SEMO religion classes separate faith, academics

Saturday, March 9, 2002

University students often are enlightened by their discussions and experiences in the classroom -- and that's exactly what instructors want to see happen in the religion courses offered at Southeast Missouri State University.

But until this semester, the university hasn't had a full-time instructor for its philosophy and religion department devoted solely to teaching religion courses. The university only offers a minor in religion.

For almost 30 years, local ministers have been teaching part-time at the university. Since August, Dr. Andy Pratt has been teaching the bulk of religion courses in the department. He's been a part-time instructor for the past 13 years.

Usually, Pratt teaches a class on science and religion with Dr. Alan Gathman and a section of Religion in America during the spring. But this semester, he's added two classes -- business ethics and Old Testament.

Pratt also is director of the Baptist Student Center.

With Pratt's workload outside of teaching, he eventually plans to return to part-time teaching. This means the university will be in the midst of a national search to fill the spot he currently occupies.

The university understands that a religious education is an important aspect of a university education. And while there aren't plans to expand the department, there is a commitment to keeping it fully-staffed, said Dr. Hamner Hill, chair of the philosophy department.

"It's been a huge benefit to us to have part-time instructors," he said. And it introduces the students to a variety of perspectives since staff members have been affiliated with Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ over the years.

Having pastors on staff also gives an added dimension to campus ministry, Pratt said. The Rev. J. Friedel of Catholic Campus Ministries agreed. After students complete a class taught by Friedel, they might come to him with a spiritual question, he said.

Not seeking revival

But by no means are the students racing from their classrooms to the chapels seeking answers to their spiritual questions. Religion instructors aren't seeking a great revival, but an enlightened college student, they say.

"We go about this as an academic study, not to determine which one is right," Friedel said of world religions.

Up until the 1500s, the church had been instrumental in education, so it makes sense that the university keeps its partnership with the ministerial community, Hill said.

Instructors for a religion course must be qualified, Hill said. When they apply to the university, they must have at least a master's degree. Some have doctorates.

Religion classes help students stretch their faith as they build their education, said the Rev. Bob Towner, rector of Christ Episcopal Church. "And that's perfectly consistent with the goals of the university," he said.

Towner began teaching world religions in January. He has been head of the local Episcopal parish for a year.

The world religions class helps students "articulate a position other than that of their parents" which aids their faith development, he said.

Towner was excited about the opportunity to teach. He served as a college chaplain at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, but did not teach. The community college offered no religion courses in Mason City, Iowa, where he last served.

Religion courses had been provided by campus ministries or local ministers throughout Southeast's history. Hill said the network of ministers in town provides an ample resource for instructors.

"I don't think you'd find a better pool of applicants for any other discipline," he said.

Baptist beginning

Until the 1930s, there were no religion classes taught at the university. Then a group of Baptists in the community got together and hired an instructor, holding classes at First Baptist Church until the Baptist Student Center was built on the edge of campus.

The Ecumenical College of Religion was formed sometime in the 1950s and offered classes taught by several area ministers. Classes were taught at either the Baptist Student Center, which was accredited by William Jewell College, or at the present Newman Center location. Those classes were accredited by St. Mary's College and Seminary in Perryville, Mo.

The classes were transferable to the university. Eventually, the university built its own religion department and began offering courses on campus.

Now Pratt teaches at least two courses each semester, as does Friedel, director of Catholic Campus Ministries. Both will continue teaching two classes next fall. Other local ministers usually teach one course each semester.

This semester, the religion courses offered at Southeast are world religions, Old Testament, Old Testament literature, religion in America, science and religion and feminist spirituality. And all the classes are full.

Friedel said students are sometimes skeptical of him because of his priest's collar, but he explains at the beginning of the semester that he's going to teach an academic study of religion.

Students can connect their intellectual life and their faith life, but that isn't a course objective for the semester, he said.

His role as a teacher who is also a priest lets him model a real commitment to diversity. Students know "the context in which I practice my faith," Friedel said. But that doesn't mean he's always promoting the Catholic faith during lectures.

Compliment to diversity

During a walk across campus in the second or third semester of his teaching career, Friedel encountered a former student on the sidewalk. The student asked what he was teaching that day. It turned out to be a lecture on Buddhism. The student then remarked how strange it was to hear a Catholic priest standing on a secular campus tell someone he was lecturing about an Eastern religion.

That is a compliment to diversity, Friedel said, and laughs about the experience now.

The religion in America cause taught by Pratt offers students a firsthand look at religious diversity. Students enrolled in the class often get to visit area churches, speak to the ministers and learn about worship styles.

Pratt said he tries to be fair in his assessments of the religions, and that students appreciate it. Religion courses "contextualize it in a way that is not threatening to academics," he said.

Both Friedel and Pratt hope that the university will consider hiring someone who could add perspective to the department by teaching about Eastern religions, Islam or Judaism. If a follower of one of those faiths could be found to teach, the department could expand its offerings, they said.

The biggest drawback to the present arrangement is that if a minister who has been teaching leaves his post in the congregation, the university could be left in a bind, Pratt said.

But so far, the arrangement has been a benefit to everyone involved, he said. "It's good for the classes and for the ministers to have a presence on the campus."

The relationship between the university and the community has been a good one, "but it brings with it some limitations." With the proposed hiring, Pratt said he hopes the university can move to offering a major in religion. "It will get us started."

335-6611, extension 126

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