Teaching Science and Religion in a Jewish Seminary

Article excerpt

"I want to know the enemy." The time is the mid-eighties. The place, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The occasion is the opening session of the first course I taught there, "Psychology and Religious Thought," informally subtitled "Faith after Freud" (1) I begin the course with the ritual "Why are you taking this class?" circle. The first student to speak says, "If I am going to stand up there and be a religious leader, I want to know the enemy." The next student, obviously coming from quite a different perspective responds, "I want to adapt what I believe about Judaism to what psychology teaches so I can keep up with the times." I explain that my reason for studying psychological theories of religion with rabbinical students is neither of those. And so I have continued to explain, even as "Faith after Freud" (1986, 1992, 1997) gave way to a course on Science and Religion, dubbed "Faith after Neuroscience"(2004), and morphed again into the course I will teach this spring combining elements from both, "Spirituality, Religion and Morality: Theories of Mind, Theories of Brain" or, as I like to think of it, "Faith after Freud and Neuroscience"(2007).

Psychology of Religion ranges today from the "hard" natural sciences to the most imaginative social sciences. It includes laboratory researchers examining brains, primatologists studying the origins of spirituality in apes, evolutionary psychologists speculating on the adaptive advantage of religious behavior and Jungian analysts working with myths and dreams. Some of these explorations are data-rich and theory-poor (2) and some the reverse. Taken as a whole, psychology is an ideal set of disciplines for rabbinical students to explore how scientific ideas about spirituality, religion and morality relate to their own religious beliefs.

I see this work as a "critical dialogue" (3) between those of us inside religion and those who study what we are up to from the outside. What are the origins of spirituality, religion and morality, not only in the stories told by our traditional texts, but in the theories of those who work in the human sciences? My experience in interreligious dialogue serves as my model. The goal of that work is not, in Thomas Merton's words, "syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing." It means shifting your standpoint to return to your own in a different way. As Merton said, "I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further." (4)

The engagement with science by rabbinical students is, in my view, neither a preparation to win debates nor an opportunity to rehabilitate old ideas nor the chance to prove "we are all saying the same thing in different ways." Rather, it challenges us. Sometimes the result is new clarity and commitment to what we already affirm, sometimes revision of ideas, sometimes new ways to say the old things and sometimes ... if we are lucky ... more insight and wisdom, at least more integrity.

In a seminary, moreover, we face a special challenge in this work. We are concerned not only with the integrity of the students' ideas but also with the "formation" of their "pastoral identities". (5) The term "formation" originated in Roman Catholic circles to describe the education of religious professionals, but it also applies to what we do in a rabbinical college. Our work involves taking students, many of whom grew up without strong Jewish backgrounds, and immersing them in the texts and traditions of Judaism. The goal is more than acquiring skills and information. At its heart, it is about cultivation of the "habits, dispositions and values" one would want in a rabbi. This means seeing the classroom as an opportunity for spiritual encounter; the students will then go out and create such settings for others. We are striving to develop in students a "pastoral imagination," a project that often feels at odds with the project of subjecting spirituality, religion and morality to the psychologists' lens. …