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Teach me, USU prof challenges students

By Maddie Wilson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 23 2009 12:20 a.m. MDT

The requirements for earning an "A" in Philip Barlow's religious studies classes include an unusual strand.

Students must teach the Utah State University professor something he doesn't already know.

"I find in my classes that if I do it right — if I manage to convert my students, not to a particular faith or lack of it, but to how crucial the study of religion is — it will change their consciousness and will therefore change what they see about reality," said Barlow, a professor of Mormon history and culture who holds the Leonard J. Arrington Chair. "If I ignite or enhance their interest and curiosity, I find that many students are capable of teaching me things. I become a more experienced facilitator of exploration."

Barlow, a Bountiful, Utah, native and graduate of Weber State University and Harvard University, was drawn from Indiana to Logan two years ago because of the uniqueness of the Arrington Chair.

"(It) constitutes the first full-time professorship at a secular university devoted to the study of Mormonism," Barlow said.

The study of Mormonism is just part of the program, which is the first of its kind at the university and in the state and region, he said. The opportunity to shape its beginnings was appealing, but establishing a balanced religious studies program in Utah is tricky.

"Because of the culture we live in, many people feared that the formal study of religion would tend to be critical of religion or of Mormonism in particular," Barlow said. "Others feared it would subtly promote Mormonism."

USU's program takes pains not to undermine or promote religion. Rather, it induces study about religion and the implications it has in people's lives, Barlow said.

"I was drawn here to create a safe haven where all legitimate questions are in bounds," he said.

According to Barlow, it is important for students, and anyone who wishes to understand human cultures, to study religion.

"The study of religion ought not to be only for religious people," he said. "All people would be better off studying some religion."

That's why Barlow says the study of Mormonism is not just for Mormons. It's important to understand the surrounding culture, of which religion is a part, in order to be a competent citizen. For those who live in Utah, the Mormon faith is part of the culture.

"If you're an American citizen, America is a very religious country," Barlow said. "So, I learned along the course of my study, I had the opportunity to think not only about religion, but about education."

While not everyone agrees on its definition, religion still tries to "probe human beings' ultimate reaches — their reach for meaning, their reach for how to live, their reach for the meaning of life that the creator asks of us," Barlow said. There are no questions more important than these, even for an atheist.

"You're not a fully liberally educated citizen engaging culture and exploring the social situation that you're in unless you try to understand religion and how it works," Barlow said.

Doing so requires disciplined study, he said.

"If you leave religion out of the mix, it's a little bit like playing a football game where a quarter of the players are invisible to you. You see people being knocked around, and you can't see what's causing it."

For Latter-day Saints, Barlow suggests that the formal study of other religions "helps one understand one's Mormonism."

"You can be a devoted, good, participant person with a faithful testimony, which is the essential thing for believers," he said. "But there are limits to how much you can see if you don't know how to get outside of it enough to look at it."

Barlow's teaching structure includes "unfamiliar angles of vision," and students can expect to be taken out of their comfort zones.

"I try to cast things in a framework to get people a little bit out of their native way of seeing things," he said. "It's hard to ask a fish about water because the fish thinks the water is the universe, the only thing that is. So, while minimizing distortions, I try to make the world look half strange, to tilt it on its side."

Four C's for defining religion

According to Philip Barlow, religion contains each of these elements:

1. Creed — a belief system formally or informally expressed

2. Code — a moral system; a sense of what's good and bad

3. Cultus — ritual, devotion through which religious people symbolize their beliefs

4. Community — "religio" means "to bind together"; to practice religion in a community

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