Higher Education

The “Difficult Whole” Should be the Goal  

By Timothy K. Parker
Professor teaching students in university classroom. (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

Professor teaching students in university classroom. (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

One of the main challenges of interfaith work is talking through differences that matter.

It’s easy to ignore such differences and act as if the things we have in common are all that really matter. But this ignores much of human experience; rather, what people value most in their religious beliefs or practices are often the things that make them distinctive, that often place them in tension or conflict with others. 

Many disciplines inevitably involve religious content, especially across the arts and human sciences, and any responsible teaching in these areas will encounter images, ideas, texts, or other material that someone may find offensive. Professors should always respect their students, as it is clear Professor Erika López Prater did in her careful planning and communication regarding upcoming course content. But responsibility for what to show, assign, and discuss in an art history class lies with the faculty. To whittle away this core attribute of professional expertise (if not also of academic freedom), as the administration seems to have done at Hamline, undercuts the very reason for, and purpose of, the university: to educate the whole human being. 

Finally, I can’t help but add this: In my own academic field, architectural history (and especially religious architecture in the modern world), there is a 20th-century tradition of interfaith design that sought common ground by watering down or evening out differences in favor of vague gestures toward some kind of overarching value. (Picture, for instance, subtle treatment of light falling on tactile surfaces to form peaceful, calming spaces for contemplation, or for the evocation of “the sacred,” whatever you take that to mean.) But who are such “religious” spaces really for? To whom do they speak? They do not speak to the vast majority of religious people, for whom rather specific traditions, ideals, and beliefs take form in the things and places they make, through which and in which they gather, pray, worship. The much more difficult, yet all the more promising and valuable, approach to interfaith design is to honor what is distinctive in each religion to be included while seeking an enduring synthesis. To appropriate architect Robert Venturi’s phrase, the “difficult whole” should be the goal—in design, in scholarship, in teaching, and in life. 

Timothy K. Parker is an architectural historian teaching in the School of Architecture and Art at Norwich University, Vermont. His primary areas of specialty are the interpretation of modern religious architecture and the intellectual history of modernism. He is co-editor of and contributor to Sanctioning Modernism: Architecture and the Making of Postwar Identities (University of Texas Press, 2014) and is currently working on the material culture of religious pluralism and the religious architecture of the Second American Revolution. 

Art, Religion, & Academic Freedom

A distinguished panel of educators discuss the recent events at Hamline University and suggest constructive ways to navigate conflicts in a religiously diverse democracy.