I’m happy to know you found my “Comparative Religion” syllabus helpful, though I did have to smile when you talked about “reviving the philosophia perennis within the context of modern academia”. Let’s not get carried away! A revival is a very grand thing after all. Really all I’m endeavoring to do is to open a small door for those few students and fellow scholars in whom I’ve sensed a hunger for something more than the historical, text-critical, and phenomenological gruel they’re usually offered by religious studies professors.

Somewhat surprisingly, The Chronicle of Higher Education has allowed me to open such a door to its readers, though whether any will feel inclined to step inside remains to be seen. The January 25, 2008 issue of The Chronicle Review featured an article by one John D. Barbour, a professor of religion at St Olaf College, called “The Place of Personal Faith in the Classroom” . As usual I found myself irritated by The Chronicle‘s portrayal of religious studies, irritated enough in this case to write a letter to the editor, and believe it or not they have printed it in today’s issue, though with two or three sentences deleted or mangled and under the (deliberately?) misleading title “Professing Faith to Students”! Here’s what I said:

John D. Barbour’s “The Place of Personal Faith in the Classroom” (The Chronicle Review, January 25) is at once encouraging and maddening.

I am delighted by his willingness to challenge the widespread notion that expressions of religious conviction are impermissible in the college classroom, but it is a shame that in giving voice to this challenge he perpetuates the idea that such convictions must necessarily be merely “personal”. If, as Barbour admits, “religious assertions have intellectual content, which can be discussed rationally”, what is to prevent a given religion professor from saying something rational, and arguably true, about the Way Things Really Are? Why assume that professorial contributions to class discussion, when they are not of a strictly empirical or exegetical order, can be no more than a subjective sharing of “values or beliefs”? In short, why should we assume positivists won the argument just because they have gone on talking?

Barbour is right: “At public and private institutions alike, practitioners of religious studies have been anxious to prove that they can be as tough-minded and academically rigorous as their colleagues in any other discipline.” The problem is that so few scholars seem to have given serious thought to the question of what exactly tough-mindedness and rigor consist in. Might these admirable qualities not include pointing out that no one has ever, or could ever, come to know by means of the senses that all knowledge is based on the senses? Or calling critical attention to the fact that if our subjectivities were truly determined by our gender, race, social class, and other contingencies, no subject could ever truthfully say so?

Barbour tells us that he has only recently begun to grow “comfortable” talking with his students about “what I believe and why”. He is quick to add that he feels free to do this because he teaches in a church-related liberal-arts college. I for one have spent the last 28 years in my public university classrooms telling my students, in no uncertain terms, that questions about God can be given accurate and objectively verifiable answers, and propounding not a few of these answers myself. I started out with this pedagogy as an assistant professor and am now, thankfully, a tenured full professor, who has only once been criticized by a student for trying to “convert” him—to Platonism.

Of course, these autobiographical facts in themselves prove nothing, least of all the adequacy of my arguments. I am simply following Barbour’s own example of “giving testimony”. I do so in hopes of providing some encouragement to at least a few younger scholars, who will have doubtless been conned by the numerous devotees of the Zeitgeist into thinking that only historians, social scientists, and critical readers of texts have a place in the religious studies classroom. Think again.