I found their discussion of “the imagined student” to be very helpful. One could say that one reason for our department’s recent change of the Core Curriculum course on the Bible from “Biblical Perspectives” to “Biblical Foundations” is because of the decision that the imagined student in Biblical Perspectives was not the Samford student of 2019. Also, Brett Esaki’s discussion of the problems with the world religions paradigm is worthy of further consideration. The problem with this paradigm and the difficulty in escaping it is something that I find myself increasingly wrestling with as I teach about religions. Perhaps I’ll discuss that in a later post.