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Teaching Religion in a Secular Environment

This little diversion of a thread was going to be a simply one-post on the talk I’ll be giving today to my undergraduate Introduction to the New Testament class, where I spill the beans about what I personally believe and why.  But it’s turned into a four-post mini-thread on my views of the separation of church and state. So far it’s been all background – how my twelve years of higher education were all done in Christian confessional contexts, not in secular schools, even though all of my teaching has been in research universities.  Go figure.

As I indicated in my previous post, as a PhD student I tried to broaden my range significantly so it would not look like I could do nothing except for textual criticism, the study of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament with the ultimate goal of figuring out what the biblical authors actually wrote.  My intention all along was to find a teaching position either in a divinity school/seminary (for the training of pastors) or in a Christian liberal arts college.  I was not particularly interested, at the time, in teaching in a secular setting, mainly because I knew nothing about secular universities, never having set foot in one my entire life.

But I was having trouble finding any kind of teaching position at all.  In part that was because I was not finished with my dissertation, and most schools are reluctant to hire someone who isn’t finished yet, both because there is no telling if a person ever will finish and because with a finished dissertation you can evaluate the full quality of a person’s work and potential.  With so many certified PhD’s available for teaching posts, there is little reason to take a chance on someone who is ABD (jargon for “All But Dissertation” – that is, someone who has fulfilled all the requirements of a PhD except for the completion of the dissertation).

I had been in the job market for two years, and was coming up with absolutely nothing.  I had not had a serious interview for a position, let alone an offer of one.  I was getting extremely frustrated.  I used to go into the office of the Dean of Graduate Studies at Princeton Seminary to nose around, thinking that maybe somehow that would help me get a job (it was the office that handled placement).  It was a waste of time.

One day in the middle of a spring semester I was in there grousing to the secretary about how there didn’t seem to be very many positions in my field around the country, and her phone rang.  She answered, said to the caller “Just a minute,” and then handed me the phone and “It’s for you.”   What???   It was the chair of the Department of Religion at Rutgers University (just about 15 miles away).  They were in desperate need of a New Testament specialist right away.  The woman there who taught New Testament had to take an emergency leave of absence, starting in two weeks, right after spring break.  Her husband had been diagnosed with cancer and she could not finish out the semester.  Would I be interested in picking up her two courses at the half-way point?

Would I be interested?!?  Yikes.  It turns out they interviewed three people for the job, but they ended up giving it to me.  I showed up to teach there by a complete fluke.  Who would-a thought?

My first day of class, picking up her syllabi where she left off, was the first time in my entire life I had ever been in a secular university.  I could only guess what it would be like, since I had zero experience in that world.   In my own world (this seems very strange indeed) it was common to begin class with prayer.  Really.  I knew *that* much was going to be different.  But what else?

Looking back I think that in some ways having such a radical departure from the kind of educational experience I had had as a student to the kind I had as a teacher actually helped me, significantly, to understand the real difference between teaching religion in a confessional setting (a Christian college; a seminary) and in a secular one.  I have a very finely honed sense of the difference, precisely because I was trained entirely in one setting and have taught entirely in the other.

In the secular setting there needs to be a radical disjuncture between what a professor (like me) personally believes and what he tries to teach to his students.  In a secular setting the teaching of religion is not at all about what the students ought to believe religiously, about how they should tend to their faith commitments, about how religion should affect their lives.  The teaching of religion is the teaching *about* religion.   You don’t have to embrace a religion to teach about it, any more than you have to be a communist to teach about Marxism or a Nazi to teach about the Third Reich.  These are topics of academic study, and a professor’s personal relationship to the matter is, or at least should be, irrelevant to their teaching of it.

And so, now, in my Department of Religious Studies here at Chapel Hill, we have professors who teach various aspects of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Religions in America, and …. other things.   Are my colleagues adherents of these various religious traditions?  In most cases, I have no idea.  Here’s a strange factoid: I have been teaching religious studies here at Chapel Hill for 28 years now.  To my recollection, I have never, ever had a conversation with a colleague in my department about personal religious beliefs, mine or theirs.  Ever.   It’s just not a topic of conversation.  We are scholars who are experts in different aspects of religion. What we personally believe or practice has no relevance to the matter.

And in my view that’s the way it should be in a state research university.  In this country we have a constitutional separation of church and state.  The state cannot tell a church how to conduct its affairs (within parameters, of course; churches cannot sponsor illegal activities); and the church cannot dictate how the state conducts its own.   Someone who is paid by taxpayer money cannot (as part of their job) promote his or her personal religious agenda, an agenda that will almost certainly run contrary to the views of many of the taxpayers providing (part of) the salary.   If I were to advocate my personal beliefs in class and try to influence students to accept them, in my view, I would be in violation of the principles set forth in the constitution.  So I never do so.  That’s very different from teaching in a religious environment.  And now that I’ve done it for over 32 years (first at Rutgers then at UNC), I *so* much prefer it this way.

And now I am ready to explain what I am planning to do in my New Testament class this afternoon where I do divulge my personal beliefs, on the last day of the semester.  I’ll explain all about that in the next post.

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Teaching the Bible as a Historical Book
How We Got Our 27-Book New Testament: The Case of Didymus



  1. twiskus  April 26, 2017

    *Gets popcorn ready*

  2. FadyRiad  April 26, 2017

    A very informative post.
    Thank you!
    The Gospel of Lie

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  April 26, 2017

    NC seems to be turning more purple politically over the years. Do you get that sense living there?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      Well, it’s been back and forth, but it’s predominantly red, except in some of the urban areas (Raleigh-Durham; Charlotte; Asheville)

  4. mjt  April 26, 2017

    Is it common to have a ‘religious studies’ department at a secular university? I went to Ohio State; to my remembrance, there wasn’t a department like this…but I could be wrong. How many professors are in your department?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      Yes, it’s not uncommon. Ours was one of the first in the nation in 1946. We have 18 fulltime faculty members. Ohio State does have people who teach religious studies, but they are located in various other departments.

  5. Todd  April 26, 2017

    “I showed up to teach there by a complete fluke. Who would-a thought?”

    Maybe there is a God 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      Yeah, that’s what *I* was thinkin’….

      • llamensdor  May 1, 2017

        And besides, in a seminary, you’re not likely to have a quarterback who is an NFL top draft pick.

  6. RonaldTaska  April 26, 2017

    I look forward to the next post. This has been a good series of posts. Thanks.

  7. Bitburnett  April 26, 2017

    I’m on tenterhooks, waiting for the next post!

  8. Seeker1952  April 26, 2017

    I understand the need to teach “about” religion rather than try to indoctrinate students with one’s own beliefs at a public university. But then where would a student go who wanted to consider a range of different religions as real “existential” possibilities for one’s life. To do that the student would have to go to a sectarian university. But in such a setting there is likely to be a presumption that only one religion is true (or at least truer than any of the others) and needs to be seriously considered. .

    One of the complaints about the way philosophy is taught is that it is mainly a technical discipline trying to produce objective knowledge rather than something intended to be a consideration of different ways of life and different solutions to the basic problems and questions about human existence. Ancient philosophy was supposedly much more like the latter than the former.

    Couldn’t there to be a “middle way” where the instructor does not try to indoctrinate students in his or her own beliefs but still tries to give thoughtful consideration as serious possibilities?

    • Seeker1952  April 26, 2017

      Let me try the last paragraph again.

      Couldn’t there be a middle way where the instructor is not trying to indoctrinate students with the instructor’s own beliefs, not simply “preaching” the “truth” BUT still takes the religion seriously as a possible way of life that can be critically examined by both the instructor and the students.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 28, 2017

        I do take it seriously as a possible way of life that is to be critically examined!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      Students can always take a range of religion courses to see what various religions teach and what options of belief/practice are, without professors trying to convert them.

      • SidDhartha1953  April 29, 2017

        I never had the privilege of studying under him but, from what I have learned of him, Huston Smith adopted that very approach in his own study of world religions: adopting their practices (like an anthropologist, I suppose) to understand them from the inside. But at the end of the day, one must be more or less in or out, I think.

  9. HawksJ  April 26, 2017

    Bart, when you were a true believer, how did you feel about the separation of church and state?

    The value seems self-evident, but whenever I think or read about this issue, I can’t help but think of some comments my mother made over the years where, clearly, to her it seemed wholly unnecessary to protect the religious rights of others when ‘others’ were simply wrong about religion. In other words, if everybody else learned ‘the truth’ – and believed it – then there would be no need for separating church and state.

    That is a belief not uncommon to fundamentalists the world over.

    How did you feel about it when you were at your most zealous stage?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      Probably when I was most zealous I thought we should be a Christian nation!

      • llamensdor  May 1, 2017

        To a large extent (although lessening) we still are a Christian nation, and the founders were all well-informed about Judeo-Christian ethics and morality. In fact, as an attorney, I feel we have gone too far in separating church and state, and the founders would assuredly think that much of what we consider legal and constitutional, as well as the opposite, would strike them as absurd.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 1, 2017

          I guess it depends what you mean by being a Christian nation. Most people are Christians, yes. But the Constitution does not allow the state to impose any particular religion on any of its citizens. (Christians who complain about that now would not be complaining about it if the majority became Muslim, e.g.)

          • llamensdor  May 3, 2017

            You’re quite right. Under our constitution, the Federal government has no right to impose a religious state or create a religious test for citizenship or holding office. What I mean is that most of our institutions have developed from Judeo-Christian thought and principles, and most Americans, citizens and non-citizens, consider themselves “Christian” although the percentage keeps dropping across the decades and the vast majority of Americans have very limited knowledge of scripture or none at all. Most of us would have a hard time qualifying for your courses at NC–if indeed you require some minimal amount of knowledge for admission.

  10. Stephen  April 27, 2017

    Just curious. Do any of your students ever come to you for spiritual counsel or try to unburden themselves to you about their spiritual struggles? If so how do you respond?


    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      No, it hasn’t happened in many many years. I think they know I’m not the best person to come to about it all….

  11. billw977  April 27, 2017

    I finished “Jesus Before the Gospels” several weeks ago (the third or fourth book I’ve read by you) and yesterday watched your debate with Robert Price on Mysticism. I’ve seen several of your debates also. Again, I appreciate your honesty and “down to earth” style. I’m curious though, in your debate with Price, you mentioned Paul visiting Peter and James. Knowing that you believe that Jesus ‘became God’ through time and the embellishments of the stories being passed down year after year, isn’t that a conflict though? I mean Paul believed that Jesus was deity, the very son of God, and if he visited Peter and James they would only confirm to him his beliefs if these meetings really took place. It also confirms that you apparently believe that James and Peter were real people involved with Jesus. So, Jesus, Paul, Peter, James are real people who one way or another associated with each other. To me, it sort of brings a reality to Jesus being who people say he is……I mean if not, wouldn’t Peter straighten Paul out on his misconceptions? or vice versa?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      I’m having trouble following your question. My sense is that Peter and James also, at that point, had come to believe that Jesus was a divine being.

      • Tony  April 28, 2017

        The evidence shows that Peter and James always believed that Jesus was a divine being.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 30, 2017

          I lean toward seeing it as a forgery by Smith.

          • Tony  April 30, 2017

            Who is Smith?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2017

            Morton Smith, the scholar who discovered the Secret Gospel of Mark. Some people think he actually forged it.

          • llamensdor  May 1, 2017

            I seriously doubt that Jesus ever claimed to be divine, or that he ever taught Peter and James he was divine.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2017

            I completely agree.

      • billw977  April 30, 2017

        Just curious as to why you deleted my follow-up explanation of what I was trying to ask about the gospels vs Paul…..you said you were having trouble following my question, did I make it worse?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 1, 2017

          Sorry, I must have thought it was a duplicate rather than a follow-up. Could you send it again?

          • billw977  May 2, 2017

            For years I’ve considered myself a Christian but after reading your books I have considered myself agnostic. Then I watched your debate with Robert Price about Mysticism and defending Jesus as a real historical person. Now I have questions. You’ve defended Jesus as a real person but the things said of him in the gospels have been blown out of proportion: no one knows who wrote the gospels, they are probably embellished through the passage of time, mis-remembered and out right made up stories, etc. But, you also defend Paul as being real but in contrast you say that some of the Pauline letters are probably genuine and I’m assuming that they may not have necessarily been embellished or mis-remembered or made-up like the gospels have been. So we may be able to take Paul more seriously than the gospels, and my question is doesn’t Paul more or less defend the basic premise of the gospels? Paul doesn’t rehash the gospels but he talks about the man Jesus as if he could have done all those things in the gospels. We also have 2 Cor 12:12. Wasn’t Paul saying Jesus was deity years before the gospel of John came out? Doesn’t that conflict with what you say about Jesus eventually becoming God through years of stories becoming more and more embellished?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 3, 2017

            The big difference between Paul’s letters and the Gospels is that we have what he himself actually wrote (as surviving in later copies), whereas the Gospels are based on oral traditoins that had been in circulation for decades. Paul doesn’t say much at all about anything the Gospels talk about, except the fact that Jesus was crucified. And yes, Paul did think Jesus was God. You may want to read my book where I talk about this, How Jesus Became God.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 28, 2017

      The expression “son of God” in Judaism can mean one of two things. A) It can mean a human being who has, in essence, been adopted by God, which is evidenced by God bestowing favor on him, such as making him a king or a high priest or simply a very blessed or holy individual. Such exalted human beings are sometimes called “sons of God”. B) It can also simply mean a divine being, such as angels or the so-called Nephilim of Genesis 6, etc. In that case, calling an ostensible man, such as a Jesus, a “son of God” carries the implication that he is either an angel in disguise (e.g. the angels in the guise of men who visit Lot), or he is a flesh-and-blood man whose body has been taken over by an angelic being (analogous to demon possession). And evidence for both meanings can be found within the NT. That’s why it took hundreds of years for Christians to develop anything close to a consistent christology. Because the Jewish term “son of God” was never meant to mean anything more than one of these two concepts.

      • llamensdor  May 1, 2017

        This misses the point that every Jewish male believed he was the son of God, created in his image. The rest is folderol.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  May 1, 2017

          The logic was not quite as simple as that. Jews would call themselves the Sons of Adam, and, in fact, “son of Adam” in Hebrew — ben-adam — simply means a human being, so, technically, all human beings are Sons of Adam. More specifically, Jews also refered to themselves as Sons of Abraham, and, in that case, all Semites who engaged in circumcision, from Jews to Idumeans to Samaritans to some Arab tribes, were, technically, Sons of Abraham. (This group is also sometimes called the Sons of the Covenant, or Benei Brith.) Moreover, the specific Sons of Abraham who we would call Jews, who follow the received Torah as we have it in the Masoretic Text, they are called the Sons of Israel, or Benei Israel. The epithet Son of God, therefore, was reserved specifically for those men who were exceptionally holy, or wise, or learned, or great kings, etc. They were somehow special, not just simply human beings created “in the image of God”.

          • llamensdor  May 3, 2017

            I’m sorry talmoore, I don’t agree. It really is as simple as that. That concept underlies every word in Hebrew scripture–every single word.

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