Teacher's Classes Run Gamut of Philosophies on Religion

Article excerpt

Eight students enrolled in Blanchard DeMerchant's first "Philosophy of Religion" course last semester. The class members made up a perfect discursive smorgasbord, DeMerchant said - two "flaming" atheists, two agnostics, two Christians and two uncommitted.

The popular associate professor of philosophy at St. Charles County Community College warns in his course syllabus that students should be prepared for dynamic material that could change their lives and challenge their self-image and place in the world.

DeMerchant delights in arguing the position of the Jew, Christian, and Buddhist, as well as the atheist. He described discussions in that first class as dynamite.

"The atheists were older adults. One was a GI who had been through World War II and who didn't let anybody make him take a back seat to his view that those who think there is a loving all-powerful God watching over us are deluding themselves," DeMerchant recalled.

DeMerchant, 52, holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Hope College in Holland, Mich., and a master's and doctorate in philosophy from Wayne State University in Detroit. He joined the St. Charles County Community College faculty in 1992 after teaching at St. Mary's College in Pontiac, Mich.

DeMerchant himself is a veteran and served 14 months in Vietnam. DeMerchant said that after his discharge, he was disillusioned, pessimistic and beset by marital problems and delved into alcohol and drugs.

"I stayed drunk and stoned for about five years while I worked as a janitor on a night shift," he recalled. "My beliefs at the time were summarized by Mark Twain, who said the Earth was like a wart on the universe - nothing good or worthwhile."

Loathe to leave his children with the legacy of a drugged father, DeMerchant finally returned to his family, teaching and the religious faith of his childhood.

"I didn't want them to have a father who was not fulfilling the potential that this society and life had given him," he said.

DeMerchant, who also teaches World Religions, encourages his students to open up about their own lives and to cross-examine him about his experiences. He teaches that only through uncertainty, questions, self-examination and the enlightenment of education can a person come to a faith with conviction.

"I try to teach my students that you have to make decisions in the context of a life that has no sure answers and to always go for the most plausible and reasonable way, but to use your heart," he said. …