Last evening I stepped back into one of my favorite roles, professor. I began teaching a World Religions class at Whitworth University that is geared for adult learners. To accommodate the students who generally work full time and are responsible for families, the class meets six Tuesday evenings from 6 to 10 and two Saturdays from 8AM to 4PM. I particularly enjoy teaching these students because they tend to be even more eager to learn than the traditional students.
Early in last evening’s class, I asked each student to share their experiences with other religions, what they hoped to get out of the course, and what they thought would be the hurdles to receiving what they desired. As you would expect their experience varied. Some had almost no exposure to other religions, others had broad exposure. In one way or another, they all said that they want to grow in their understanding of the world’s religions.
Many of the hurdles they listed were practical. They live busy lives and have various responsibilities that can prohibit them from investing all they desire in the course. I expected that, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of students who also honestly talked about the difficulty they expect to have in maintaining open minds regarding other religions. They confessed that they knew it would be difficult. They recognize deep seated prejudice and know it will be difficult to be objective.
Later in the evening, I lead them through a discussion about suspending judgement. We talked about the difference between “judging” a person and “discerning” what is true. We said that ideas have relative value, some are good, some are bad, and some are silly. However, people are always to be honored. We need to treat all people with respect regardless of their belief system. We do that by being curious and inquisitive.
Near the end of the four hour class period, I broke the class into groups and assigned each group a primary literature passage from one of the five world religions we are studying. They read the passage, discussed it in their group, and reported what they learned to the entire class. Because I have done this before, I was not surprised at the number of judgmental comments that the students made. However, it reminded me of how difficult it is to be truly respectful of people who are not like us.