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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive If you can't take the heat, stay out of the Classroom: Re-evaluating the Student-Teacher Relationship, Classroom Ambiance, and Religion

I remember it so clearly... my first course in religion.As a psychology major and a pious Christian, I was excited about the New Testament course in which I had enrolled. In preparation for what I hoped to be a fascinating enterprise, I asked myself: what was going through the minds of those men and women when they declared their faith in Jesus as Christ and struggled onward in spite of his death? What will I learn about the culture of the Jewish people who lived in the first century under the hand of Rome? What was it like for these people? These and many other questions stirred my interest until finally the teacher arrived and began the lesson. He/she [1] went through the various Covenant Relationships— Noahide, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic —all the way to the "New Covenant" theology of the New Testament. He/she pointed out the various differences in how God dealt with human beings: with some, His blessing was unconditional; with others, His blessings came with extraordinary conditions in fine print. The instructor's conclusion: God and the Bible were hypocritical.

The Bible was not a collection of books that detailed specific peoples' attempts to understand the Divine. It was not even the projection of psycho-cultural phenomena unto an image of God. It was simply hypocritical. This statement had sucked the air out of the room. The faces of students all around the classroom went pale, fraught with intense discomfort. A first-year student behind me was shaking as she thumbed her cross. My stomach was in knots; I was short of breath. All of a sudden, the first-year student stood up, pointed defiantly at the instructor, and proclaimed with all the fervor of an apocalyptic prophet: "The Bible is inspired by God! God wouldn't lie to us!" Both teacher and student kept throwing remarks back and forth, but the argument was pretty much over. Nobody won.

I have heard about and seen episodes like the one above in Islamic and Judaic studies courses as well (with Islamic and Jewish students, respectively). Often, religious students who have a problem with the theological statements made by an instructor are told to leave their presuppositions at the door. In some cases, the wording and intonation is such that it sounds more like "If you can't take the heat, stay out of the classroom!" Ironically, many instructors appear unable to leave their own theological presuppositions outside of the classroom environment. This imbalance between the strength of the teacher's voice and that of the students can cause an irreparable rift between them and have a negative effect on class attendance, participation, and test scores.

In the classroom case mentioned above, the student-teacher relationship started off on a rather sour note. The students (myself included) felt as if our beliefs were under attack by the teacher. The idea that God had gypped "His people" for centuries boggled our understandings of His nature and the world. Many of us felt very disoriented and confused. As a result, some of us either responded with a similarly confrontational attitude or withdrew from any participation in the classroom. As time went on, attendance diminished (except for exams of course). A group starting with around thirty students had dwindled to a little over a dozen. But again, even those who continued to attend class chose not to participate in discussions or answer the teacher's questions. The teacher was not able to differentiate between his/her personal views, the subject material, and the views of the students. Hence, he/she pushed his/her conceptions of how God worked upon the students. As for us, we could not differentiate between our personal religious views, the class material, and the teacher's own views, which we felt the need to confront and defeat.

This next point is very important. I was a college sophomore when I took my first religion course, but a lot of the other students were freshmen. It has been my experience during these past three and a half years that in order to succeed in/survive college, freshmen need to gain a healthy dose of stability in their lives. This can be aided by finding groups to belong to and grow with, such as campus ministries, political and cultural groups, and sports activities. Stability can also be attained by building strong student-teacher relationships with a mentor figure and developing appropriate ways to relate to new knowledge in the classroom. However, such stability can be thwarted by high-pressure groups (religious and cultural cults, etc.), as well as by high-pressure teachers. I remember that after that particular course, I had great difficulty talking about anything relevant to my religion, for fear of its being ridiculed or insulted. Luckily, although a negative student-teacher relationship had become a stumbling block in my growth in college, it was through another, very positive student-teacher relationship that certain aspects of myself were able to mature.

After having taken some other introductory courses in different areas of religion, I started taking classes with my current honors mentor, who inspired me to study religion from a historical-critical perspective. Although a critical scholar, my mentor was able to leave discussions of faith (for and against) outside of the classroom and provide the bare academic material of his field. Whenever anyone had a doubt or felt concerned about a particular issue of faith, he reassured them one way or the other: This is what critical scholarship has come up with in regard to this or that; it may or may not have an influence on your beliefs. That is your decision. Other than that, do the readings, write the papers, and follow the rules. As a result of my exchanges with him (scholarly in the classroom, scholarly and faith-based outside the classroom), I was aided in establishing the growth and maturity necessary for a more sturdy self. Here I will present the following methods to help build a healthier student-teacher relationship and a more productive ambiance in the classroom:

  • Openness of course material, methodologies, and subjectivity: As is usually the case, at the beginning of a course the professor provides a syllabus detailing the material, methods, and academic requirements for students. Because of how tender and difficult the topic of religion may be, it might be useful for the professor to outline what the course is and is not about. For example, in a course on the historical Jesus, it might be helpful for the professor to state something along these lines: "We are not here to talk about how Jesus is divine; we are not here to argue how he is not divine. We're here to critically examine the material under a scientific, theologically agnostic lens. This is what historical Jesus scholarship has come up with to explain x or y phenomena." In this manner, the subjectivity of the field is outlined. This is what scholars have found in their research—nothing more and nothing less.

  • Distance tender subjects for out-of-class discussion: Students who have yet to develop the emotional tools necessary to differentiate between their faith and class material may be tempted to raise questions in class such as: "Does this mean that x is not true? Does this mean that Jesus isn't God?" In such cases, it is necessary for the professor to respectfully remind the class of the nature of the course and to leave such questions for after class or for the clergy of the student's preference.

  • Reminder of personal subjectivity: Apart from discussing the subjectivity of the course, it would also help to remind students of their own subjectivity, as well as the teacher's, in out-of-class discussion. What is meant here is not an ad hominem attack against students' views, but a reminder that "These are my views, those are your own. There is nothing wrong in disagreeing." This concept ties into the next method.

  • Encouragement of class participation and debate: Of course, all professors want their students to be engaged in class discussions. But it is crucial in the case of a religion course. The students need to be aware that in terms of the scholarly/academic material, they should be welcome to disagree and debate. This helps to show that although the professor is an academic authority, it is still possible to receive different insights from the student. By understanding that the professor is an authority, yet not an intellectual tyrant, the student may see more opportunities to interact in class.

These four methods are not meant to be exhaustive, but they are intended to foster a good student-teacher relationship and classroom ambiance. When the classroom of religion feels more like an enjoyable academic enterprise and less like a battle of wills (the students' versus the teacher's), there will emerge more opportunity for undergraduates to become interested in the field. Personally, as a result of a positive student-teacher relationship, I am fully able to distinguish between my research and studies as an infant scholar of the New Testament, and my valued beliefs and convictions. For example, to me, the Gospels are both Inerrant Word of God and the product of social, economic, political, and psychological processes. In church and in my daily life, I proclaim a faith-based creed; at class, I debate an academic argument. These aspects of my life are in dialogue and don't carry the doubts and fears I had when I first started on the religion major. Now I'm doing an honors thesis on the crossroads of psychology and religion (specifically New Testament studies)—go figure! I'd have to say that a very important factor was definitely the interaction with my mentor and the development of good student-teacher bonds with my other professors and instructors.

Perhaps some may cry foul and argue that these ideas I present reduce the value and importance of the teacher and the scholarly material by labeling them as subjective. That is simply not the case. If the reconstructions of events, gospel sources, and persons within the New Testament by scholars have no grounding in reality whatsoever, I fear I'd be out of a job (even before I reach graduate school!). What I am trying to say is that teachers' ideas and beliefs that are theological in nature should have no place in the classroom setting. It's one thing to argue that the belief in Jesus as God developed over the course of time, with the earliest layers of the tradition declaring him a messianic holy man. It's another thing entirely to say that he really, empirically and objectively, was not God and that anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. It is simply that kind of attitude that is unnecessary in the classroom. As a student, I'm paying for education, not theological indoctrination. For that, we have office hours.

[1] Out of respect for the professor, I have chosen not to identify his/her gender, name, or race.

Daniel J. Gaztambide, is a psychology and religion major at Rutgers University,

Citation: Daniel J. Gaztambide, " If you can't take the heat, stay out of the Classroom: Re-evaluating the Student-Teacher Relationship, Classroom Ambiance, and Religion," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:


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