Today, we finished chapter one of the worst religion textbooks I've ever been forced to use. The woman who wrote it lives in an ashram in India, is likely Baha'i, and spent more time on Sufism than on Sunni and Shia combined in the chapter on Islam. She writes all sorts of idiotic stuff, like our five senses cannot help us discover ultimate reality, whatever the hell that means—apparently this reality is penultimate, or some shit like that. I suspect she's alluding to the Hindu concept of maya, but I can't force myself to read the entire chapter on Hinduism, as her praise for the Eastern faiths is as effusive as her disdain for Western theism.
Part of what she does well in chapter one, though, is identify some problems with conversations between religious and irreligious people. She does it quite accidentally and often idiotically—she calls creation versus evolution a debate, even though the two things are utterly unrelated in terms of science (creation versus abiogenesis perhaps, but not evolution). And in her section on interpretive methods, she insists that Western theists are either liberal (flexible and metaphorical understanding of scripture) or conservative (literalism, period). One wonders how she managed to write a textbook about religion without understanding some of those pretty basic issues.
On the interpretive spectrum, I tried to introduce a little more complexity, but ultimately what unsettled the young man was the conversation about the phrase "Word of God." He clarified what his mother was worried about, and then told me he reassured her thus: "I told her I wasn't going to abandon the truth that the Bible is the one, true Word of God." Critical thinking at its finest, clearly. He went on to demonstrate how analytical (his word) of a thinker he is. "When the pastor at church says something, I compare it to the Bible to see if it's accurate. If it's not, I say it's not because that's not what the Bible says."
This is low-hanging fruit, obviously, and I don't see it as my job to terrorize students whose view of the world is this simplistic, but it does introduce an unavoidable difficulty in a religion class. How do I talk about sacred texts without causing this young man to shut down? I told him doubt is an honorable part of the theistic tradition, and that he ought to investigate doubt, not shut it down. He readily agreed. But there's still a problem, so I switched to Islam to try to avoid the obvious parallels with his own faith.
"Let's say Muslims believe that the Qur'an is composed of the actual words of Allah," I started. "They believe it so much that over time, the ulama decree that the Qur'an is composed of the actual words of Allah, and that these words are not mediated through a particular culture or context; they are simply the words of Allah. Do you see a problem with that?" This question is for the entire class, and this insight is thanks to Reza Aslan's amazing work in No God but God. (Whoa!!! Not plagiarizing again!)
The problem, of course, is that if these are the actual words, and that if these words aren't in any way contextualized, then the commandments and the prohibitions and the ethics are binding because God/YHWH/Allah/Jesus said them, and they are meant to be understood as the actual words of God. They are not binding to a particular culture or context; they are simply binding. This is how traditionalist Islam interprets the text, and it's how some Christians attempt to interpret the text. This is pointless, of course, because they have not really structured their lives or their faith that way, except in very selective or ad hoc ways.
To offer an example, after the young man told me that the Word of God did not contradict itself, I mentioned divorce in four separate contexts: Moses, Nehemiah, Jesus, and Paul. Clearly the Word of God contradicts itself if each of these utterances is meant to be an instantiation of God's actual words vis-a-vis divorce. He quickly lost the ability to abstract, and he absolutely could not understand how an argument about what is wrong with Islamic hermeneutics shed light on what is wrong with fundamentalist or evangelical Christian hermeneutics. Finally, he settled on the words of Jesus as authoritative. My only reply was, "Remember that next week when we talk about the Sermon on the Mount."