The Importance of Religous Fluency

Capital Region Theological Center 6th Anniversary Celebration

Oct. 6, 2008

In all due modesty, let me say that you picked an appropriate speaker for this anniversary celebration since I guess I embody the ecumenism that animates CRTC. I was raised (baptized and confirmed) Lutheran. I studied at a Mennonite college and continue to research Mennonite life. I worked for 23 years at Holy Cross, a Jesuit institution, serving as a member of the faculty and then the first non-Catholic Dean in the College's history. While living in Massachusetts, I was a member of a Congregationalist Church. And now, I am the President at the first non-denominational college in the United States. Indeed, Union College was distinctive among its contemporaries in the 1700s in that it was not founded by nor under the control of any one religious tradition; it was founded by three churches in Schenectady--the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and Episcopalian--who believed that, despite their differences they could unite for a common educational purpose. Hence, the name: Union College. I am, in other words, ecumenical by biography and inclination.

Religious Literacy and Religious Fluency

I would like to speak to you tonight about the subject of what might be termed "religious fluency." This might be contrasted with, although it is certainly related to, what some people refer to as "religious literacy." This latter concept, the title of a recent book by Stephen Prothero of Boston University, is often applied to the woeful state of knowledge about religious traditions. Many commentators, like Prothero, have lamented that people are often ignorant about church teaching and or more general religious knowledge. In using the phrase "religious fluency," I am want to stress that there are really two--and separable--kinds of religious knowledge (or lack of knowledge): knowledge of our own religious tradition or the dominant religious tradition in our culture and knowledge about religious traditions other than our own. I will mostly be addressing knowledge about traditions other than our own in my remarks tonight.

While I don't want to obsess about what might seem a matter of semantics, the distinction between literacy and fluency is important to draw out. While I admire and agree with much that Prothero has to say in his recent book, Religious Literacy (Harpers, San Francisco, 2007), I believe he blurs what I see as a useful and important distinction.

Prothero claims that religious texts, stories, ritual celebrations, and the like---particularly Christian ones--continue to inform our national discourse and the way we conduct business in the public square and in our daily lives. Thus, he laments the fact that Americans (who he points out remain overwhelmingly Christian in their background) seem remarkably illiterate about Christianity and religion in general. His book is at once humorous and frightening. Prothero describes, for example, a Jay Leno show where no member of his audience could name even one of Jesus' disciples and yet nearly everyone could name the four Beatles. He also notes that national surveys reveal that 1 in 10 Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Funny or frightening?

The level of religious fluency for most Americans is undoubtedly even more funny and or frightening. "Literacy," according to the Oxford Dictionary, refers to "the ability to read and write" and "competency in a specified area." "Fluency" refers to "the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately" and "gracefulness and ease of movement and style." Thus, it would be possible to be religiously literate but not religiously fluent. Once could know great details, in other words, about his or her own tradition and yet be totally ignorant about and completely lack an ability to move within other faith traditions and visa versa.

The increasingly global and pluralistic environment within which we live as well as the emerging demands of global citizenship dictate that people develop religious fluency. As an educator, I find myself wondering how well equipped and prepared we are to enable students to move with ease and style through this global world.

Globalization in the 21st Century

We live in a world that is increasingly global in nature. Although compelling to many people just 60 years ago, arguments by pre-World War II advocates of American isolationism (e.g., Charles Lindbergh) seem almost nonsensical in today's world. General Motors owns Saab and BMW makes the near-iconic English Mini. When I tried to buy an "American" lawnmower several years ago, I was asked by a merchant "do you want an American mower made in Japan or a Japanese mower made in America?" Just weeks ago, we witnessed Barclays of England major pieces of Lehman Brothers. Such is today's global economy.

Mass media, rapid communication, rapid transportation, and an interdependent global economy have certainly made connections between countries, peoples, and cultures more frequent and expansive than anytime before in human history.

Any of you who are my age or older know this first hand. Last week, I was in England visiting alumni from the College who now live in London and visiting a high school to talk with students about study at Union. My wife Judith and I had been students in England as undergraduates. I was struck by just how much things had changed. When we went to England in the early 70s, our plan stopped to refuel in Iceland. Now planes fly direct from Chicago to New Delhi, let alone the east coast of the U.S. to London. When we were students, we had to ask that money be wired to us. Today, for a modest fee, you withdraw money worldwide from an ATM. When we were students in England, we would travel by train when homesick for American food and eat a hamburger at a London restaurant called "The Great American Disaster" (with real Heinz ketchup and yellow mustard). Today, McDonalds are on many corners of many cities and the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant near our hotel was constantly packed with British customers. When we were students, we actually exchanged cassette tapes with our families back home, telling about our experiences, learning about developments back home. Once or twice during our year there, we woke up in the wee hours of the morning to make a precious (and expensive) phone call. On this trip by contrast, my children were able to reach us instantaneously by simply dialing my regular cell phone number and my Blackberry continued to steadily receive my emails.

While in England, it also became pretty obvious that the news services (television, radio, and newspapers) seemed transfixed by the financial crises in America. Commentators debated with real passion the pros and cons of a buy-out or bail-out plan. This was more than mere curiosity about America's troubles. The "Wall Street Crisis" has meant that credit is harder to secure in Grantham England, housing prices have dropped and homes have been pulled off the market, and first time buyers have had to shelve their hopes of purchasing a home. In England they understand today, if they didn't before, that their economic situation is closely tied to our own. In fact, they seem in many ways inseparable. Multiple articles in the New York Times last week documented the domino effect of the Wall Street crisis.

While riding in a taxi, we watched a documentary of the threat of a world pandemic. With sobering specificity, the program documented threats to global health, where life threatening illnesses can traverse the globe within a matter of 24 hours. It gave a somewhat different meaning to the phrase "it's a small world."

All this demonstrates that Eve Walsh Stoddard, Chair of the Global Studies Department at St. Lawrence University, was very much on target when she observed that it is not idealism but rather practical relationships that dictate that today we are "citizens of the globe" ("Transnational Cooperation and Mobile Civitas" in Globalizing the Liberal Arts, Liberal Arts, Volume 5, July 2006, p. 12). And Thomas Freidman, has declared "the world is flat." [Note: Eshi Motahar, a Union College economist, has noted that this hardly applies to economic disparities between countries where mountains and deep valleys continue to persist.] Friedman correctly points out that globalization is not new, it's just expanded exponentially in recent decades.

Today's young people have embraced globalism and the notion of a flat world in a very big way. In 2006-07, a quarter million American students studied abroad, an 8% increase over the prior year and a 150% increase over the number studying abroad a decade earlier (Trusteeship, March/April, 2008, p. 11). This is dramatic but less so than the number of international students studying in the U.S. Almost twice as many international students study here as compared with the number of U.S. students who study abroad. Most of these students come from east and south Asia. The four leading home countries of international students in the U.S. are India, China, South Korea, and Japan (in that order).

Executives and technicians alike crisscross the globe. Companies like IBM, "Big Blue," now not only have major facilities in the U.S. but boast an "integrated" network with sites in India, China, Japan, Israel, and Switzerland. These sites around the world are not just for assembly of American-designed products but rather for gathering the best minds for research and development. And companies like IBM have moved beyond global competition to global collaboration. The new Playstation III is an illustrative collaborative product, involving IBM, Toshiba, and Sony.

While not entirely negating the value of face-to-face meetings, conference calls, video conferencing, email, and the internet have all certainly further increased the ease of global communication. And, as Friedman points out, we are in a phase of globalization (Phase 3, as he calls it) where the individual, not just the corporation, has these tools necessary to easily access global resources and global partners (he or she doesn't even need an international operator anymore!).

Computer programs like "Perseus," which was designed for the teaching and study of classics, allows you to take a virtual trip to museums in Rome and Athens, grab an item from their collections, and manipulate it to examine all its sides, top and bottom. "Second Life" allows you to create a virtual version of you and travel throughout a virtual world. In fact, the virtual you can even tour virtual versions of colleges! And, all this can be done from the comfort and convenience of your computer.

Why Religious Fluency?

So why is religious fluency important to all this? When navigating this new "flat" world--with ever more frequent face-to-face as well as virtual encounters--people need to be prepared to encounter diverse cultures and religious traditions. To succeed as global citizens, they must develop a breadth and depth of knowledge about religions--their beliefs, traditions, rituals, and worldviews--other than their own.

At one level, this is about etiquette. Even within the American context, it is easy to offend people by not acknowledging--or acknowledging when one shouldn't--the observance of religious holidays or ritual practices. Within the academic world, for example, one can evoke real anger from Jewish colleagues by scheduling (in a seemingly insensitive manner) events on Friday evenings--even more so when the institution seems indifferent about significant holidays. For this reason, at Union, we send out a notice at the beginning of each terms, alerting the community to significant holidays. BUT, we continually bump into conflicts.

At another level, this is about increasing the odds of success in interpersonal encounters. Increasingly, this is certainly an aspect of conducting global business. Among the many illustrious alumni of Union are Armand and Donald Feigenbaum. Armand received a presidential meal of innovation a week ago Monday from President Bush at a ceremony held at the White House. Both brothers were key contributors to what became know at "TQM" - Total Quality Management. Among the companies they guided to success were Volvo and Toyota. Like many, the Feigenbaum's believe that today's young entrepreneurs need to be prepared to deal with the growing markets and productivity of India and China. They believe that among the most critical pieces of their preparation must be the understanding of religion. To be successful in today's global markets requires an awareness of dietary restrictions, attire, holidays, the organization of the family and other social institution, and many other things all affected by religion. As my dissertation advisor, Peter Berger, wrote many years ago: all of social life is affected by the "sacred canopy" under which we organize our worlds.

At yet another, and perhaps more profound level, it is about treating the other as fully human. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in his Interpretations of Culture, suggests, humans are suspended in "webs of significance (1973). To understand them, then, either as professional or lay anthropologist, one must learn to see the web that suspends them and the significance it has for their lives.

Can one fully understand the religious perspective of the other? Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine, has asked in a piece appearing in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin whether one can be "fluent" in another religion when approaching it as an outsider (Winter 2007 issue). It's a valid question. From the standpoint of language acquisition, I suppose one can ask whether it's possible to be fluent in a language other than the one you grew up learning. For me, a meaningful understanding of other religions constitutes fluency rather than taking it on as your own. Max Weber anticipated this discussion when he distinguished between our ability to be truly "empathetic" versus being able to "verstehen" - that is, achieve meaningful understanding.

It is also about self-understanding. Religious fluency is not just about enhancing one's ability to understand or communicate and work with other people around the globe. It contributes greatly to understanding one's own religious traditions, rituals, knowledge and values (hence it enhances literacy as I defined it earlier). It helps one understand one's own "web of significance" as well as the webs of others. Exposing oneself to and understanding other ways of knowing, other rituals, other sacred texts can contribute greatly to one's understanding of his own way of knowing, embracing rituals, and sacred texts. Indeed, philosophers who work on the problem of identity would argue that I can only understand who I am by encountering those I am not.

The Challenge to Education

At the very least, all these advantages of religious fluency calls for educators to rethink of the role of religious studies at all institutions of higher learning--not just those associated with religious denominations.

At Union, I liken the challenge to earlier challenges in the College's history. Union College was one of the very first colleges in America to recognize the need for instruction in "modern languages." Thus, from its beginning in the late 18th century, it gave a special place to the French language and even allowed students to use it--alongside classical languages--to fulfill graduate requirements. This was an indication of Union's early recognition of the importance of globalization (albeit a narrow understanding of what was to come). Similarly, when urbanization began to sweep the still young United States in the middle of the 19th century, Union introduced engineering to prepare students to live in and make contributions to this changing world.

When educators--including those of us who work at Union--say that they "prepare students for the 21st century" I believe they must consider the importance of cultural and, more specifically, religious fluency.

Efforts to promote a curriculum that leads to religious fluency has, ironically, often been inversely related to increasing globalization. That is, as the need for understanding the religious diversity of our global world increased, the inclination and capacity of many institutions of higher learning to teach about, study, and consider religion of any form decreased. This "secularization" of the academy has been well documented by scholars.

In part, this resulted from the growing belief in the late 19th and early 20th century that the academy had to encourage open inquiry, unhampered by the constraints of a religious agenda. Julie Reuben from Harvard, in her book The Making of the Modern University (University of Chicago Press: 1996), suggests this led to a fragmentation within the academy where the unity once provided by religion in the classical college was lost. At the same time value and fact were separated and concerns with personality trumped concerns with character. Teaching about religion, even as a subject of sociological (let alone theological) interest, became suspect, devalued, and was often times completely abandoned.

In part, the decreased attention to religion in colleges and universities also resulted from a belief (both conscious and unconscious) held by many members of the academy that those who are religious are incapable of or at least severely disabled in pursuing an intellectual life.

In recent years, there has been an re-emerging sense of that the study of religion is important to higher education. This has been helped by the analysis of respected scholars like Julie Reuben. Bill Readings lamented the poverty of fragmentation--the university without a center in his University in Ruins. Bruce Wilshire described the Moral Collapse of the University (State University of New York: 1990), lamenting the retreat of teachers from the moral task of education. And, Warren Nord, pre-dating Prothero's argument a number of years, suggested for secular reasons, students needed to study religion if they were to truly understand our "cultural marketplace" (Religion and American Education, University of North Carolina Press. 1990). In fact, Nord argues that the breadth and depth required by the study of religion along with the fact it brings you into contact with people and belief that are quite different, facilities the very development of a liberally education person.

It was also helped by feminist scholarship that, for very different reasons, argued for the importance of uncovering and appreciating "other ways of knowing." This gave a new way of prioritizing the study of religion--after all, even those committed to open, disenchanted inquiry needed to reckon with other "enchanted" ways of knowing.

And, to be candid, the re-emergence of religion was also helped also by the growing sense among parents of college-aged children that higher education, especially at liberal arts institutions, should contribute to moral education if it was to differentiate itself (and justify its cost) from larger, more impersonal educational forms.

Today, even the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has called for faculty to take up the teaching of religion, admitting that a decade ago they would have called the topic of religion, a conversation stopper (see Diversity and Democracy, 2008). Why did the AAC&U "get religion" so to speak? Primarily because of September 11 and hey have yet to fully understand the requirements of this for global citizenship more generally. Nevertheless, they too have added legitimacy to the reintroduction of religion into the curriculum.

I would add that many of us who went through the system of higher education years ago are in need of retooling and continued education programs. I was delighted to see that CRTC's program this year included sessions by Brother Linh Hoang of Sienna College on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. It begs a real question, however, as to what to do for people who are affected by the rapid and profound globalization of our world but past the formative years of higher education.

New Roads to Transcendence?

Let me conclude my remarks, somewhat unfairly, with a brief comment about transcendence. Phenonomenologists--those from the line of philosophy that has emphasized the partial and perspectival nature of all knowledge--would suggest that we can best approach what they term the "essence" of a phenomenon by trying to take the perspective of others and adding them to our own perspective, seeking commonalities across varying points of view. In my view, their methodology applies to our search for the transcendent. The new globally interconnected world offers unprecedented opportunities for this search.