Guest Post: Jon Resendez, Social Studies Teacher, Portola High School, Irvine, CA
When I started my journey as a secondary social studies teacher, I never expected that one day I would teach religious studies. So, imagine my surprise when I took over my mentor’s Comparative Religions elective course when he retired during my first year of teaching.
My mentor guided me as best he could, and I was able to impart the necessary information to my students in a somewhat-effective way. Nevertheless, those first few years were spent discovering religion alongside my students for much of the time. I embodied the new-teacher adage: just be a day ahead of the kids and you will be alright.
The Perennialist Perspective
These two works inspired me to share the possibility that all religions attend to certain essential aspects of being human in this world. This “perennialist perspective” is palatable primarily because it suggests that humans are not doomed to endure the endless destruction wrought by the clashes of civilizations. It holds out hope that our spiritual and ethical commonalities might bring about social harmony one day.
This approach also allowed my students to explore common aspects of belief systems — such as what each religion says about the afterlife or the extent to which adherents follow a “golden rule” — to make positive comparisons about the various religious traditions. It also fit well with the aspect of my teaching philosophy that centers and affirms student identity. According to course surveys, my students left feeling more connected to each other and to their own religious disposition, while also feeling more generally optimistic than when they arrived.
With results like these, it is easy to assume that changes in the course framework were unnecessary. But for years, trepidation grew inside of me; something was off. I began wondering if the perennialist perspective ran the risk of minimizing cultural differences that are such an important part of the identity formation of my students. I also grew concerned that my course did not sufficiently address why the world looks the way it does. It felt a bit like malpractice for a social studies educator.
Every day, religion plays an important role in the world’s political and economic landscape, and it drives human actions across the globe. Students observe via the media that various groups with differing religious views are making war and peace regularly. If religion really boils down to just a few common aspects, why does religious conflict happen? There must be something important about the differences as well, right?
The Divergent Approach
Eight years into my teaching of religious studies I came across the works of Stephen Prothero. After having my feelings about the importance of teaching religion in secondary schools validated by his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t (2008), I moved on to his book with a controversial title, God Is Not One (2011).
As I read the Introduction, I was shocked as he directly challenged my perennialist perspective inspired by Smith and Armstrong. Simultaneously, he affirmed my fears about sharing an incomplete story with my students.
Prothero’s approach to teaching religion, which I have named the “divergent approach,” posits that each religion is a different solution to a different human problem. The framework he lays out describes each religion in four parts:
- Problem – every religion centers one human problem
- Solution – every religion suggests a solution to the centered problem
- Technique – every religion provides a technique to execute the solution
- Exemplar – every technique is demonstrated by a model being who shows us that it is possible to overcome the problem
This divergent approach, which models the simplicity of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, has benefited my course by honoring the differences between beliefs. It provides a thinking routine that makes it easy for students to remember course content. It also arms my students with a framework that helps them understand how religions impact and shape the world every day.
To truly understand religion, a student must wrestle with the beautiful and problematic manifestations of religious belief. This framework allows students, when supplemented by current events and historical case studies, to tackle this complexity head on.
My Course Now
Discovering Prothero did not mean jettisoning the perennialist perspective entirely. On the contrary, contrasting these frameworks in strategic ways has increased the rigor of the course and provided all students the opportunity to adopt either or both approaches as a lens for understanding their world.
At the beginning of our course, we focus on the question: why religion? This is a wide-ranging interdisciplinary discussion that touches on psychology, sociology, history, archeology and philosophy. At this stage, the perennialist perspective fits best because we are trying to define, conceptually-speaking, what religion is.
Once we transition to the study of specific religious traditions, the divergent approach becomes our best tool. It narrows the vast ocean of information that comes with any detailed study of religion and facilitates the individual celebration of each faith tradition. In the process, it renders the course both emotionally-enriching and inclusive for all students.
Religion is full of “middle ways” which teach that virtue lies between the extreme manifestations of vices. Smith and Prothero are not extreme, but they are different from one another. In religious studies education we should embrace differences such as these and wield the assets that each approach brings to our understanding of ourselves and the world. Importantly, I think this also allows me to offer the most honest, coherent, and relevant story possible to my students.
About the Author
Jon Resendez teaches Religious Studies and Civics at Portola High School in Irvine, CA. He regularly leads a trip to Sacramento where students share their perspectives on educational policy with California’s state legislators, and he was recently named a 2022-2023 Teacher of the Year for the Irvine Unified School District. Jon is also an instructor at UC – Irvine, where he teaches Social Studies Teaching Methods.