Religious Pluralism and American Democracy: How the World Religions Classroom Can Become a Site of Struggle
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Religious Pluralism and American Democracy: How the World Religions Classroom Can Become a Site of Struggle

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s conception of feminist biblical interpretation as a “site of struggle” models how university classrooms can be “places of struggle over the production of either oppressive or liberative meanings and authority.”1 Schüssler Fiorenza argues that feminist biblical interpretation should neither simply reject nor embrace kyriarchal religious traditions, rather its goal is to enact readings as “sites of struggle” in which feminists articulate wo/men’s agency and participate in the construction of meaning.2 Following this paradigm, the religious studies classroom can become a site of struggle when students and instructor critically reflect on their own experiences and socioreligious standpoints and when students and instructor undertake a twopart “deconstructive and reconstructive movement.”3 I will discuss my efforts to have my World Religions classroom at the University of San Diego (USD) be a site of struggle in which students and I explore religious pluralism as integral to American democracy. First, I offer background information about USD, my course, and about Diana Eck’s dialogical method for studying world religions, the course’s primary methodological approach.

The University of San Diego is a Roman Catholic University unaffiliated with an order. There are 5,300 undergraduates, 58 percent that identify as “white,” 55 percent that identify as women, 51 percent that indicate their “religious preference” to be Roman Catholic, and 33 percent that do not receive any financial aid (for 2010–11 USD’s tuition, room, and board totals $49,950).4 While USD is a “highly privileged institution,” the majority of its students are “relatively privileged” in that they have mixed experiences of privilege and oppression and different access to power.5 I share the status of “relative privilege.” As a highly educated, white, Anglophone, American citizen, in an opposite-sex marriage, I have privilege in relation to dominant understandings of class, race/skin [End Page 157] color/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, as well as in relation to dominant understandings of physical and mental ability and age. I also share the privilege of being a member of the academy. As a female parent and primary caregiver of two small children and an adjunct faculty member hired on a year-to-year contract, however, I do not experience privilege in relation to dominant understandings of sex and gender or in relation to the hierarchical organization of contemporary universities.

USD’s core curriculum requires each undergraduate to take three theology and religious studies classes. In the best light, this requirement means that in our classes we see the entire university—in every class we have students from many departments, and each reflects the university’s demographics. Teaching required courses also means that students sign up for the class out of an obligation to get a general education credit out of the way or because the class fits their schedule, but rarely, it seems, from a positive interest in the course.

I teach in the Theology and Religious Studies Department, and the Introduction to World Religions class is catalogued as a religious studies class. While taught in diverse ways by a number of different faculty members, USD’s Introduction to World Religions aspires to be, in some fashion, historical or comparative, focusing on religious worldviews on their own terms and comparing them to one another. We are committed to ecumenical and cross-cultural study of the world’s religions. This class is not “Christian theology and world religions” or “Christianity and religious pluralism.” It is not, then, a class that employs Christian theology or history self-consciously as the starting point for a comparative encounter, even as the class is taught in a Catholic university. Of course, an inherent challenge of the course is encouraging students to be self-conscious of their standpoint, which is shaped by assumptions of the dominant, Christian culture. My course begins with methodological questions about what religion is and how to study it, and then moves to a study of five traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. As we consider how each tradition is practiced in the United States, we explore how religious...


pdf