IH professors balance own faith in the classroom

Several instructors are ordained clergy and are tasked with teaching religious texts to students with different beliefs.

The Rev. Marcia Bailey sees a parallel between teaching Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and being a pastor.

“I find lots of correlation between the work I do, in terms of reading texts…to teach in a local congregation, and how we treat text in IH,” said Bailey, a professor who has taught the course for 12 years and been a pastor for 32 years.

In IH courses, students read influential works of world literature, philosophy and religion, like parts of the Bible. Bailey is one of seven ordained IH professors and one of six who balance teaching classes while also leading different denominations in faith. 

But the multi-tasking professors don’t let their religious beliefs influence their teaching methods — sometimes it’s even the other way around. 

Jacob Kim, a religion and IH professor and a senior pastor of the Korean Presbyterian Church in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, said Temple influences the way he preaches at his church because of the different theories he learns from the university environment, like science, engineering and humanities.

“If I think that [an] idea is a great idea, then I try to apply it with what I teach at the church, and I can see the results immediately,” he said.

Richard Libowitz, an IH professor, was a rabbi at Congregation Beth El – Ner Tamid in Broomall, Pennsylvania, from 1983 through 1995.

Libowitz, a 1978 Ph.D. in religion alumnus, said his experience as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, which is a private Catholic institution, helps him understand how students might perceive a teacher who practices a different faith than themselves. 

“Having spent four years in an intensely Catholic environment in college, I have some understanding of what that means and can try to be more empathetic,” he said.

In Kim’s case, he tries to be careful of how he teaches students about religion.

“As I began to start teaching here at Temple, I was cautioned numerous times not to try to get converts,” Kim said. “The school doesn’t teach a faith. It’s not a religious institution as such, but as students go, they learn about religion.”

He added he believes a religion is more than just a belief in God, and that any form of passionate belief, like a social cause, is a person’s actual religion.

Bailey started her position as acting pastor for the First Baptist Church in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in September. She was ordained through American Baptist Churches USA, a Christian denomination organization.

She said personal interpretations of literature aren’t what matter in the classroom. Instead, the importance lies in the discussion the different interpretations generate.

“You and I could have radically different interpretations of the text, but as long as you can support it with the text, that’s beautiful,” Bailey said. “We don’t have to have the same interpretations.”

For Libowitz, the analysis of religious texts in class can even help students put other material they read in class into context. He said religion is a part of society and studying it from a sociological perspective can help students better understand it despite their personal beliefs.

“The whole point is…not to destroy anyone’s faith, but to make them understand what’s the original context of this material,” he added. 

For this reason, Libowitz finds IH extremely important for students. 

He said the courses are the last stronghold of the traditional college education where students are taught to think and reflect instead of just learning skills to get a job.

“If [professors] do our job right, and if the students get it, they’re going to think more clearly, be able to read more sharply, more intensively and write more clearly,” Libowitz said. “Give yourself the opportunity to learn, take advantage of it.”

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