I took this class in college called "Theories of Religion." It was probably the hardest class I have ever taken, and sometimes, I think it's probably the hardest class I ever will take (haven't made it to grad school yet, though that's in the works). And at the same time, I have to admit that it's probably my favorite class of all time, second only to "Ancient Christianity" and "Christian History."
The thing I liked so much about this class was that it was designed solely for the purpose of making us think so hard that our brains would melt from taxation. I loved it. The class was built around the question, "what is religion?" That's it.
This was not a Christian school; in fact, far from it. This was the University of Rochester, and while I often complained about the bureaucracy of the school (aren't all schools like that?), I still claim it as my alma matter with some pride. I learned a lot there, and this class had a lot to do with that.
It was my senior year, first semester. I had just finished the process of re-designing my major (a BA called "Music in Christianity"), and was beginning work on my two-semester honors thesis on postmodern Christian music (sidenote: believe it or not, I managed to find source material for it). The class met once a week for two and a half hours at a time. I was nervous, as I'd heard it was hard, rumored that getting a passing grade was near impossible.
The class was taught by the Dean of the college himself, a religion PhD who was, of all things, Jewish. I imagine he's a cultural Jew, and, like most of the professors at UR, the man is both brilliant and quick on his feet. He can out-think students faster than any other professor I'd met.
The syllabus consisted of a series of books, all by different authors in different time periods, each pertaining to the subject of religion. The goal was simple: read each book, discern what the author meant by his or her definition of "religion." Then summarize in a two-page paper. Each book would be given to a group of three students to break apart in more detail (than the rest of the class) to be presented to the class, who would then tear apart the argument of the presentation.
That sounds a lot easier than it is. The papers, I mean. To sum up the stuff we were reading (Durkheim, Eliade, Proudfoot, Goodenough, Godlove, Weber, William James, to name a few) in two pages or less was near impossible; yet the only grades we received were on the presentations - the summary papers were only pass-fail (to assure that we did them).
I bring this up because of the one main thing that Dean Green asked that we take away from the class: discernment. He said that if we could come away from the class with the ability to truly discern what a person is writing - truly writing - then he'd be more than pleased. The class was not really about finding answers, it was about learning process. Asking, "what must this person assume in order to come up with what I've just read?"
What must a person assume?
I read an article today in which a commenter said this: "Someone asked me recently; 'Would a loving God send someone to hell, just because they didn't believe the right things about Jesus?' ... the question makes a bad assumption; that we are strolling merrily along our way to heaven." It reminded me of something that is very important: always question your assumptions.
I've experienced this time and again here in Australia. As a foreigner, many customs I take for granted in America don't work here. Sometimes it's simple or obvious things like how money is to be used, or which side of the street to walk or drive on. Sometimes it's harder. But always, there are assumptions and history underlaying the tradition.
As human beings, we live separate lives from each other, distinct individuals in every way. As a result of our totally unique perspectives (vis a vis our experiences and heritage), we speak different languages, even from each other. Our assumptions on life are different, if only slightly, but those assumptions lead to differences in perspective, in communication.
To understand somebody, you have to learn what they assume in life - you have to learn to speak their "language." To understand my wife, I have to learn "Lizish." It is only then that I can love her in a way that she understands. Because that's what this is all about - to love someone, we must first learn to understand them. Two years ago, in that class at UR, I learned about love from a most unexpected place.