Teaching World Religions in the Age of the Clash of Civilizations

by Ronald Brown

Unification Theological Seminary is not only in the middle of New York City, the Empire City, but is literally in the middle of the world because of its unique student body. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon founded the institution in 1975 as a seminary where students, scholars and clergy of all the world’s religions would meet, interact, and hopefully engage in creative dialogue. As an  adjunct UTS faculty in world religions for the last ten years, my students have been drawn from every continent, included all age groups, and claimed worshippers of all the world’s faith communities.

Since the Seminary’s founding, the planet has moved from “The American Century” to what Samuel P. Huntington characterized in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, as a world engaged in a cataclysmic “clash of civilizations.”  This clash of civilizations takes place daily in my UTS classroom as well as at Touro College, a largely Jewish school where I teach, and in lectures I deliver throughout the city.

This article summarizes three separate battlefields: 1) The struggle for my students to understand their own religion from a historical and academic perspective; 2) the struggle for students to keep an open mind while studying other religions; and, 3) the struggle to elaborate new strategies in  teaching world religions in a multi-religious environment.

Understanding one’s own religion

Studying the major religions of the world sounds like a good idea to most of my students, at least until it comes to a scholarly and historical study of one’s own religion. Students are inevitably fascinated by and curious about the other religions of the world and rarely if ever doze off. But as soon as I begin lecturing about their own religion the going gets tough.

Muslim students turn hostile when I present Islam, Christian students object to almost everything I say about Christianity, Hindu students let me know that what I am teaching is definitely not what they learned about Hinduism, and Jewish students have no patience for my historical and academic understanding of their religion.

My Jewish students are outraged from the first half-hour of my class on Judaism. In keeping with an evolutionary approach to religions, I stress the inability to understand Judaism without delving into its Babylonian roots. Abraham was an idol maker in the temples of his native city of Ur where he interacted with priests, political and religious leaders on a daily basis. He no doubt knew well the ancient Babylonian legends of Adam and Eve, Noah and his ark, the Tower of Babel, and eagerly incorporated these and other teachings and beliefs into his emerging faith. “You can’t understand Judaism without understanding the ancient religion of Babylon!” I tell my students. But years of Hebrew and Sunday school, mountains of rabbinical teachings, and a general acceptance of whatever rabbi and popular writers have supplied contemporary Jews with is not easily overridden by solid historical and scholarly research.

As much as I struggle to encourage my students to understand their own religion from a historical and academic perspective, I find it an ever-frustrating task. Christians, like all other religious people, are deeply mired in narrow understandings that have been nurtured over centuries and even millennia by semi-literate religious leaders, sacred images, folklore, and more recently Hollywood movies, popular novels, and televangelists. If I remove or even weaken one central pillar or central stone of their religious edifice, they fear the entire structure risks collapsing.

Studying other religions

The struggle for students to keep an open mind while studying other religions is a task as challenging as attempting to have students to take an objective look at their own religions. “The Other,” whether a tribe, people, nation, or religion, is generally presented as the enemy. In the context of today’s clash of civilizations, Huntington argues that the major religion-based civilizations are locked in a virtual war for preeminence in the 21st century.

My Christian students, including those born in America, foreign students from India and the Philippines, and Africans, as well as Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others, have all been literally brainwashed by the press, mass media, Hollywood films, popular literature, government officials, and their religious leaders that Islam is the enemy. From the clash between the rising Muslim world with the Byzantine Empire, the Medieval Crusades to liberate the Holy Land, and the Reconquista of Spain, Islam has been a major Christian adversary. When President George W. Bush used the term “crusade” to describe his post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, few Americans were alarmed. The Muslim world on the other hand placed the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in its broader historical context of the 13th century struggle between Christianity and Islam. Bush and his administration strenuously denied the American attacks constituted a “war against Islam,” but few Muslims were convinced.

Barely have I begun the first of the two lectures I devote to the world’s fastest-growing world religion than my students from Christian Africa, Catholic Philippines, and Hindu India immediately begin to recount personal horror stories of their encounters with Muslims in their home countries. My American students respond with “I read in the New York Times…,” “My pastor said…,” “On the news last night…,” or, “Is it true that Muslims….”

All of my students bring to class centuries-old stereotypes, myths and prejudices that form an insurmountable barrier against learning about other religions. My Christian students from India likewise have a negative impression of Hinduism, which they freely share with the class. The rising power and influence of the Hindu BJP (Hindu Nationalist Party) has as its primary goal to restore the Hindu character of India that was eroded by centuries of first Muslim occupation, followed by British (Christian) domination, later Soviet ideological influence, and now American materialistic culture. Like Christians who see only the face of the devil when they look at a Muslim, Indian Christians see a diabolical threat to their very presence in India.

New strategies to teaching world religions

The struggle to elaborate new strategies for teaching world religions in a multi-religious environment is the greatest challenge I have confronted in my ten years of teaching World Religions and related classes at UTS and elsewhere. How does one get an American Christian to look seriously at Islam? How can I convince an African Muslim to talk about religion to an American Christian? How can I encourage a Jew to admit the possibility that half of the Book of Genesis is indebted to pagan Babylonian myths? How can I cut through the mountains of television shows, political speeches, Sunday sermons, newspaper headlines, popular novels, and gossip vilifying Islam?

Dissatisfied with the general crop of textbooks on world religions which were written in the more peaceful pre-Clash of Civilizations age, I was forced to develop my own teaching methodology. My central strategy was to adopt the traditional approach that devotes one or two classes to each of the world religions, organize field trips to various houses of worship, and assign a chapter on a particular religion. I stress the deities, beliefs, rituals, polity, sacred book, and traditions of each religion.

Having completed the traditional vertical approach to the study of world religions, I then begin the horizontal approach.

First, I identify certain universal building blocks present in all world religions, such as deities, Holy Book, music, sacred language, food taboos, clothing, and rituals, to name just a few. In one religion a building block might be a massive cornerstone (dietary regulations in Orthodox Judaism), while in another it might only be a small pebble lost in the grander structure (food in Christianity). Sacred language, for example, figures prominently in Orthodox Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, but is of minimal importance in Protestantism, with the exception of speaking in tongues among Pentecostals. I then instruct my students to compare and contrast a particular building block between several world religions: for example, compare and contrast the central building block of the Founder in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

The Inca stone wall in Cusco, Peru, that inspired the author’s “Building Block” approach to studying world religions.

God, for example, is one of these universal building blocks of all world religions. For the strictly monotheist Jews there is only one God, Muslims militantly reject any “companion gods” to the one and only Allah, while Christians maintain that in fact there are three “persons” contained in the one Godhead. For Hindus there are many and an ever-increasing number of gods, while for Confucianists the peaceful, stable, and prosperous China is their god.

By placing a student’s understanding of God in the broader context of a plethora of gods and freely comparing and contrasting, the Christian conception of God is removed from its Christian context. All the encumbering biblical, theological and traditional baggage is analyzed in comparison to other conceptions of deities. When a Christian compares his or her god concept with that of Jews and Muslims, for example, the student realizes or at least asks himself if the Christian concept of God is actually monotheistic or not.

Another universal building block I employ is the “Holy Book.” Christians easily argue they are a people of the book, like Jews and Muslims. In common conversation, sermons, and even theological seminaries, one hears phrases like “People of the Book” and “The Word of God,” and many Christians insist the Christian Bible is inerrant. But when compared and contrasted with the Koran, for example, a Muslim will insist his Holy Book was in fact revealed by God to the archangel Gabriel, who in turn dictated it to the Prophet Mohammed. The Christian Bible, Muslims would argue, is simply a book of memories written by four humans, plus a collection of letters written by Paul, Peter and other evangelists. Likewise, the Jewish Bible is simply a collection of holy writings composed over the centuries by human beings. Therefore, in what way can Christians and Jews call their books holy, a Muslim would query. What does the Word “holy” mean in this context?

Conclusion

The globalization of world religions has presented severe challenges to students, practitioners and scholars of religion. The days of Christian Europe and America, Lutheran Sweden, Hindu India, and Jewish Israel are gone. The ghetto walls, which once isolated and protected followers of a particular religion, have been demolished by the media, mass migration, free conversions, and personal contacts with people of many religions.

Teachers of world religions, a particular religion, and religion in general must adapt their teaching methodologies to this new reality. Citizens of this new era must 1) take a second and critical look at their own religion; 2) take a serious and unbiased look at other world religions; and, 3) elaborate new and daring ways of studying world religions.♦

Dr. Ronald J. Brown is a professor of history, political science and ethnic studies at Touro College and teaches courses in world religion at Unification Theological Seminary. A docent at the New York Historical Society with degrees from Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Geneva, Switzerland, Brown is the author of A Religious History of Flushing, Queens; Into the Soul of African-American Harlem; and How New York Became the Empire City.

6 thoughts on “Teaching World Religions in the Age of the Clash of Civilizations

  1. Thank you for this essay. My daughter is a student at UTS and we’ve had a number of discussions about differing faith traditions.

    I read Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (first published in 1996) several years ago and he was of the opinion that the sources of conflict in the future would be based on cultural difference born of religious belief rather than ideological, geopolitical or economic concerns. It turns out that he was very prescient in his analysis. Few of us could have imagined in 1996 that the conflicts we see today would be so virulent.

    Some have argued that “organized religion” in general is the problem in the world, but not all organized religions are the same. It’s important to make distinctions as to what the various religions advocate. Certainly triumphalism — the idea that any particular religion is the one true path to God — has plagued many a faith tradition and has been the cause of innumerable conflicts. Finding common ground may not be easy but it can at minimum be a starting point in the pursuit of “co-existence.”

    • Thank you for your comments. I think that Huntington took religion to a whole new level. In the 21st century he argues that “religion” will not be about heaven in the afterlife, holiness in daily life, sin, and God but about building a just, moral, and prosperous society here on earth. Christianity is clearly at a disadvantage because Jesus preached an imminent end of the world as is and the coming of the messianic age. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism on the other hand are all this-worldly, with strict rules and instructions for building a perfect society to last for millenniums.

      Tell your daughter to sign up for my class in the Fall.

  2. Dr. Brown,

    Please consider the inclusion of the Unification Thought methodology (six laws) in your building block approach. Correlativity, centrality, exclusion, three stages of growth, reciprocal action, and responsibility.

  3. Dr. Brown,

    You did not mention a reaction among Buddhists when teaching about their religion. One of Buddha’s fundamental points was “detachment.” Reacting to someone else talking about one’s own religion seems to be a failure to transcend one’s own group consciousness, but Buddha seems to have realized that detachment from the unconscious elements acquired during socialization marks a higher stage of spiritual growth — where one can transcend group consciousness. Reaching this level is also important to go beyond partisan politics and other groups to which one looks for salvation — spiritual or secular.

    If one talks about religions as traditions that facilitate meaning, social order, and an understanding of reality, you can get students to see how their own religions and others have historically done this. At some point, though, you need to get people to go beyond their unconscious attachment to their formational group consciousness. Then you can talk about the value of all religions as well as encourage people to go beyond what their own religion gave them as they discover new truths in people of other religions they meet, science, and their own spiritual experiences.

    Because transcending group consciousness is so psychologically difficult, intermarriage between groups, as promoted by Reverend Moon, is one way this is accomplished. At least the children of such marriages are able to transcend the elements the parents received from their own societies, even if the parents never really succeed.

    • Interesting insights.

      However, I believe that religion in the 21st century will be very “this worldly” oriented, or in your terms “group consciousness.” Buddhism, like Christianity, failed to take into account this world.

      Buddhism aimed at transcending this-worldly concerns while Christianity (as taught by Jesus) expected the imminent return of Jesus and the beginning of the Millennium. So neither religion was concerned with this world. Islam, Hinduism, Islam, and Confucianism (plus Terevadah Buddhism) are very this-worldly concerned.

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