Different people answer the same question in different ways. Thank heavens, because that’s what makes teaching interesting. Matthew Cressler at the College of Charleston wrote on the US Religious History blog this week about teaching a Religion in America class, and starting with moments of contact. His class, in a wonderful way, developed a discussion about how the categories of native, European, and African were far too limited and anachronistic to understand the exchanges in question. Here’s a piece, taken from his context in African American history, but sharing lessons (as he notes in the footnote), that come from many kinds of cultural studies inquiries:
This is one of the (many) lessons African American Studies teaches me about religion in America.* Taking the contributions of critical race theory seriously in the teaching, for instance, means more than starting our story in different places with different people – i.e. more than adding Indians and Africans into the mix. More than diversifying our cast of characters, African American Studies challenges us to attempt to shift the paradigm itself, to tell an altogether different story. Why is this important? What does it accomplish? Well, for one, it allows us to view the workings of power (and violence) not only at the very beginning, but also at the very heart of our constitutive terms themselves. When we begin to consider how and why it is that people who spoke a plethora of different languages, hailed from a variety of different places, and practiced a whole host of different traditions all came to be understood as (and eventually think of themselves as) “African,” we soon realize we’re telling a story many students are unaccustomed to hearing. It is a story that begins not just on the deck of the Arbella, but also with those enslaved in the bowels of “the good ship Jesus” – one in which pluralism is indecipherable apart from slavery, one in which encounters with difference lead not to diversity but to its destruction.
Hear, hear! The conversation about how early modern peoples created the categories we still deal with today is one of the most important we can have. It structures so many of our mental landscapes, and religion was a key part of that conversation. Yet because religion is also one of those things that was created by that same moment, I worry that we have too many dependent variables in the conversation. In search of a middle ground, I dropped the Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon this semester in favor of more time for Demos’s Unredeemed Captive. Outcome TBD.
Makes me very glad that lots of people are having the same conversation in different ways.