The more you understand how eclectic religions are by nature, the less likely you are to hold harmful stereotypes about the people who identify with them.

John Penniman

On September 11, 2001, John Penniman, professor of religious studies, was an undergraduate majoring in journalism. "As events unfolded, religion was no longer a private or personal matter for me," he recalls. "I needed to understand its role in shaping how we speak about and respond to climactic current events."

Not only did Penniman change his major, but he also went on to earn a doctorate in theology with a focus on ancient Christianity. "At the time, I was confused by how easily leaders in the Christian community could justify killing in response to the attacks," he says. "There's 'turn the other cheek' and there's 'love thy neighbor.' But these two values have often created a dynamic tension within Christianity between calls for pacifism and calls for justice. I felt I couldn't adequately judge the present moment without digging into its history."

Today, the professor of religious studies teaches a range of courses on the history of Christianity and western religious thought. One such course is called Introduction to Judaism, Christianity & Islam. He says it's important to understand the differences and similarities between the three religions, but equally important to recognize how much diversity there is within each one.

"Just because a person professes to be a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, what does that mean exactly? We have to consider what it means to that person's local community and what it means in his or her historical moment," he says. "The more you understand how eclectic religions are by nature, the less likely you are to hold harmful stereotypes about the people who identify with them."

Penniman points out that studying the history of religion can lead to moments of cognitive dissonance. "Take, for example, problems with translation," he says. "Many Christians are taught to read the Bible literally. Yet its words were often spoken in one language, written down in another language, and passed on through countless transcriptions and translations. When I began to read the New Testament in Greek, what I once thought was certain became unsettled. It's like you've stepped out of the Matrix and are seeing it for the first time. You've taken the red pill."

According to Penniman, the goal of religious studies should be to develop a critical sympathy for the traditions, beliefs and practices of the world's religions. "I want to journey with my students into the strange worlds of the past in the hope that we might find ourselves a bit disoriented by how familiar those worlds can be."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015

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