Inviting students to explore religion’s roles in a complicated world

Author: Josh Stowe

Alex Hsu Class

In a religiously diverse and deeply troubled world, how do religious traditions motivate believers to work toward the common good?

How might secular actors such as governments and development organizations engage with religions in a world where most people identify as religious? 

And how do various religious traditions conceptualize and work toward the common good in a global context? 

These are a few of the timely questions Alex Hsu invites students to explore in his “Engaging Religions” course. The Ansari Institute faculty member and Liu Institute academic advisor designed the class, which he taught most recently this past spring, to be relevant to curious global affairs students seeking to make sense of a world they hope to change. 

A relevant approach for global affairs students

“One of the things I want to do with this course is to give global affairs students the tools for thinking about religion capaciously as it has manifested within their lifetimes,” Hsu says. “I wanted to avoid a class where we go back in time. I wanted to start right in the middle of the 21st Century, because that's where we are right now. The more recent history is more relevant to what's happening now, and it's a big mess. We just need to be right in the middle of that mess. I wrote the syllabus to include scholarship that was written in the student's lifetimes.” 

That includes works like Bruce Lincoln’s Holy Terrors, which examines eerie similarities in religious rhetoric around 9/11, from Bush to Bin Laden. It features Chika Watanabe’s Becoming One, which weaves together insights from multiple disciplines to unpack religion, development, and environmentalism in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar. And it includes Ansari Institute founding director (and faculty fellow) Thomas Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling, a wide-ranging examination of religious practice that explores the boundaries religion sets and the ways in which it facilitates crossing boundaries. 

Hsu structures the course—a guided and active exploration of religion—into three units. 

The first takes a critical, post-colonial look at how secular modernity has too often considered religion a problem to be solved, massaged, disciplined, and tamed, lest it lead to conflict or other undesirable outcomes. Here, Hsu has drawn inspiration from the work of fellow Keough School colleagues such as Marilyn Keough Dean Scott Appleby; Ebrahim Moosa, Mirza Family Professor of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies; Atalia Omer, professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies; and Jason A. Springs, professor of religion, ethics, and peace studies. 

“How can religion and activism come together in a positive way?”

In the second unit, Hsu says, the class engages religion on its own terms: “I start to introduce some pieces that push against seeing religion monolithically, and we can see religions speak for themselves, providing, in their own terms, richer accounts of what they might be, what they might offer to people, and how they might be changing. This deepens and expands the toolkit for thinking about religion.” 

In the final unit, Hsu says, the class considers the possibilities for engaging the world through religion. “How do we work together?” he asks. “How might we think about religion as being on the same team as policy people and activists? How can religion and activism come together in a positive way? We look at the possibilities and the perils of team-ups. And we try to end on a hopeful as well as a practical note, to see how other people have worked to integrate academic, religious, and political perspectives.”

A diverse curriculum exploring multiple traditions

Although the class examines larger traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, it is not limited to them. Hsu works to include a variety of source readings, which both provides a range of looks at different traditions and also urges students to think beyond the notion of discrete traditions. 

“I think this is especially important to think about in terms of spirituality or religious traditions that don't get “isms” or seats at the Parliament of World Religions, whether we want to think of Navajo spirituality or the spirituality of an average Taiwanese grandma, which might not fit into Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, or Confucianism,” he says. “We read academic and theoretical pieces, but we also read journalistic pieces, because they help explain how ordinary, educated people talk about the world’s religious traditions and the discourses that help shape them.” 

A pedagogy of the engaged

The course uses a discussion-based approach to encourage active learning. During a class meeting in mid-April, for instance, students shared how their own religious backgrounds and family experiences shaped their understanding of Chika Watanabe’s Becoming One. The book examines how an NGO promoting sustainable farming used the language of family to unify workers toward a common goal—one aimed at improving the world, but also one that required sacrifices and time away from workers’ families of origin. 

Together, students explored how religions utilize the language of kinship (Catholics, for instance, call priests “father” and members of male religious orders “brother”). They talked about the “Notre Dame family” they experience as students. And they considered how familial linguistic metaphors can sometimes be used problematically, to paper over inequality or prop up patriarchal dynamics. 

“It’s an empowerment course. I try to teach students to be comfortable with their own voice and their own questions.”

The give and take—brief opening remarks from Hsu and wide-ranging discussion where students cited both the text and their personal experiences—is the dynamic he wants for the class. The idea is that students actively participate in a dialogue that requires listening and sharing ideas in equal measure.

“It requires you to be on your feet and respond quickly and try to come up with answers even when you don't have the answers ready at hand,” Hsu says. “So, it requires a lot of trust building. I think students have to really trust that it's worth it. They’re sometimes more used to the presentation style. And so, one thing that I try to build into this class is working with the assumption that students might not have had a lot of small-scale seminars before. It’s an empowerment course. It's trying to teach them to be comfortable with their own voice and their own questions and learning to have their own style.”

Originally published by Josh Stowe at on May 06, 2022.