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Teaching World Religions for 40 Years

By Brad Karelius


The first class of a new semester is always magical for me: a clean slate, tabula rasa, and new beginning. As I gaze at the students filling the large lecture hall in the Science Math Building at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, in southern California, my stomach rumbles with nervous energy: my 40th year of teaching, but it seems like I am just beginning.

Years ago, the make-up of the class was mostly Anglo and Christian. In the last few years, I have seen all the world religions here. Over there is a woman in a sari. In the front row sits a veiled Muslim woman. Over there a Hopi Native American. And over here sits a grey-bearded Orthodox Jew.

Philosophy 10: World Religions. A three-hour lecture on seventeen Thursday nights. I begin the class with this invitation/advisory/caveat: “The subject we will be studying together is the most important subject you will explore in college and it will change your life. You and I will be different persons seventeen weeks from now.”

I wonder if they believe me?

I push on. For some of you our work will involve a significant personal challenge. For those of you who come from a religious tradition in which you see your beliefs as the true religion, explorations of other religions may cause you apprehension. Will this study weaken my faith? Will reading about these ‘pagan’ religions expose me to temptation and dilution of my commitment to my God?

Those of you who are agnostic, atheist or reactive to religion and spirituality have another challenge. You may have had a negative personal experience with religion or believe that religion is for neurotic people. This may blind and inhibit you from seeing the treasure and gifts in the various spiritualities we will study.

I push on further. I tell students that I have been a philosophy professor at Saddleback Community College since 1973 and a full time parish priest in Orange County since 1970. That last part, the ‘priest part,’ will push buttons. Some students will withdraw from the class at the first break. They don’t believe that the teacher-priest combination will provide an objective learning experience. I counter by reminding my students that as a state licensed instructor I am not permitted to proselytize my religion. However, I can teach the subject with a deep passion, which I do.

Professor Diana Eck

Professor Diana Eck

I begin by surveying Diana Eck’s distinction1 between three perspectives from which to relate to followers from a different tradition. The exclusivist says my religion is the one and only revealed truth. I may study other religions as a subject, but my religion is the one true path. The inclusivist says, my religion is one among many. The pluralist says, there are many voices that speak truly. In the interests of creating a climate of mutuality and understanding, Professor Eck focuses on the latter.

  1. Pluralism is not the sheer fact of diversity but the active engagement among us. We can observe and celebrate diversity; pluralism calls us to be involved with each other.
  2. Pluralism is more than tolerance because it seeks for understanding. If as a Christian I simply tolerate my Muslim neighbor, I am not required to understand her, to seek out what she has to say, her hopes and dreams, to hear what it means when the words, “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate” are whispered into the ear of her newborn child. Mere tolerance keeps us ignorant of one another.
  3. Pluralism is not a simple relativism because it assumes a real commitment from us. Relativism assumes a stance of openness towards others; pluralism assumes both openness to each other and a commitment to promoting healthy relationships.
  4. Pluralism is based on a respect for differences but is not ‘syncretism.’ Syncretism is the creation of a new religion by fusing the elements of different traditions. A pluralistic culture will not flatten out differences but celebrate them. The aim of pluralism is not to make us all alike but rather to find a way to be distinctively ourselves and yet to be in a healthy relationship with one another.
  5. Pluralism is based on interreligious dialogue. The language of dialogue is the two-way language of real encounter. “Mutual transformation” is the way in which dialogue goes beyond mutual understanding to a new level of mutual self-understanding.

I remind my students that within their family or life circles there is a least one person who is from a different religion than the student’s. I help students understand basic beliefs, vocabulary, similarities, and differences among the world religions. These will be tools to help them in this work of “mutual transformation.”

A former U.S. Marine in the class had been in Lebanese barracks that were destroyed and friends killed. He wanted to know more about Islam and chose to make an oral report on “Why Americans are Afraid of Muslims.” Another student chose the same subject for the report, so I let them do it together. She was a Shia Muslim. They started out strangers, did the report, and were married two years later.

Father Karelius served Messiah Parish for 30 years. Photo: Ana Venegas, Orange County Register

Father Karelius served Messiah Parish for 30 years. Photo: Ana Venegas, Orange County Register

Pluralism means I come from the integrity of my deeply held spiritual beliefs and values and I enter into dialogue with the Other. This should not be a debate or argument. If you begin mentally with the goal of changing the Other, the process will be stunted. But if you are open to listening and have the courage to express what you believe, you and the Other will be transformed. It was that way 40 years ago. And in the amazing rainbow of diversity we live in now, the riches available to students in my class today are a rare and precious gift.

1 Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras.