It doesn't take long before one discovers the religious boundary lines of students. They are not always aware of them. It takes a little prodding and poking with questions to get at those sacred, forbidden or sheltered subjects.
Like losing one's keys in the mud and fingering around uncertainly, many find the experience uncomfortable.
When it comes to the discussion of religion -- or, for my theological colleagues, the discussion of doctrine -- no questions should be pulled off the table. We need questions to keep us honest.
True, too many questions at once can, at times, keep us from doing justice to any one of them. Nevertheless, having our untouchables -- those beliefs that are off limits to questions -- only provide a veneer of impeccability. There is little reason to decorate an admiral at sea whose heavily armored battleship only ever fought canoes.
Being a professor, I often have more time than my students to consider the questions that are relevant to religion. There is a part of teaching that should be non-judgmental, that is, where we study religious beliefs and attempt to be dispassionate about them, seeking objectivity. I know from personal experience, however, that I cannot eliminate my own perspective entirely.
Whatever I study inevitably spills over into the bigger questions I have for myself, and I imagine this to be the same for my students.
In the classroom, however, I'm often just pushing back the brush covering the path that I've already taken. I want my students to see that others have already traveled this trail of thought and found it worthy. I want my students to begin considering the ideas that I've been engaged in for years. I want to say, "Hey, it's alright to ask these things. It may be the only way forward."
But then there is the time I'm off the clock -- if there is such a thing for someone like me. This is the time I begin treading new ground for myself, both professionally and personally. I may not be in the classroom, but I'm constantly looking forward to that new question and potential answer, even when the answer is painful.
I've had to mourn over lost beliefs.
Books, conversations with colleagues, online discussions on Facebook or Google+ -- all of these provide avenues for the consideration of new ideas. Much the same, I especially look forward to the annual American Academy of Religion meeting, which is in San Francisco this weekend. This provides an opportunity for me to venture where others have already found gain, to not only be better at my job, but also to be a better person by exploring the possibilities. It is a chance to practice what I teach.
At The AAR, I get to explore the ramifications of neuroscience for religion by listening to papers in the Cognitive Science of Religion group, or learn more about religion in the ancient Near East, or even discover new models for teaching in religious studies. I break the bubble of my small world when I engage the minds of others outside of my usual circle and specific field, or when I brave that book I barely have time for in a world of grading and course prep.
I do this because questions are essential for life and engaging others is essential for finding them. Questions are treasures worthy of the hunt and they can set the truth free.
Follow Brandon G. Withrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwithrow