ReligionWise

Does religious studies have a place in public education? - Greg Soden

May 15, 2022 Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding Season 1 Episode 9
ReligionWise
Does religious studies have a place in public education? - Greg Soden
Show Notes Transcript

This installment of ReligionWise considers the place of teaching about religion and religious diversity in public secondary education. Our conversation features Greg Soden, who has taught courses on world religions in various high school contexts. Together, we think about the benefits and challenges of a religious studies curriculum in a public context.

Show Notes:

Chip Gruen:

Welcome to ReligionWise, the podcast that features educators, researchers, and other professionals discussing their work and the place of religion in the public conversation. I'm your host, Chip Gruen, Director of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding at Muhlenberg College. When we think about teaching our children, that there are things that our children need to know, how to read, how to write, how to do math, science, social studies, the public school system is where we instantiate those values, where we put into the curriculum, the things that it is important for our children to know. Unfortunately, I think that there has been a misunderstanding about what, how one studies religion and why one studies religion, so that the study of religion does not happen very often in public education. This is despite the fact that the United States Supreme Court has continually re cognized the line between religious education, i.e. teaching someone to be religious, and a religious and cultural education that is teaching people about the human experience and about the content, the beliefs and practices of religion from an outside perspective. In fact, in the United States Supreme Court case, Abington vs. Schempp. Justice Tom C. Clark said, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion, and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." We might put that a little bit differently in the 21st century, but I think that the point remains the same, and more importantly, the legal precedent remains the same - that understanding religion is a part of understanding human story, is a part of social studies curriculum, or at least should be. Combining with that the contemporary controversies around school curricula, around books being banned, either from curricula by some state legislatures, limiting the types of things that can be talked about, whether it be religious and cultural difference, and I am afraid that there will be even more of a chilling effect on how social studies is taught. Well, today we have a guest who can speak directly to these concerns. His name is Greg Soden. He is a secondary educator who has experienced teaching a world religions curriculum both in a brick-and-mortar classroom in Missouri, and also in an asynchronous online environment. I really wanted to take the opportunity to sit down with Greg and think a little bit about the context of that class, how it was received in the local community, how students thought about it, and a myriad of other concerns about how the study of religion manifests itself inside a high school curriculum. Welcome, Greg, thanks for appearing on ReligionWise.

Greg Soden:

Thank you so much for having me.

Chip Gruen:

I guess I'll just start by asking you, where did this idea come from? I mean, when did you first decide that thinking about religious literacy for high school students was something that you felt called to do or you felt necessary to do?

Greg Soden:

Well, I think that my interest in the content stems from a world religions course that I took as an undergrad at the University of Missouri. And I really enjoyed that experience. And I pursued it through several courses in my undergrad. But then, when I went out into the world, I found myself teaching in England, I got a teaching job in like a public high school in the UK. And a huge percentage of my students were religiously devout in some way. And I realized that I was like, just really fascinated and curious about their lives. And they would write about it a lot in a lot of their in-class writing. So that was kind of a way that I realized that religion could be super important to young people that were in my classes. So it kind of started off just as a way of like wanting to get to know my students a little better. And I really enjoyed that aspect of it. But then, when I went back to Missouri, I was working on a Ph.D. in Social Studies Education, and I came across some research in social studies education where religion was brought up in like history standards and state standards and things like that. So that was kind of an area of fascination. So I was kind of going in that direction a tiny, tiny little bit within a Ph.D. program. But then I got an offer to teach English and social studies at a brand new public high school. So I actually wound up dropping out of my Ph.D. program to pursue this other opportunity. And while I was in that school, the guidance department got enough enrollments for a course called Classical Ideas and World Religions, which was in the course catalog. And the school was brand new, but enough students in the school signed up for it for where it made a section. And I was offered the chance to teach it, which was one of the most important turning points in my life. And so I was introduced to the teacher at the high school across town who had been teaching that same course very successfully since the 1980s, and he helped me to found the course at a new school. So he helped me- we basically became like a miniature PLC, where we were planning things together, we were doing events together, we were planning like little field trips together, we were planning guest speakers together- and we kind of just became like a little unit. And he became sort of like a mentor, like a fatherly figure to me. And the podcast that I do is actually dedicated entirely to him, because he passed away a couple years ago. But like I do all of this, because of this one guy basically, named George Frissell. And so that was basically kind of where it all came in, because I'm certain that without George, it would have become just a really typical social studies class, that probably would have been far more boring and less interesting to the students had I not had the opportunity to have some amazing mentorship. But with George's assistance, students got to go to Hindu temples, synagogues, they got to meet 20 guest speakers per year in the classroom. And so it became a really interactive experience focused almost on like the hyper local and the extreme global. So we were like looking at stuff from all over the world, but then we would like meet somebody in the community. So that's where it all comes from, is George, and the opportunity that I was given completely at random, which I saw as an amazing opportunity right away, and was smart enough to latch on to it and go for it. But yeah, that's kind of where it all comes from. There's just a couple of good opportunities, a little bit of personal curiosity and an amazing mentor.

Chip Gruen:

Oh, that's great. So I want to follow up on a couple of things that you mentioned there. One is, we will not be afraid to plug your podcast. So it's the Classical Ideas podcast, which has several hundred episodes at this point, it looks like.

Greg Soden:

Yeah, I'm closing in on 250. And my thought on podcasting is that we all do better when we all do better, you know what I mean? So whenever all podcasters, like, I don't see us as any of us being in competition with each other, I see us as being just a community of kind of niche, oddball people that enjoy talking about stuff and putting it on record. So I just think that that's like a really cool way of looking at it. But yeah, I, I've been doing it for five and a half years at this point. So it's been quite a journey.

Chip Gruen:

Oh, that's great. And the other thing I want to follow up on, and one of the things that we are interested in, because we do have some outreach at the Institute to high school and middle school students, so we've had the opportunity to look at this a little bit, and I've looked at it at Pennsylvania state standards, and I wonder if you could help me a little bit by comparing to your Missouri state standards as well, is that I was shocked at the number of places in the state standards where social studies curriculums mention religion explicitly as an important part of understanding the human story. Have you run into that as well?

Greg Soden:

Yeah, I've noticed that it pops up more than you would think. And a lot of it is tied to the very big names that people would recognize, like Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Buddhism. So I've noticed that it does pop up more often than you would think in standards, which does shock people who don't know a lot of the things about the legalities of teaching about religion in school, which you mentioned earlier, but it is definitely in there. I don't have the standards in front of me, but those things are easily discoverable on any State's Department of Education website, and if anybody's looking to do it, I mean, you can download the PDFs and just do Command F and type in the name of religion and see where it pops up in that state standards, because it's most likely in there.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah, I'll tell you, I mean, from my experience looking into this, it looks to me that most public school systems, well I don't have the data to say most, maybe I'll say many public school systems, are just allergic to the idea of thinking about religion in any sustained way because they have a hard time teasing out the difference between learning about religion versus teaching religion, teaching theology, or teaching how to practice a particular religion.

Greg Soden:

Yeah, and, you know there, in some of the schools, I would imagine that it might be really appealing to let somebody who has like a really, a really specific training in specific things, like I know that there have been teachers that I've met in the past who have seminary training or some theological training. And that might seem like a really obvious candidate for teaching about religion in schools, but I feel like that could also backfire a whole lot. Because for me, the beauty is in the totality, and not like the singular. So I just see it like this massive collage of things that I can expose students to, because you never know who's going to be inspired by one particular thing. And if they're never exposed to it with an open mind, like a very open mind, then maybe it would be presented to them in a way that would make them look negatively upon something that they're only being exposed to for the first time. So I think that who you have doing that kind of work is extraordinarily important as well.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah, absolutely. I've always been particularly proud of my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, not having a religious affiliation haunting its background because, you know, people question your motives. You know, even here, I mean, Muhlenberg College, where the Institute is located, having a, historically a Lutheran identity, you know can cause some problems, people misunderstand who we are and what we're about when, in fact, what we're interested in is this, you know, as you describe a more holistic, comparative, cross-cultural understanding of the phenomenon of religion.

Greg Soden:

I just love it. And it's been truly one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life to be able to do this kind of work. And, you know, both in person, online, through podcasting, I mean, the opportunities are just limitless, almost. Like the farther you take it, the more doors seem to open.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah, absolutely. And speaking of open doors, your methods seem to be very similar to some of the things that we've done here at the Institute as well. The local informants, but then situating those local informants inside the context of the larger tradition. So can you talk a little bit about, I mean, it sounds like you had a great deal of a leg up with this with your mentor, but can you talk a little bit about reaching out to those local communities and how your students react to those people who necessarily live lives that, you know, or at least most of them will be very different from the lives your students are leading?

Greg Soden:

Absolutely. So I was extremely lucky to have George Frissell's guidance whenever I began the course, because he essentially held my hand and delivered to me these amazing people in the local community, who had many years of visiting classrooms at that point, because they would visit George year after year. And so they knew things about like, what was like the line of constitutionality within the public classroom and things like that. So they were very, very, experienced in being extremely respectful of boundaries. But then, over the course of the years that I taught the class, I began finding my own guests, like I found a local meditation center who, their teachers were extremely interested to come in, and they did an amazing job. I formed some new relationships with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in town, and their, one of their staff members was extremely knowledgeable and very good in his appearances in the classroom. And you know, I just built those relationships over time. And when you invite people, you never know who's gonna say, yes. So if I heard that somebody was really, really cool, and I would send them an invitation, you know, one out of four times, the answer would be no, or maybe one out of four times the answer would be yes. But you never know who's going to say yes, when you send out an invitation. And for me, one of the most crucial things is making sure that my guest speakers didn't have to prepare anything. I never asked them to give a lecture. I never asked him to prepare slides. I told them if they had any photographs, they would like to show or anything, they could email them to me and I would project them on the screen for them. But like one of the best things about my class that I loved the most was when we were studying a religion for maybe three or four classes leading up to a guest, anytime a student would say, Oh, what about this? and they would ask a really good question, most of the time, I wouldn't know the answer, because it would be specific for a practitioner or somebody in that tradition. And oftentimes, they would depend what you do within the tradition to what your answer would be. So I would say, I don't know, add that to the questions. And we had a live Google Doc that every student in the classroom could access with the, an iPad that they had in the room. And then they would type it into the questions, I would compile all the questions, sort them thematically, and then I would print them all out so that every student on the day a guest would come would have all of the questions that we had written as a class, and I would basically have the guests come in, and I would have them introduce themselves for just a moment. And then I would have the students just interview that person with questions for 75 straight minutes. And the fact that the students had done so much pre-work, they had an endless amount of topics to discuss, and the fact that the guest just got to talk about their life, it made for some remarkably magical moments. So that's kind of how I would facilitate the actual appearances in classes, that students would do all the pre-work, and then they would just basically interview the person who came into the room. But keeping in touch with guests throughout the year even after they have visited the classroom is really important to me, because anybody who would take four hours out of their day once a year to come and talk to high school seniors, there needs to be a little bit of a relationship there that's ongoing besides when you need them. So like the people who would come to my class, they would be my friends. And I would befriend them and be like, Hey, you want to get coffee? Like it'd be like, they would come to visit the class in October and it would be like, in April, and I'd be like, Hey, do you wanna go get coffee? and then we'd meet up and just hang out and talk about life. So I really made a point of having friendships with all the people, instead of just like, being like, Hey, I need you to come and visit me so I can fill two hours on a lesson plan. So I really sought to go beyond just the "Appear in my classroom once a year" thing to make sure that there was an actual relationship there, because when you actually make friendships with people and you actually go out of your way to have a relationship, the appearances in the classroom are so much more meaningful, because when the students see me and my friend, who is guest speaking in the classroom, instead of just this random person from this random religious institution, they can tell that I have rapport with them. And like the whole mood just lightens in the room, and it relaxes so much, because talking to people about religion is tough. And when they see that their teacher and the guest have rapport, it really just opens up a lot of possibilities in the room.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah, and one of the things I always say about our programming, where we're doing interviews like this is that really two things are going on, one thing is the literacy itself, the content that is developed, that is talked about. The other is modeling a good relationship with somebody who's different from yourself, modeling a conversation about topics that can be a little bit difficult. So it sounds like you're right on the same page with that.

Greg Soden:

Yeah, I try to. And like one of the best things is, whenever I have a question in the moment, in like a time when a guest is in our classroom, I'm, my hand's in the air, just like the students. And so it's one of those things to where I'm "in charge," but it's like, I don't really see it that way. Because I kind of see us all just having an awesome time together instead of being like, Okay, being Mr. Rigid Rule Enforcer, Mr. In Charge. So I kind of just see myself as a learner alongside them, I just happen to be 20 years older than the students.

Chip Gruen:

So I want to talk a little bit about the context of where you are. One could certainly imagine, I think one of the most important things we think of as educators is, who are our students? Where are they coming from? How are they going to, you know, what are they going to bring to these conversations? How is that going to affect what they take from it? So can you talk a little bit about the context of the school? Who are your students? You know, what kind of an atmosphere are you working in, and how do you think that affects the way that they received this class?

Greg Soden:

Well, so the experiences that I've been overwhelmingly describing were in my in-person classroom from 2013 to 2018. And that was in Columbia, Missouri. And since then, from 2018, until now, I've been working full time in an online, a fully asynchronous high school. So I was able, I was given the opportunity to write this course that I love so much for a fully online global student body. So it looks a lot different now than when I was in Missouri. But like for example, like right now, I have a lot of students in Vietnam, and one of my assignments is to report on news of the world, in relation to religion, and they report it via podcast. So they do a podcast series in my course, which I turned into an assessment. And a lot of my students right now who are in Vietnam are reporting on the death of the Zen monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, which is really fascinating because they are bringing in the local of what is happening in their home into their curriculum, which is something that I hugely endorse. And I tell that to all my students here, and some of my students in the States, what they do now is they look for religious institutions in their own town when they do their podcast episodes, to talk about what's going on in their city with relation to religion. So something that I'm noticing is that in my students choice of topics, in their assessments that they do in my online course, they could be reporting on events in Vietnam, or in Kansas City, or in Denver, or in, you know, Honduras, but they're finding stuff that is important to their local town, which is so fascinating. So that's kind of an interesting thru line, that students do care about the local, and that they want to know more about what's going on around them to see how religion affects their lives, even if they don't tend to pick up on those things right away. So that's something that I'm noticing in the online class. My students in Missouri were, you know, in a city of 120,000, in the middle of what can, you know, be described as a conservative state, and most of the students come from Christian backgrounds of some kind. And it's very, it was very rare to have students that identified with other religious traditions in my courses, but there were some. And so getting to know everybody in the room and like gauging their comfort level was always an interesting experience in the beginning of the year. So that's just something that every teacher has to deal with, and everybody knows those challenges pretty well, is getting to know where students are and allowing them to come out of their shells at their own speed, whenever you're talking about stuff that could be very, very extraordinarily personal to them. So that's just kind of my, my thoughts on that.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah. And how did you go about thinking about with that with students? Because I think that, I mean, depending on your pedagogy, different instructors, different teachers think the place of the personal, you know, the place of the personsl is different from course to course, from subject to subject. You know, I always joke that, you know, when students take a class with me, I don't ask them to raise their hands, how many Christians in the room, how many Jews in the room, how many Muslims in the room? Right, because to some extent, the academic project is sort of contingent on that not being maybe as relevant as the idea that we're all humans in the room wanting to understand other humans. So I mean, with a sort of a more, I mean, not monolithic, but more similarity between your students, I mean, how did you negotiate that? What did students feel like they wanted to bring? And what did you think was appropriate for them to bring to the classroom?

Greg Soden:

Yeah, something that was really fascinating, is you would see right away what students really wanted to self identify right off the bat. Like, they would oftentimes do it in class early in the year, and there were some students who went through the entire year, and I don't know anything about their personal convictions, or of any kind, and I never really asked, but the ones who want to be more personal and open I feel will be if the environment facilitates it, which I think I did. But it was, it's definitely an interesting experience being in the moment with students and talking about things like religious freedom, news events in the country, and seeing what kinds of religious freedom news events they react to. And then tying stuff like that, like we would talk about religious observance of Muslim women's head coverings and things like that and the choices around that, and we would look at examples like in France, where a lot of those things were, have been controlled for a number of years in various ways, and then hearing students pipe in with who they agreed with or whatever was always really fascinating to me. But I would just try to show them ways that religious expression is encouraged or discouraged around the world, and then trying to get them to think about, Well, why am I for this version and against this version? And, you know, it's definitely something that I still will be working on if I get back in the classroom and do this work in person again, for sure. Because I don't really have all the answers. It's a very sensitive thing in the moment. And I have a lot of room to grow as far as my own practice goes in that area.

Chip Gruen:

So either initially, right, there is some self selection here, right, because as you said you were sort of beholden to students signing up for this class, right. So there's some self selection that students are fundamentally interested in these ideas if they choose to take this class, it's not mandated by the curriculum from what you said. But I wonder, do you think the study of religion in this way seemed normal to your students, either at the beginning or at the end of the class? I think that we run into this, even at the collegiate level, where this is not something that, I mean, people know what English is, people know what history is, people know what chemistry is, people know these other topics; you know did students feel like they were doing something a little different? Did they feel like this was something that was special? I mean, how did they react, the class, either at the beginning or at the end?

Greg Soden:

They definitely knew it was special. And one of the, by the time the students got to my class when they were seniors, most of them already knew exactly what it was because they had friends that were older than them who had taken it. And one of the things I always did is I always did t-shirts for the class. And so the students would like get these t-shirts and wear them to school, and people would be like, Whoa, where'd you get that cool shirt? And then the students would like kind of say, Oh, my world religions teacher got these for the class. And they were like, Oh, my gosh. So I had these ways of like getting people to know about it. And anytime we would have a guest speaker at school, I would put that in the student, the school announcements. So everybody would hear 25 times a year, Oh, Mr. Soden's World Religions class would like to welcome so-and-so. And it was like, there was a lot of stuff that went into getting students to be aware that the class existed. And they did know that it was special, because nowhere else in the school did you have the opportunity to meet a Tibetan Buddhist monk who studied with the Dalai Lama, and my class was the only place that you could have experiences like that. So there was a lot that went into it to get students to talk about it outside of class time. And I took a lot of pride and effort into that and put a lot of work into it so that students would have a joyful experience, looking at things that, maybe they had no idea what they were reading, maybe they had really no idea what was happening some of the time, but we always tried, and we always had a really positive attitude about it. So, you know, I did take a lot of care and effort into trying to get them to think about that stuff and talk about it outside of class, that they would tell their friends, to have it have an aura, essentially, that it was a special, unique experience that people wanted to do. So I absolutely loved it. And I put a lot of time and effort into that.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah, that cultivating of the buzz around a class I think is super important. Sounds like you got that one down. So, yeah, so that's the students. And the students are excited, the students hear about the class from their older peers, etc. What about parents? If this is a, as you've described it, a relatively conservative area, maybe not small town, exactly, but a smaller city in, in Missouri. Did you get any pushback from parents? What was the, what was the reaction in the community sort of beyond those students who you have more opportunities to interact with?

Greg Soden:

It was overwhelmingly very cool, because a lot of the students who have parents that would not want their students to take a class like that, I think probably prevented them from ever signing up in the first place. Or once that enrollment form came back, and the parents had a chance to look at it like over the summer, I'd had some a lot of withdrawals that would happen over the summer, and then new students would be added who were waitlisted. So I would imagine that a lot of those things filtered themselves out throughout the year. And one of the things that I was very, very put a lot of work into was building relationships with parents, too. I invited parents openly to every guest speaker appearance, and I would always have like a row of like 10 extra chairs in the back of the classroom, for any parent that did come. And they would have to like, let me know in advance that they were coming so that we could get them signed in and get them a badge and everything for the school, but I invited parents to come to see what was going on in the class. And, you know, not many did, I think that in the six or so years I was doing that I maybe got like 15 that came in. But the invitation stood every time, which I think helped parents see that, Oh, he doesn't have anything to hide. He's not trying to indoctrinate our students. He's not trying to change anybody's mind. He's just trying to offer these experiences. And he's offering these experiences to me. So I think that that was extremely helpful. Another thing that I did was creating the podcast because the first 20 or so episodes on my podcast are interviews with my guest speakers. So what I would do is I would interview the people who were coming to visit the school and I would put those on our class podcast. And I would say to the parents, This is the person who your kid is going to meet in my class, you can listen to my podcast, your student can meet the person in the room, you can talk about it over dinner, you can, they can have the students send me a summary of what the conversation was like via email, and I'll give the student extra credit. So I tried to encourage parents to engage with the material themselves and to visit the classroom and also to talk to their student about what the student was doing at school. So I really went as far as I could, I feel, to get the parent to engage with the material and talk to their student about what they had experienced in class just so that they could see that there was a lot to learn and that they could have a an enriching experience alongside their student as well, and that the student could get some, you know, grade benefits out of it and all that great stuff. So I did very, I did try to encourage parent engagement. But I overwhelmingly had a really cool experience with parents. A couple of them blatantly asked me, Are you like, you know religious yourself? Are you trying to like persuade any particular views? And I would always just say, I'm not trying to persuade any particular views whatsoever. I'm just here, because I think that the stories and experiences and traditions that we're going to talk about in class are really interesting and that religion is everywhere around us whether we pay attention to it or not. So I would like to have everybody have the tools and the mindset and the abilities to pay attention to it, should they choose to do so. So that was kind of my approach to it.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah, I think I saw you describe this on another interview you did. And I really liked this, and I'll get you to comment on it, that you think that the importance of religious literacy has to do with people walking down the street. And if they see some manifestation of religion around them, they may not know exactly what's going on, but they certainly have the tools through which they can learn more about it.

Greg Soden:

Absolutely. And like, even if you see something that you can recognize is religious in some way, if you don't choose to pursue it as like, to learn more about it, that, that, it's not the end of the world. But you have the ability to recognize that, Oh, there's something new that I could learn something new about. And I think that that's really cool, because maybe you're rushing around and you see something really neat, like you see, like a Khanda on the back of a semi truck driving across the United States, you know what I mean? And I've seen that many times, I'm like, Oh, look. And I love stuff like that, where you can see religion in action around you and you can be like, Oh, I feel like I recognize that. And then it might set off your curiosity to go and learn something new that day, because we all can learn something new every single day, especially in this topic. So I think that giving students the ability to recognize when something is happening near them, then they can choose if they're going to dive more deeply into it or not.

Chip Gruen:

I've started talking about this with my students actually a little bit, that you know, one of the things that people love about video game culture is easter eggs. The thing things that are hidden, that if you know what it is you recognize it, you understand it, you feel like a little bit of the "in" crowd. I always think that religious literacy is a little bit like that as well, that you're walking around, there are easter eggs all around us if you just know how to read them, just know how to interpret them.

Greg Soden:

I completely agree I see it exactly the same way. So we're definitely on the same page there.

Chip Gruen:

So I want to talk about, a little bit more about, this self selection. Because on the one hand, you know it obviously saves some problems for you, right, the idea that the students who, you know, exclude themselves, or their families exclude them from this opportunity, would have been the ones that would have been, ones that would be more challenging, but on the other hand, may be the ones who need this kind of education, need to have this sort of expanded worldview the most, so I think that's unfortunate. And on the other hand, I want to ask about your guests, because one of the things that I'm also interested in is, What are the types of traditions that are interested in participating in a project like this? So for example, you mentioned, you know, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is always the case that you will be able to find someone from that community who wants to talk to you, because they're so interested in community outreach. Yet there are other traditions where it will be less so. Have you run into that, where you think, Well, the groups that are coming to talk to me have a certain perspective on proselytization, for example, or ways of interacting with the world?

Greg Soden:

Yeah, so I had overwhelmingly fantastic experiences. And whenever I did reach out to the LDS community, the guy who responded to me was so fantastic. He's like, I've been doing this work a long time, I understand very clearly that there are proselyzation lines that I cannot cross in the classroom, I know exactly where that line is, I promise you that it will not be an issue. He's like, I just want to talk to people about what my life is like so that when they hear about my community on the news they have met somebody from that community so that they can like begin to question ingrained assumptions. Because when you meet somebody from a community and then you hear something that contradicts your direct experience, that's where learning comes in. And that's where relationships come in. So that was one of the best things about these experiences in the classroom. But I didn't have many issues finding people to come in who were interested. And one of my favorite experiences was, there was a Muslim Students Association at the University of Missouri who were committed to community outreach. So my Muslim student guest speakers were all like 22-23 years old. And so they were pretty close in age to the students in the classroom. And they were like, we just want high school students to meet Muslim people in Columbia, Missouri, who are young and living very similar lives to them. So you know, that was really cool finding groups. And there was an Indian Students Association as well where I met my Jain guest speaker. And it was really, really awesome to find people that were kind of close in age to my students, because like they were talking so much on like the same level of you know conversation styles. And that was one of the things that I really enjoyed whenever I started branching out from George's original guest speakers, was finding my own people who were such a great fit and so dynamic and awesome and smart and thoughtful and had life experiences from a young person in the 2010s' perspective as opposed to somebody who was my students' age in like the 1970s. So I started to veer more towards the younger end of the spectrum as far as my guest speakers go. And that really, really worked out well for my students, because they just like immediately felt a connection instead of this massive generational age gap where communication styles can be so different. So that was one of the things that I really picked up on, is the young guest speakers were extraordinarily successful for me.

Chip Gruen:

So one of the things you mentioned there, and I think that this is one of those habits of mind that I'm always getting my students to think about, is the idea of comparison, looking for similarity and looking for difference. Because I found that there are some speakers who will come to talk to a group, and their primary motivation is to convince you that they're really not that different from you. That, I always sort of joke about this when I'm talking about ancient Christian apologists, that they say, We pay taxes and our kids play soccer with your kids, that there's this idea that, you know, don't treat us differently, because really, in the end, as far as you're concerned, we live a life that's very similar to yours. On the other hand, of course these different religious communities would not exist if people didn't fundamentally see the world differently, didn't act differently, didn't have different beliefs and practices. How do you find that balance? Or has there been sort of a through line from your speakers about how they deal with that issue of similarity and difference?

Greg Soden:

Yeah, you know, one of the things that I love the most is, I haven't run into that a whole heck of a lot, but what I have found that I have really enjoyed are guest speakers who are willing to be openly critical of the history within their own tradition. Like a lot of people have come into my classroom and talked about a lot of the horrible historical events that are within their tradition that, you know, created things like oppression and slavery and persecution and genocide. And so people who come and talk and are able to be critical of the history of the thing that they do, those were some of the most inspiring and honest and amazing conversations that ever took place in the room. So I didn't have a whole lot of people who were coming in trying to say, Look how similar we are, but I did have some amazing experiences where people would come in and be like, Yeah, and then there's this really unfortunate history that you guys have studied, and all of those things happened, and this is something that our community is still reckoning with to this day, and here's how I think about it, and here's what I seek to do to like sort of like be a part of a better future for my tradition. And that was something that that really jumps out to me about your question is, like people who were trying to be a part of creating a better future for their community, so that we can have reconciliation, healing from past trauma that our species is so well known for.

Chip Gruen:

Yeah, absolutely. So on the podcast, we always end up with a version of the following question, What can our listeners do, to become more literate, to participate in a more sophisticated conversation about religion, to enhance the way that they understand it in the world? So not everybody has the benefit of being a student, either in one of your classes or in a religious studies department, What do you think, sort of the average person out there can do to enhance their understanding of this topic?

Greg Soden:

One of my easiest suggestions that I think that anybody can do is when you are reading the news, to find stories that have religion as an event in the world news. So if you do, go to any search engine and you go to a news search filter and then you type in the name of any religion, all of the current events in the world that have some kind of religion going through it will pop up. So one of the things that I would encourage anybody to do is to start seeing how news and religion are mingling around the world. Read stories about events in the world, that have religion as a main aspect of those stories, because religion is happening all over the place. And you know we can ignore it, but it happens regardless. So I think that part of being a good citizen is seeing how religion continues to be relevant all over the world, and emphasizing your own dedication to learning those things is super important. So I think that consuming news regularly where you find news that has religion as relevance, and going that path, I think that that will help anybody, because you can look at stuff that's here and now in front of our very eyes, that you don't have to think about as happening 1000s of years ago, because religion is everywhere.

Chip Gruen:

Well, Greg, I want to thank you very much for sitting down to talk with me. I really appreciate it. It sounds like this work, I mean, obviously, you know, this work is so important, so vital for us understanding one another, so thank you very much for doing it and thanks for appearing on ReligionWise.

Greg Soden:

Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Chip Gruen:

This has been ReligionWise, a podcast produced by the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding of Muhlenberg College. For more information and additional programming, please visit our website at religionandculture.com There, you'll find our contact information, links to other programming, and have the opportunity to support the work of the Institute. ReligionWise is produced by the staff of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding of Muhlenberg College, including Christine Flicker, and Carrie Duncan. Please subscribe to ReligionWise wherever you get your podcasts. We look forward to seeing you next time.