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Teaching Covenantal Pluralism to University Students

  • Judd Birdsall
  • August 1, 2023

Religious literacy, according to The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement, “is more than just general knowledge sufficient to pass a quiz on ‘world religions.’” That’s good news for my religious studies students at Georgetown University. At the beginning of each semester, I give them an ungraded quiz with very basic questions about the world’s major religions. All of them fail spectacularly.

But over the course of the semester, as they read and discuss a variety of texts, interact with clerics and scholars from several traditions, and visit a religious service outside their own tradition, my students become a bit more religiously literate. More significantly, they come to see more clearly the value of understanding—and engaging—a diverse range of religious and secular communities.

A foundational step in this process is encouraging my students to appreciate the particularity of religious traditions. In my introductory theology course, I have my students read Stephen Prothero’s classic book God is Not One. Prothero provides a useful world religion survey anchored in the observation that religions differ fundamentally from one other. Hindus, Humanists, and Hutterites are not all climbing the same spiritual mountain. Our belief systems have many interesting overlaps, especially on ethical concerns, but they’re not essentially the same. We’re all climbing different mountains.

Our intellectual challenge is thus to understand those mountains on their own terms and in their own contexts. The interpersonal and political challenge is how to live peacefully and productively amidst a vast mountain range of religions. In their chapter in The Routledge Handbook, W. Christopher Stewart, Chris Seiple, and Dennis Hoover reference Prothero as they develop a framework for a robust and active pluralism grounded in particularism.

Their articulation of what they have called “covenantal pluralism” not only broadens our conception of religious literacy, it also reframes the vexed debate around religious liberty. Many of my students on the Left have an intuitively negative reaction to “religious freedom.” They view the term with suspicion as a fig leaf for the sectarian and partisan interests of the Religious Right. Covenantal pluralism presents religious freedom as something broader and better: a mutually reinforcing set of laws and policies and social norms that protect everyone’s right to explore life’s big questions without fear or favor. Religious liberty is thus inextricably linked to religious literacy and neighborly solidarity—and the three elements together form the bedrock of covenantal pluralism.

The term challenges both sides of the aisle. In a sense, “covenantal pluralism” is a mashup of a conservative word and a liberal word. “Covenantal,” because of its religious, and specifically biblical, overtones, tends to disquiet secular progressives. When I speak with liberals about covenantal pluralism, I often hear concerns about “covenantal.” I point out that “covenantal” can and has been used in purely secular contexts to underscore the solemnity of a contract or treaty.

For conservatives it’s “pluralism” that’s potentially problematic. Pluralism to them sounds like another progressive buzzword like “diversity” that they fear may be a fig leaf for liberal identity politics. And in a religious context, “pluralism” is often used to mean that all religions have the truth (universalism) or their truth (relativism)—theological claims that religious exclusivists reject.

Stewart, Seiple, and Hoover make clear their vision of covenantal pluralism is “inclusive of the exclusive.” Too often religious studies and interfaith dialogues implicitly or even explicitly exclude exclusivists. I try to create a classroom setting that is truly inclusive. As a teacher I’m inspired by covenantal pluralism’s openness to the orthodox and progressive in every faith tradition as well as secularists and to anyone willing to eschew violence, cultivate literacy, cooperate across boundaries, respect the equal rights of others, and remain open to critiquing one’s own views and values—and having them critiqued by others.

Covenantal pluralism’s appreciation for critique inspires my students’ self-critique and their critical engagement with the concept itself. In classroom conversations, we discuss how covenantal pluralism as presented in The Routledge Handbook seems rather individualistic and cerebral. But religions are intrinsically social phenomena that often have little to do with “belief.” Religions are incredibly powerful not only because they posit certain ideas but also because they provide communal belonging, ancestral connection, moral guidance, a sense of transcendence, solace in suffering, and hope for the future. And the tight-knit communities created and reinforced by religions compete for converts, civic space, and political power. Critiquing one’s own side and engaging other sides can be seen as group disloyalty. The groupishness of religion makes covenantal pluralism much harder—and that much more important.

Once my students have read several chapters of The Routledge Handbook, I have them write essays reflecting on the concept and exploring its possible implications and applications. My favorite prompt builds directly on Stewart, Seiple, and Hoover’s critique of mere “coexistence.”

I ask students to imagine that they are part of a peacebuilding network that is planning a conference to address issues of religious tension and polarization. The lead organizer of the conference has announced her intention to use the popular “coexist” bumper sticker as the motto and logo for the conference. Students are tasked with writing a formal letter to the organizer supporting or opposing her decision. Their letter can explore the meaning(s) of coexistence, how it relates to other relevant concepts we have discussed in the course, and what (if not “coexist”) the student would suggest could be the motto and/or branding of the conference. 

Nearly all of my Georgetown students, having grappled with the concept of covenantal pluralism in my class, critique “coexist” as well-intentioned but insufficient and uninspiring. They propose their own alternative word or phrase that points to something more meaningful and impactful.

If I gave my students the same religious literacy quiz again at the end of the semester, I’m fairly confident that all of them would be more successful on the second attempt. But it’s much more gratifying to me that they leave my class with more of the knowledge, skills, and virtues needed to successfully engage the world’s deep and vast diversity.

About Judd Birdsall

Judd Birdsall (PhD, Cambridge) is a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He is also a Senior Editor at The Review of Faith & International Affairs. He previously taught at Cambridge University and served at the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the Policy Planning Staff.

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