My Inherited Elephant

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by Adam T. Miller

* This piece originally appeared on the author’s blog.

On August 13th, Matt Sheedy’s “Teaching Ethics and/in the World Religions Paradigm” (originally posted here) appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog. The piece opens with an overview of some of the struggles associated with teaching inherited introductory courses in religious studies. Although I have only been teaching for a year, his words resonated with me; edited to reflect my admittedly minimal experience (without eyesores like brackets and ellipses), they read:

Like several others, I have inherited an accelerated online course called Religion and the Human Adventure. The course was designed to provide students with an introduction to “world religions” using the comparison of case studies to illustrate themes/categories. Over the past year, several of my students have come from my university’s nursing program, which requires their graduates to take one course on religion. Most of these students enter the class expecting/hoping to learn about the beliefs and practices of other religions in order to be better nurses–a respectable goal, to be sure, but not necessarily what courses on religion are about.

For my first two terms of teaching this class, I supplemented my inherited textbook (Gary E. Kessler’s Studying Religion: An Introduction through Cases) with some extra readings focused on a tradition or theme relevant to the assigned reading from the textbook. More recently, however, I’ve opted to supplement Kessler with chapters from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion.

Sheedy closes the second paragraph saying that he uses his inherited textbook as “not just a resource, but the primary object of study.” This is something I cannot yet say, but I’m working on it. And Martin provides a point of entry for me in “Conceiving the ‘We’ in Pluralism.”

Introductory textbooks in religious studies often promote pluralism/tolerance, the idea that “we can get along once we realize that we are, at bottom, similar in essential ways [and that] we might attenuate social conflict with a deep, empathetic understanding of others.” The textbook I use is no exception. In fact, its last chapter (titled “Religious Diversity and Truth”) comes to a close with the story of the blind people and the elephant, a narrative culled from the Buddhist tradition that I’ve seen used more than once in arguments for pluralism/tolerance.

In short form, the story tells of a scenario in which a king orders a handful of blind men to describe an elephant on the basis of limited tactile experience. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and, ergo, provides a different report to the king. (The man who touched the leg said “an elephant is like a pillar,” and so on. And let’s not ignore that only men were given access to the elephant.)

According to Kessler, the take home point of the story is that all religious views are partially true, but never completely so. But this leads to a paradox–for how can we know that views are partial without seeing the whole?, and if we can see the whole, have we not moved beyond partiality? Skirting around this paradox, however, Kessler says: “Perhaps we should not read too much into this parable. After all, it is only a story.”

But on the basis of this mere story, Kessler constructs what he calls the Elephant Principle. Outlining the contours of this principle, as well as the motivations underlying its construction and promotion, he writes:

Perhaps we cannot do much better than to adopt the principle that all religions have a partial grasp on truth … It seems that the only justification for adopting the notion that all religious contain some of the truth is pragmatic … If we talk to others who disagree, if we study their religious beliefs and practices, if we listen with the principle of charity to their myths and legends, we may learn something of real value that we did not know before.

Adopting [the Elephant Principle] not only promotes [interreligious] dialogue, but also a religiously tolerant society in which “the religious beliefs, or rejection of religion, of the citizen are not allowed to affect their legal right to live, marry, raise children, worship, pursue careers, own property, make contracts, participate in politics, and engage in all the other activities normally open to citizens in that society.

In the first paragraph, the plural pronoun “we” shows up frequently. But Kessler never discusses who constitutes this “we,” who constitutes the “them” in contradistinction to which the “we” comes into being, who gets to draw the line between the “we” and the “them,” whose interests are being served in constituting the “we” in this-or-that way, and whether the interests of all members of the “we” are served equally.

In the last paragraph, “citizenship” and its attendant duties/expectations are called upon as pragmatic justification for the promotion of the Elephant Principle. But Kessler never critically addresses the configuration of power that this principle upholds–he just describes it as if its political and social value were obvious.

But just as it is not my job to privilege one religion over others (or one understanding of a particular religion over others), neither is it my job “to domesticate social differences to prepare students for life in late capitalism.” On the contrary, I see it as my responsibility to expose those processes by which contingent social orders are rendered natural.

I want to do the best I can with my inherited elephant. Like Sheedy, I aim to take Kessler’s book as my primary object of study. And my first step toward accomplishing this goal will be (1) to assign Kessler’s final chapter and Martin’s post in the same week, and (2) to have my students wrestle with the critical questions Martin poses as they relate to the Elephant Principle. It’s probably not realistic to expect my students to grasp and unpack fully the import of such questions. But if it gets them thinking, I’ll mark it down as a win.

* This post has also appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Adam Miller‘s academic interests gravitate toward Indian Mahayana Buddhist literature and history, particularly (at least at the moment) past-life stories and expand to include South Asian Buddhism more generally, early/medieval Chinese Buddhism, Swami Vivekananda, and Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. He received his training at the University of Missouri (MA 2013) and Western Illinois University (BA 2011), and will start working toward his PhD in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago this fall.

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