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Want to better understand the world you live in? Try studying religion

SALT LAKE CITY — Religious studies scholars conduct research on college campuses across the country, analyzing diverse subjects like how worship practices have changed over the past 2,000 years or what types of religious programs most appeal to young people.

But only a small percentage of their work ever makes it to the people it may benefit most: the men and women who regularly attend religious services.

The Rev. Charles Robinson, pastor of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Park City, Utah, is trying to do his part to change that phenomenon. He founded Utahns for Religious Scholarship in order to build bridges between believers and the people who study them.

"There's been a tremendous amount of thoughtful, competent scholarship on Christianity over the last two centuries," the Rev. Robinson said. "When that's unknown in the pews, it leads people to think they have facts that simply are not up-to-date. That's never a good thing."

Arthur Dewey, professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Last weekend, Utahns for Religious Scholarship partnered with Westminster College's Office of Spiritual Life and Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable to offer its first major event: a seminar about efforts to understand the historical Jesus.

Participants heard presentations from Nina Livesey, an associate professor of religious studies and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and Arthur Dewey, professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Both scholars said they enjoy helping people understand the intersection between personal faith and academics.

"We don’t have the answers to all questions, but this is an opportunity for people to engage their faith intellectually," Dewey said.

He and Norman, as well as the Rev. Robinson, noted that some may feel awkward studying religion in the same way they might explore biology or art history. But rather than dampening an emotional connection to God and faith, they hope it enriches people's lives.

"Matters of religion are matters of religious literacy," Dewey said. "That doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It simply means that if we’re going to join in on a discussion of matters of religion, we should be aware of new data and open to change."

Nina Livesey, an associate professor of religious studies and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Utahns for Religious Scholarship plans to follow up its historical Jesus seminar with an October conference that will focus on the relationship between religion, ethics and genetic science.

"We're trying to create events that are stimulating and interesting, where it's safe to explore new ways of thinking about new things," the Rev. Robinson said.

Meantime, interested believers can embrace opportunities to learn about religious research on their own, according to Dewey and Livesey. They spoke with the Deseret News on Feb. 24 about how studying religion improves people's ability to understand themselves and their neighbors. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What’s the value of intellectual engagement with religion?

Arthur Dewey: In faith communities, there’s sometimes a false choice of whether you cut off your head or pull out your heart.

That mindset doesn’t work. You have to be thinking integrally about religion with the head on your shoulders and the heart in your chest.

Nina Livesey: There are a lot of bright Christians who grew up in the church and can’t manage to stay there because the teachings don’t make sense to them intellectually.

We’ve met a number of people who say they went to their pastor with a question and were told to stop doubting and worrying. What happens is that person usually leaves the church.

DN: How is the study of religion evolving on your campuses?

Livesey: Regrettably, there’s less interest.

I teach “The Bible as Literature.” It’s my bread and butter course, and I teach it every semester. I used to fill it pretty regularly. Now, those classes are much smaller — the number of students has almost halved.

The students I work with now grew up going to Sunday School or still go to church. I’m not seeing as much general interest in the Bible.

Dewey: Book literacy in general is being lost. Students haven’t been trained to read closely.

In general, when you ask people, "Why are you behaving that way?" very few people refer to the Bible.

DN: Why is religious literacy important?

Livesey: Religion is an important part of understanding society in general.

If you have a certain religious sense or know what’s behind certain political statements, you can tell if the statements are accurate or not accurate.

Dewey: You have to recognize that religious sentiment is fundamental in human beings. For many hundreds of years, human beings have used religious language to talk about the depths of their experience.

We need to use religious texts as resources to deepen our own lives.

DN: What resources are available to people who want to learn more?

Livesey: The organization we work with, the Westar Institute, has a website, and its mission is educating people. We also do a magazine six times a year with articles on a variety of topics that are accessible.

Dewey: The website offers an overview of the history of the Jesus Seminar, as well as other publications on the biblical gospels, acts of Jesus and profiles of Jesus.

There's also new material on Paul and his letters, and reports from the more recent seminar on Acts.

DN: Why should people participate in events like the seminar you lead on the historical Jesus?

Dewey: If you really want to try to figure out the questions of meaning and existence, you have to engage with religious traditions.

You can’t simply generalize or dial it in. One of the difficulties with general work in the scriptures is that you end up with more questions than answers. You need to be serious about the questions that are pressing against you.

Religious texts don’t give you answers. They give you a challenge, and the challenge is how to live authentically.

Livesey: I’ll just add that it’s nice to know your heritage.

Almost everything in this country can be traced to Western tradition. Many laws and moral norms came from the Bible.

Religion is part of being an American. It’s part of who we are. Religious literacy means knowing your history and your roots.