Pedagogy is Philosophy — or, why the medium is the message.

In doing interfaith dialogue—or more broadly, in exposing yourself to different religious communities more broadly—one of the important competencies is not just understanding other religions, but also understanding some of the dynamics of how religious communities function. These dynamics are not specific to any one religion but recur in many different communities.

One dynamic that has been on my mind late relates to how pedagogy is theology— and how different pedagogies create very different kinds of scholars. Sometimes we think of pedagogy as something incidental, less key than the “real” knowledge, more an instrument to the end of creating knowledge than a meaningful part of that end. Instead, I would argue that pedagogy conveys its own ethos. The medium is the message — especially in teaching a religion.

This has been on my mind a great deal because of my Islamic Law class this semester. The professor did advanced work in Islamic Law at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and is now doing a PhD in the subject in a Western “Islamic Studies” setting. The questions asked, the methods used, the scholars consulted differ quite a bit. He tells us that the shift from one system to another has not been easy.

What is this shift? I’ll give a few examples.

In my MA studies in Bible at the Graduate Theological Union, most of my coursework focuses around methodology. To give a few examples of courses I have taken: Race and Ethnicity in the New Testament; Literary Criticism and the Old Testament; Historical Linguistics of Biblical Hebrew. The coursework revolves around learning how to use various scholarly methods, rather than on just reading texts. The classes are seminars with lots of discussion, stressing the students’ ability to creatively use the methods. If I continue my studies and get a PhD in Biblical Studies (inshallah!), the main hurdle I must pass is writing a dissertation, which proves that I can do original work, that I can be creative. Yes, there are comprehensive exams that demonstrate your knowledge of the tradition of scholarship that came before you. Yes, part of the evaluation of the PhD is how well you understand what other scholars have said about a topic. But you show your understanding of those scholars through critiquing them. A significant part of writing a doctoral thesis involves finding something new to say in a scholarly conversation. You have to kill your idols at a certain point.

This system produces scholars who are creative and rigorous. However, you can legitimately get a PhD in Biblical Studies without having read the whole Bible — even in English. Heck, I know New Testament scholars who haven’t read the whole New Testament in Greek. One might suggest that rigor in one area might come at the expense of another.

By contrast, some years ago I spent a summer studying at the Center for Buddhist Studies at Rangjung Yeshe Monastery in Kathmandu. The program was part Western-style comparative religion, part Tibetan-style monastic education. The latter classes involved reading a set text, a primer of Vajrayana practice titled The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Class time consisted of the teacher commenting on this text line-by-line, explicating its every meaning in great depth. If I remember correct, the didactic poem had roughly 40 four-line stanzas. We spent weeks going through it. Of course, there was time for question and answer, but we did not engage in the kind of free-flowing discussion that I have in my graduate seminars at the GTU.

Tibetan Buddhist monastic culture, like the Western academy, has its own gradations of study and hard-earned titles: lopon, lama, khenpo, etc. One who has advanced far in this education system has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours intensively studying texts, their languages, their explication and exegesis.

While there is of course creativity and diversity in Tibetan Buddhist thought, as I understand it, the scholarly degrees focus more on whether or not one can faithfully pass on the tradition. Similarly, as I understand it, traditional Islamic madrasas have the same ethos. This might produce a conservative scholarly culture. But you can bet these scholars know all the texts inside and out, in a way that someone with a PhD in Buddhist Studies or Islamic Studies from a Western secular university simply won’t.

In both of these cases, the curriculum reflects the practice of the scholarly community: is a scholar’s job to creatively critique and rethink the tradition, or is it to faithfully pass on the tradition? Every religious community has to rethink these questions anew in every generation. But the intellectual leaders of the tradition are themselves formed to follow a balance of creativity and faithfulness by their own education—in its content, its delivery, and its criteria for assessing them as scholars.

Understanding this has helped me better appreciate my more conservative Christian friends. The curriculum at a liberal Protestant seminary and at a conservative Protestant seminary reflect the same differences as above. What examples of this do you see in your tradition?

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