Seeking Something Bigger

Nearly every semester I teach a course at the University of San Francisco on religion and ethics. I designed an investigative field project to serve as the centerpiece of that course.

Students must select one religious tradition, barring the one in which they were raised. Next, they select a single ethical issue as their lens. To illustrate, last semester a student raised in Buddhism elected to study the morality of euthanasia within Roman Catholicism. A Catholic student pursued the taboo on alcohol within Islam.

Students find the assignment intriguing. When it comes to religion, they value authenticity. Frankly, the students assume hypocrisy until proven otherwise. Their attitude arises not so much from intellectual cynicism as it does road weariness. Perhaps I can sum up their spiritual sensibility best in the form of a motto: Don’t make me a promise unless you plan to live up to it.

I place additional structure around the field investigation to ensure that students dig deep. They have to research how their selected religion has treated the ethical issue historically. Once they have a good handle on the past, they must visit at least one community ritual (for example, a worship service) and interview several members of the community. Then they compare how their field observations align with the religion’s tradition. Does the community follow its mainstream tradition or deviate from it in some way? Finally, I ask students to bring into the experience their own approach to the ethical issue.

The final class presentations are highly entertaining. And I am fascinated by the threads I detect woven through their conclusions:

Students swim in the pools of rationalism. If an idea cannot float in those waters, they drown it quickly. One student’s essay captured it well: “My gut tells me that there is a logical explanation to everything, and the idea of an almighty power pulling the strings from on high ... never made a lot of sense to me.” Justifying a belief on the basis of a holy tradition or a sacred text does not fly in this crowd, obviously. “I just roll my eyes whenever they preach about their tradition,” wrote one student. So what beliefs do resonate as truthful? Those that offer personal meaning in the here and now. Conscience and reason trump tradition every time.

Students crack open sacred-secular boxes. Though their parents kept the secular and the sacred safely apart, today’s students blur the lines. This generation does not fear the sacred nor bow to the secular. They are seekers, and they follow the trail wherever it takes them.

Students are surprised by religious diversity. They hold a homogenous stereotype about religion. So they were puzzled when two students visited different Methodist churches and found that the moral compass, core beliefs, and approach to worship varied wildly.

Students find a religion compelling when it practices compassion over legalism. They enter a religious community expecting to be rejected. They respect conviction, but not judgment. As one student wrote this semester, “I started out thinking that there is no way I would ever find an accepting church or religion. So finding a church that is so open-minded gives me hope.”

Students are lifestyle libertarians. They resist practiced discipline. One student noted that the Islamic teacher made an effort to convert him to the faith. “Like I would ever even consider joining a religion that requires you to pray five times a day,” he told the class with a hearty laugh. Students who attended a Zen monastery shared a similar sentiment: It was fun to experience once, but they could never imagine committing themselves to regular meditation.

Students desire an idea bigger than themselves. The aforementioned libertarian streak might suggest self-obsession. I rather interpret it as brash independence. They yearn for a mission that can transform the world. One student waxed poetically, “I am not a Christ figure. I am not a saint. But I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, I want to help others, to make people smile.”

In response to their final essays, I push my students to name the rituals that mark their lives—what habits do they perform on a regular basis, and where did they come from? I suppose my debt to Paul Tillich shines through here. I believe that we all turn to an ultimate ground for our being. If we cannot identify one, it is because we are so thoroughly embedded in the values that our culture holds sacred that we find it impossible to see beyond them.

David Batstone, Sojourners executive editor, is professor of ethics in the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco.

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