This fall, the Teaching Religion in Public (TRiP) reading group will be exploring the theme of failure. Religion has a lot to say about failure and so do scholars of religion. Religious practitioners explain ritual failures and unanswered prayers. Religion orients and frames personal failures. Failure, much like pain, can be read as an instrument of divine instruction. As Oprah Winfrey once explained to an audience at Stanford, failure can be the universe telling a person that they are on the wrong path. According to a different view, failure signifies a person’s character, perhaps revealing a lack of dedication, gumption, or grit. Scapegoats, it would seem, pasture in the fields of failure. Failure invites blame, but also opens up possibilities to learn. If failure can indeed be instructive, how can scholars of religion use failure to instruct?
In the religious studies classroom, we often find ourselves teaching about failures of one sort or another. According to some historical accounts Medieval Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries was a place where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in a state of relative peace and prosperity, convivencia. Yet, another way to tell this history marks the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492 as the culmination of a nearly eight-hundred-year Christian effort to reclaim the land from Muslim control, the reconquista. Some scholars argue that religious fundamentalism and puritanical zealotry, whether Christian or Muslim, destroyed the tolerant society of Medieval Spain. Others argue that no such society has ever existed. What this suggests is that there is quite a bit at stake when we narrate failures in our classrooms, when we teach students why some ideas or movements fail. How do we teach about failure? Should we teach students to be suspicious toward narratives of failure and civilizational decline? What kind of power is exercised when we name something a failure? These are just some of the questions the group will be exploring.