Teaching with Faith Crisis: A Summary of “On the Necessity of Crisis"

The prevention of free inquiry is unavoidable so long as the purpose of education is to produce belief rather than thought, to compel the young to hold positive opinions on doubtful matters rather than to let them see the doubtfulness and be encouraged to independence of mind. (Russell 1997: 107)

With this statement the noted British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, set forth a radically new pedagogical perspective for the twentieth century. Underlying such a statement – that education should foster thought rather than blind adherence to a national or ideological system – is the implicit value of “doubtfulness” in the classroom. That is, struggling with thinking, or new ways of thinking, should be a significant and even beneficial aspect of learning. What follows is a simple summary of an article I recently published on the pedagogical value of faith crisis moments in the religious studies classroom. Many of us who teach in higher education have faced such crisis moments; both while going through the education process itself as well as watching our students struggle with the learning process. Rather than seeing such crisis moments as impediments to learning, I would like to argue that learning is enhanced by such moments – indeed, that such moments are vital learning opportunities within religious studies classrooms.

Crisis moments involving faith commitments tend to be dismissed in pedagogical reflection and practice, despite their inevitability in practical settings. Some dismiss crisis moments by defusing those very moments (taking on the role of a tradition’s “caretaker”). Others have adopted the opposite position, negating the very validity of those moments, claiming that an objective reduction of religion to an object of study allows no room for childish, non-critical feelings of discomfort in the classroom. Both approaches, in my opinion, fail as pedagogically viable strategies for student development.

My discussion will fall into three sections, each developing the claim that faith crisis moments are valuable learning opportunities that we as teachers should nurture. First, I will outline the delimitation of the (secular) university, establishing that knowable knowledge construction within critical thinking is the goal of the learning process. Second, I will discuss this mode of cognition within the context of stages of development or rites of passage, arguing that crisis moments emerge from shifts in ways of thinking. Thirdly, and finally, I will explore the place of such crisis moments within a collaborative pedagogical paradigm.


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