Wednesday, July 1, 2009
What are some lessons that you’ve learned over the years about how to teach philosophy of religion?
My overall pedagogical methods in the classroom have changed significantly over the last ten years or so, and this is especially true in upper level undergraduate philosophy courses such as philosophy of religion. Here are what I consider to be some significant lessons for teaching philosophy of religion (or any undergraduate philosophy course). Some of these lessons I gleaned from pedagogy researcher Ken Bain:
- Students are not typically familiar with many, if not most, of the central topics and ideas discussed in the field, nor are they familiar with how the topics are typically approached. So rather than focusing on one or two main issues, or reading one or two primary sources, I find it helpful to first introduce them to a number of relevant topics and then to hone in on several key ones. For their assigned papers, then, I give them the opportunity to choose one or two issues with which to spend a good deal of time over the course of the semester.
- I usually begin class with an excellent question (a question that is meaningful to the student)—that is, with a BIG question. So I generally create at least one major question for each class period and write it on the board or in PowerPoint. For example, I might ask, “What is John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis, and what are some reasons you have for agreeing or disagreeing with it?” The lecture/discussion will generally, then, focus on this question.
- As Ken Bain notes, a recent Harvard study of the most successful students included two key elements in the classroom: tough classes and the opportunity to try, fail, get feedback, etc. separate from a grade. I believe creating assignments, such as short papers on a central theme, that allow students to work on a topic, turn in the assignment, receive comments, and re-work the assignment are effective means. These early papers receive no grade, but the final product (a longer paper including research and reflection from the earlier shorter ones) does.
- Students need to have some control over their own education. For papers, I offer students multiple topics from which to choose, or I allow them to pick a subject related to their major or area of interest.
- As many of the great ancient Greek philosophers understood, one of the most helpful ways of acquiring knowledge and being transformed by it is seeing it modeled by a respected mentor. So, for example, I invite students over to my home regularly to discuss issues in that environment and work to develop respect by the “younger” students for the more advanced ones. I even encourage their involvement in an official mentoring program at the college where students and faculty mentor others, and I mentor a number of the philosophy majors myself. There should be regular collaborative efforts between students, so I have them work together in small groups on projects both in and outside of class. When appropriate, I have the “advanced” students help/mentor the “newer” ones. Especially for the philosophy majors, I try to create an environment where we are growing together and encouraging one another as a community of learners.
- Students must believe that their own work will really matter (though it may be quite basic at this stage), so I have individual meetings with them to discuss their paper topics. I encourage them to focus on a theme that is significant—both to them and to the field at large—and explain why what they are doing is philosophically significant. Furthermore, I offer them the opportunity as a class to craft a journal—one structured very much like a professional philosophy journal, but with other features that make it more fun and exciting for undergraduates (for example, including timelines, glossaries, even a comics section!). This has been a very productive, collaborative kind of project which, in one case, we published. I also encourage students to work toward writing publishable papers (and to try to publish them if they are of that quality) and to attend conferences where students and others are presenting papers. It is oftentimes in these kinds of contexts where the significance of their own work can be more fully appreciated.
How has philosophy of religion work influenced other fields in philosophy?
There is a long story to be told here, but I’ll try to keep this brief. There is a fascinating symbiotic relationship among those doing work in the various fields of philosophy you mention and work being done in philosophy of religion. Consider first a brief account (one probably quite familiar to many readers) of the resurgence of philosophy of religion over the past century with respect to work done in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of language.
Philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition, emphasizes precision of terms and clarity of concepts. Religion, however, is often imprecise and veiled in mystery. This imprecision was challenged in the mid-twentieth century with the rise of logical positivism. Logical positivists used a principle of verifiability to reject as meaningless all non-empirical claims; only the tautologies of mathematics and logic, along with statements containing empirical observations or inferences, were considered meaningful. Many religious statements, however, such as claims about the transcendent, are neither tautological nor empirically verifiable. So certain fundamental religious claims and beliefs (such as “Yahweh is good” or “Atman is Brahman”) were taken by the positivists to be cognitively meaningless utterances. Positivism became a dominant philosophical approach and for a time, for this and related reasons, philosophy of religion as a discipline became suspect.
The philosophical tide began to turn, however, in the latter half of the twentieth century with respect to religious language. Many argued that the positivists’ empiricist criteria of meaning were unsatisfactory and problematic. Due to the philosophical insights on the nature and meaning of language provided by the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, the rise of a pragmatic version of naturalism offered by Willard Quine, and other factors, logical positivism quickly waned. For these reasons, along with the exemplary work of such analytic philosophers of religion as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Hick, and others, by the 1970s discussions about religious (and metaphysical and ethical) concepts were revived and soon became accepted arenas of viable philosophical and religious discourse.
Since that time, philosophy of religion has become a burgeoning field. For example, two leading philosophy journals today—Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy—are primarily focused on issues in philosophy of religion. In addition, two of the largest (if not the largest) subgroups within the American Philosophical Association are the Evangelical Philosophical Society and the Society of Christian Philosophers. Furthermore, one could cite countless examples of recent work that integrates other fields of philosophy with philosophy of religion, or philosophy of religion work which has influenced other fields. Consider just a few fine examples (with apologies for the many other fine examples which are not included):
- Metaphysics: work on ontology and naturalism by Mike Rea, JP Moreland, and Alvin Plantinga;
- Epistemology: work on religious epistemology by Paul Moser, Alvin Plantinga, and Doug Geivett;
- Ethics: Paul Copan’s work on God and morality; John Hare’s work on ethics and religion;
- Philosophy of Mind: Charles Taliaferro’s work on the mind; JP Moreland’s work on the argument from consciousness;
- Philosophy of Time: work on God and time by William Lane Craig, Greg Ganssle, Gary DeWeese, and Alan Padgett.
The list goes on and on. Those doing work in philosophy of religion have indeed made great strides in influencing other fields in philosophy over the past fifty years, and there is no indication of its waning any time soon.
More about Chad Meister can be found at his website.