9.10.2010

Another Angle

Today I asked my students if they could describe the difference between the way that they approach reading the Bible and the way that they approach reading, say, Thoreau's Walden:
"I start reading Thoreau critically, whereas I accept-already what the Bible will say."

"If Thoreau bores me, I blame him. If the Bible bores me, I blame myself."
Now: are these reasonable, good answers? Is that an acceptable distinction to make in our minds? Can any of you see how this question is related to the question of where values come from? It seems we make up our minds about books before we open them. Same with values, in many cases. But there is another conceivable attitude, wherein the reader approaches all books with the same attitude: the attitude I recommend is to always approach them as if you are unknowing, and the book is knowing.

Skeptics might interject: "But what happens when you read a book that is awful, or untrue--a false prophecy?" My answer, and of course you'll have to sort of take it on faith, is that something in you will let you know if you encounter that kind of thing even if you are reading with the eye of faith.

So then: what we are simultaneously talking about is something I've talked about before (in this YouTube video): what is a religion? We seem to conceive of it as a special category, and give it special protections, so understanding its nature seems important. We generally believe that all religions should be honored; but we do not believe that about ideas. And what I'm trying to suggest is that the supposed difference between "an idea" and "a religion" is illusory, is non-existent, and reflects only the fact that we are taking certain assumptions into our confrontation with these ideas before we learn the ideas. And I don't think we should be content to do that--not any longer. I think public schools should deal critically with religions, and not give them a free pass: obviously, this would involve doing a better job of teaching metaphor and symbolism and "figurative" literary style and consciousness studies, etc. -- but it seems worthwhile. Will it offend the Southern Baptist in the classroom who believes the Bible is the exact and infallible word of G-d? Probably: but it sounds like he needs to hear it. In any case, these ideas are obviously too important and influential to leave them out of public classrooms.

If we treat Christianity and Islam as ideas, rather than as religions, I believe we would all be better off. I asked jokingly in one of my recent posts, "Should we respect other people's bad values?" Maybe that's not fair: maybe I'm approaching the Koran as my students are approaching Thoreau (in contrast with the Bible).

Then let's ask: Why? Why can't I open my sensibilities and read the Koran as if I were dim, and it were wise?

Also, a friend linked me to a now-relevant video, and I really appreciated it, so:

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