Critical approaches to religion should not be transformed into religious, cultural wars

In the spring of 2018, I was privileged to teach one of UC Berkeley’s Freshman and Sophomore Seminars on “The Abrahamic Religions.” This type of seminar provides “an unparalleled opportunity for faculty members and small groups of lower-division students to explore a scholarly topic of mutual interest together, following an often-spontaneous flow of dialogue and interchange in the spirit of learning for its own sake.” The description of the seminar on “The Abrahamic Religions” read as following: “While Judaism, Christianity and Islam share common biblical roots, their differences and similarities vis-à-vis an understanding of their particular position in the world often placed them in confrontation, despite periods of complementary convergence. This seminar aims to survey some of the theological/philosophical dimensions of these Abrahamic traditions and explore the significance of their heritage to Human Civilization. To this end, we will approach sources that have inspired and defined these traditions while reflecting upon selected concepts and interpretations that have kept them apart.” 

Four months after the seminar’s completion, I received a call from The Daily Californian asking for my response to a soon-to-be-published article about a Facebook post by one of the seminar’s participants who reportedly felt “invalidated” and wanted to offer her feedback about her classroom experience. All would be fine if based on reality. Both the article in the Daily Cal and the Facebook post, however, offered a distorted rendering of the facts, projecting both the nature of the course and its instructor in a bad light. At the time, I could not even imagine how to respond without falling into the trap of becoming part of a dialogue grounded on spurious accusations. I also wanted to avoid transforming this incident into a “religious/cultural war.”

In terms of “invalidation,” it should be noted that the student received a high score in this class, and her presence was appreciated. At all times my students were encouraged to take advantage of office hours, to speak up in class (or more privately after class if needed) and to participate and share their creative points of view, even when those could potentially challenge settled opinions on a specific issue, with the sole caution of being careful enough to not hurt other participants’ feelings. 

As the main subject-matter of the seminar concentrated around a critical approach to the “Sacrifice of Abraham” depicted by the three monotheistic religions, we spent a considerable amount of time going as deeply as we could into an understanding of what lies beneath such a compelling biblical narrative that dares to place a divine command above the ethical and legal considerations that sustain the foundations of contemporary societies. Our sources comprised authors from three different backgrounds. Although all ideas and creative thinking were most welcome in class, I was keen to limit our conversations to the theological, historical and philosophical/philological analysis of the subject matter, preventing the dialogue from dispersing into contentious political ramifications, despite their potential pertinence. As such, I refrained from entering into the dramatic considerations attached to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would require a different approach and resources which the seminar could not provide. The few boundaries had been clearly established from the beginning, and no one was obliged to stay if they thought the format of such a course would in any way make them feel uncomfortable. 

As one of my UC Berkeley colleagues so eloquently asserted: “[A]cademic inquiry is a different kind of discourse than confessions of faith. It has its own standards of evidence and inference, which sometimes clash with the doctrines of orthodox religious communities. Despite this friction, the standards of academic discourse are as essential to religious studies as they are to physics, evolutionary biology and geology. The fundamentalist critique (…) has no bearing on our educational mission at UC Berkeley. We are committed to the intellectual and ethical principles of academic discourse, despite the animus of groups that seek to demonize (in the literal sense) these principles.”

Manuel Duarte de Oliveira is a former professor of near eastern studies at UC Berkeley.