It’s been a long, long, time.

Hi friends. I haven’t been posting here in many many moons, but I wanted to share a few details about why, and a few resources for where you can go to find great (and similar) content on teaching World Religions.

The why: So many things! But mostly motherhood (the little peanut is almost 8 months now) and a new position as a coordinator and coach for the Smithsonian Learning Lab. It’s a entry-point into the Smithsonian Institution’s digitized resources (including video, artifacts, images, magazine articles, texts, and lesson plans), designed for teachers and students to explore and create their own collections. It’s been a really interesting adventure into the world of learning with digital media and a great opportunity to work with wonderful museum educators and classroom teachers.

The plug for where to go: I’m still so interested in learning more about World Religions, and I keep my blog feed stocked with several sources. The best one out there has got to be World Religions by George S. Coe. He has a teacher’s eye and does a wonderful job of finding interesting and accessible resources on a variety of religions. I encourage you to check his site out.

In addition, I’ve pulled together some collections of World Religions materials within the Learning Lab site, and I’d love to share those with you:

One of the great things about the site is its flexibility. Each of the above collections are designed so that students can independently access museum materials and learn from them. However, there are also a number of collections that are aimed at teachers and gather materials and teaching ideas around particular topics. I’ve created one of these on Sacred Texts that might interest some readers. You’ll also just want to explore–there is so much to engage with and excite your curiosity!

So, this is goodbye. Thanks so much for all those that read my posts over the past few years and shared ideas here. I’m sure I’ll keep writing somewhere, just not here, so I’ll borrow a closing line from one of my favorite podcasts: “see you on the Internet!”

 

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Maureen Fiedler is my hero.

I’ve talked about her radio show before, Interfaith Voices, which is wonderful and informative. But today as I listened to a recent podcast, I heard her challenge Ben Carson and Donald Trump on their bigotry, and was just inspired again by her intelligence, feistiness, and open-minded approach to religion and religious issues. Nuns are awesome, aren’t they? Truly, I admire her independence, her thoughtfulness, and her curiosity about the world and I always learn from her show.

Read her editorial here: No religious test for public office | National Catholic Reporter History nerds will note an allusion to my favorite Abraham Lincoln speech and a great rundown of religion in politics.

Enjoy!

How Indigenous People’s Stories Help Scientists Understand Earthquakes in The Pacific Northwest – The Atlantic

This is a great article from The Atlantic about how scientists and historians have begun to use the myths of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest to inform their understanding of earthquakes and tsunamis.

In each of the indigenous communities, scientists found incidences of stories retelling a particular earthquake in 1700.  This has helped to solidify the notion that this region is ripe for another such natural disaster. While the myths don’t necessarily give solid advice for survival or preparations, they do offer a sense of the peoples’ resilience, especially when you consider how they have been orally transmitted from generation to generation. For example:

Younker thinks his uncle told him that story partly so that Younker could tell even younger people how to prepare, and partly to say, “make sure you keep your ropes long and your connections to home are well-maintained so you can pull yourself back to home. Because you really can’t separate the past from the present.”

If you teach about indigenous religions, you undoubtedly talk about myths and how they help reveal the ways in which a culture understands the world. What I like about this article is that is shows myths being used in a meaningful way by current researchers (not just as a quaint relic), and also that it offers some reasssurance about cultural and physical survival, in the face of natural or human-induced disasters.

Read more here: How Indigenous People’s Stories Help Scientists Understand Earthquakes in The Pacific Northwest – The Atlantic

What Are the Limits of ‘Religious Liberty’? – The New York Times

What Are the Limits of ‘Religious Liberty’? – The New York Times.

Quick read on new questions of religious liberty that have developed in response to the gay rights movement. It seems to me that a shift is underway from citing religious liberty as a protection for action’s that affect one’s self (declining to attend public schools; claiming conscientious objector status) to name it as your reason to limit the rights of others (to purchase contraceptives). That shifts seems to move us away from the very intent of these laws to ensure freedom and protection for individuals.

This topic has always been an interesting talking point with students–I find that teenagers are highly preoccupied with infringements on their rights! I would be interested to hear their thoughts on what private companies can or cannot do.

Cultivating Vultures to Restore a Mumbai Ritual – NYTimes.com

My student teacher pointed this article from 2012 out to me today, as we were discussing Zoroastrian rituals in class. Seems that environmental factors were killing off the vultures that usually fed at the Towers of Silence in the Zoroastrian tradition. Just another example of the challenges in adapting ancient practices to the modern world. I wonder how the vulture population is doing today?

Cultivating Vultures to Restore a Mumbai Ritual – NYTimes.com.

Zoroastrianism: Beginnings and Endings

Lately I’ve been trying to teach my World Religions class about Zoroastrianism. I say trying because in the past two weeks we’ve had only 1.5 days of class, meaning I have only seen my WR students once. So what is typically a short unit on Zoroastrianism, an introduction and/or foundation for the ethical monotheistic faiths that will follow, has now been drawn out over sixteen days. I think they will hardly remember anything about this faith when we get to day 2.

But, I’ll persist for two main reasons: in Zoroastrianism, we get a sense of important beginnings and get to explore the fears that surround possible endings. By beginnings, I mean the basic ideas of monotheism, heaven and hell, and human free will that exist within Zoroastrianism and are seen in later monotheistic faiths. Studying Zoroastrianism gives us a chance to talk about these ideas in an unfamiliar context, and maybe consider them more objectively. But the number of adherents to faith is also dwindling, and by looking at the contemporary state of Zoroastrianism, we get to think about how religions grow and fade, and what factors might lead to their demise.

On day one, we focused on the beginnings and the basics of the faith, via some videos, a lecture, and readings. I try to emphasize those foundational ideas that I mentioned earlier: monotheism, good vs. evil, Heaven, Hell, and free will. The ideas are incredibly familiar to the students but the names of the god (Ahura Mazda) and the force of evil (Angra Mainyu–best name ever), the use of water and fire in practice, and the locations and traditions all make it something different and intriguing.

On day 2, whenever that happens, I hope to have students complete a webquest reviewing the practices of Zoroastrianism as well as investigating the question of intermarriage. As a rule, the practice of marriage outside of the faith has been discouraged, but not barred, and so the numbers of children born into the faith are dropping over time. In response, old-fashioned Zoroastrian matchmakers and more new-fangled singles Zoroastrian websites have emerged.

A Temple of Silence, or dakhma, used for interring the dead without polluting the earth or other elements. One of the more unique features of Zoroastrianism.

A Temple of Silence, or dakhma, used for interring the dead without polluting the earth or other elements. One of the more unique features of Zoroastrianism.

Intermarriage is one factor, but there is also the simple struggle of practicing a minority faith far from home. This video from the NYT captures this challenge and the efforts made by current generations to maintain the practices and traditions (there is an accompanying article, too). So, in this small religion (less than 200,000 adherents today), we witness the advantages and disadvantages of a faith readily adapting to new countries and new eras, and we also learn about the big ideas in religion and philosophy that began to dramatically change the world 3,000 years ago. Here’s hoping I actually get to teach this lesson Monday!

P.S. I’ve taken some of my snow-day time to update the Resources and Reading List pages. Check them out! (I’ve also taken some of my snow-day time to sleep in and play with the dog, don’t worry!).

Five Ideas for Teaching East Asian Religions

Whew! My classes have made it through our unit on East Asian Religions, taught half by my student teacher and half by myself. Hopefully they saw past the shifting teaching styles and gained some understanding of Confucanism, Daoism, and Shinto. Here are some ideas I thought worked well:

1) Is Confucianism a Religion or a Philosophy? This was a discussion led by my student teacher that linked back to our conversations earlier in the year about what it means to really be a religion. She used excerpts from a Useless Tree blog post that responded to this article by Peter Berger, as well as another short excerpt from Prothero’s Book, God Is Not One. While I think the readings themselves can be challenging for students, I enjoyed how they got students to re-evaluate the question of what is a religion. While Useless Tree notes that “there is little, if any, concern for cosmological origins or after lives” in Confucianism, I would challenge my students (and Useless Tree) to consider whether spirituality must be confined to questions of our beginnings and endings. Like Prothero, it seems to me there is some sense in a spirituality that aids in the “individual transformation” (his words) that is the mark of our living experience. On the heels of learning about Buddhism, which, depending on the branch, can be similarly removed from deities and the cosmos, and as we prepare for diving into the religions deriving from the Middle East, this conversation was particularly useful as a means for discussing what it means to be a religion and to stretch our original definitions even further.

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What You Don’t Know (according to Stephen Prothero)

I’ve slowly been working my way through two Stephen Prothero books this fall: God is Not One: the Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t. While I’m using the first as a resource and referring to chapters when they complement my teaching, the latter I read straight through. Upon reading the introduction, I felt a sense of satisfaction (the feeling you feel when someone incredibly smart agrees with your point of view). Parts of Prothero’s introduction read like a much better written version of my course syllabus. As he argues for the promotion of religious literacy, he states:

…I write here not as a believer (or unbeliever) but as a citizen. My purpose is not to foster faith or to denigrate it. Neither is it to advance the liberal arts or to boost high school students’ SAT scores (though these are both laudable educational ends to which religious literacy might be put). My goal is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world which religion counts. (p. 15).

Yes!!! Like Prothero, I encounter huge gaps in my students’ religious knowledge, both in my elective course and as I try to wade through the American history curriculum. And, like Prothero, I strongly believe that increasing religious literacy is critical to building better citizens (and just better people). But while we agree on the problem facing America today, and I appreciated his scholarship on why exactly religious literacy has declined,  I do differ with Prothero when it comes to the solutions he suggests.

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Lost in the Supermarket

A few years ago I came across an article about Noah Levine, a so-called Dharma punk. The article made the assertion that punk music was a natural fit for Buddhism, from the anti-establishment and anti-materialistic ethos to the lack of attachment to physical well-being shown in the mosh pit. Intrigued, I asked around and came up with some ideas for songs that were clean enough to bring into the classroom but rocking enough to catch the kids’ attention. I liked the idea of challenging them to think about Buddhism not simply as a quiet, meditative, path, but as a set of understandings that could emerge in any “scene.” The title of this post comes from one of the Clash songs that I like to play for them–a contemplation of life in the dissatisfying ‘burbs and our material world. Translating the universal truths that Siddhartha taught to punk rock rebels helps set the stage for later conversations about Buddhism “in the world”–and the rebellions for justice led by monks in Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, and elsewhere (great, old CNN video on Buddhist activists here).

The thing is, so few of my students are punks these days that, while they were interested in the article and music in sort of an anthropological way, they didn’t really connect to the spirit. As a result, this year I did some crowd-sourcing via Facebook and added to my list of tunes. Just where else do we see Buddhist themes emerging in pop culture today? Both my dad and sister recommended Gone Going’ by Jack Johnson and the Black Eyed Peas. I started class off with that one, and to my surprise one of my students immediately began singing along. (Apparently my dad and sister are much more with it than I am. I had never heard the song before). Listening to the lyrics, the students were able to make connections to suffering, impermanence, and “no-soul,” and the fact that the first one was such a hit let me get away with playing some more, less well-known tunes.

I love this activity because it gives us a way to talk about some of the more challenging concepts, using the song lyrics as guideposts to test our definitions or understandings of anitya, anatma, and dukkha against. It also lends itself to fun extra credit: right now students are working on picking out their own songs to share with the class that similarly represent Buddhist values. I’ll share those with you soon!

Sallekhana and the Decision to Die

“I’m still recovering from that real talk,” was Student A’s response to me, as I asked him why he was slow to get started on his warm-up in second period. (Student A is in the unfortunate position of having me for two different classes, two periods in a row). A real talk, it was. In a somber, thoughtful, and respectful manner, the kids in my first and third periods talked about if or when it was okay to let someone make the decision to die.

The context was the introduction of the concept of sallekhana in the Jain religion. Sallekhana is a ritual fasting that some Jains choose to lead them into death. It is not considered suicide, nor is it considered violent. This ritual surprises some, who know the Jains only for their utmost compassion for all living beings on earth. Jains sweep the ground ahead of them so as not to injure insects and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, all in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, this act of sallekhana is not considered violent, but rather is a physical expression of the non-attachment that is critical to Jain spiritual growth. From this article by Hotta Kazuyoshi:

When it is time for someone to perform sallekhana, he must ask permission from the religious
leader. First he must give up love, hatred and attachments. He should beg his kinsmen and others
to forgive him, and should also forgive them. He also should honestly confess his past sins; then he
should maintain the five great vows, the same as the mendicants, and should read (study) the canon
until his death. Next he gradually changes his diet to dairy products, hot water, etc. Finally, fasting
completely and reciting a mantra, he should discard his body.

Sallekhana is only allowed in cases where death is imminent, as a result of disease, warfare, famine or some other misfortune. The ritual gives Jains control over their death in these moments, and the chance to perform it in a way that affirms their spiritual beliefs and intentions.

When planning this conversation and lesson, Brittney Maynard became a symbol for the Death with Dignity movement in the United States. A beautiful young woman, recently married and shortly after diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, her story captured the interest of media immediately. She decided to move to Oregon, where she could choose to end her life with assitance from a physician. In fact, just a few days before I delivered this lesson, she died, according to her own pre-determined plans.

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