- Reflections on Academic Reflection
Contemplative pedagogy deserves both the careful scrutiny and the sustained exploration that the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies is uniquely well suited to provide. As higher education comes under increased pressure for accountability, we need to be able to explain clearly both the pedagogical value and academic integrity of these elements in our curriculum. Academics seeking to incorporate contemplative practices into their teaching need to pay careful attention to their institutional setting. While people in all types of higher education may share certain values (e.g., free inquiry, critical thinking, intellectual rigor, clear reasoning), different institutional settings offer different kinds of opportunities and challenges. Shenandoah University, where I teach, is one of five private universities in Virginia related to the United Methodist Church (UMC). All these schools acknowledge the relationship, but some seem rather embarrassed by it. For us it is a warm embrace.
In its mission statement, our university characterizes the relationship this way: “As an institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church, Shenandoah University practices the highest ethical standards in its interactions with the community and with students of other faiths.”1 While the university is clear about its church affiliation, the phrase “highest ethical standards in its interaction with students of other faiths” indicates the kind of mutual respect and understanding that characterize pluralism. Among its core values are “respect for diverse cultures, experiences, and perspectives” and “dedication to global outreach.”2 Dedication to “global outreach” sounds like window dressing, but it is genuine. With its Global Citizenship Project, the university funds all expenses for fifty-five students each year to travel to one of five countries over spring break for cultural immersion. This mission statement and our core values make it much easier to root our religious studies curriculum in an atmosphere of religious pluralism than one might expect at a church-related university.
Our Department of Religion recognizes two purposes for religious studies. The first is to offer an array courses to meet general education needs for moral reasoning and cross-cultural understanding. One of the department’s goals for general education religion courses is to promote interreligious and multicultural understanding. Another is to serve the church by offering a program to train students for religious leadership roles, called the JustFaith Christian Leadership Program. It is designed to integrate theological education and spiritual formation that promotes social justice. [End Page 41] In the department’s view, this commitment to justice is consistent with our Wesleyan heritage, but is often neglected in churches and rare in higher education. Although our religion major requirements reflect the university’s Christian heritage, we do require a course in world religions and one course in a religious tradition other than Christianity.
This institutional setting invites me to teach in very different ways. Of the eight courses I teach over a two-year rotation, two take a philosophical approach, two take a phenomenological approach without any contemplative practices, and two blend the phenomenological approach with contemplative practices.3 The other two I teach “from the inside,” as a Christian ordained in the United Methodist Church. I present my own experience and convictions as part of that tradition, and the course emphasizes religious practices such as fasting, prayer, meditation, contemplative prayer, and/or periods of solitude. This confessional approach would not be possible at a state university, but I think students should have this option at church-related schools. The delicate issue is that most students do not come to our university because of its religious heritage. Our students are much like their counterparts at state universities, and often register for courses on the basis of what fits their academic schedules rather than any particular interest in or affinity for the topic. For this reason, we try to be as clear as possible in course descriptions about the various contents and approaches of our courses. Still, that does not prevent a poorly advised agnostic or atheist from registering occasionally for my course on Christian spirituality. On the first day of class I discuss the confessional nature of the course and the spiritual exercises students will be expected to do. I do not screen anyone...