Guest speaker discusses need to understand, respect religion

Guest speaker Angela Kim Harkins discussed 21st century changes within Judeo-Christian relations in a recent talk about “Nostra Aetate,” at St. Edward’s University.

Harkins believes that practices of mindfulness can help students think about what religious practices are within a living religious tradition.

“Students today are often so plugged into the world of social media and technology that it is very easy to forget that human relationships and interactions with others take time,” Harkins said. “So too, with religion — things like meditation, contemplation and really thinking in a meaningful way about another’s religious tradition, also take time.”

Harkins, an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, said that many of her students had a family connection to a particular religion but not necessarily a rich understanding of their religion’s traditions and practices.

Modeling an assignment after “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs, Harkins made her students commit to a series of religious laws.

Her students had to abide by the following laws for a week: prayers of Thanksgiving; prayer five times a day; dietary restrictions; not wearing clothes of mixed fibers; not gossiping; and not coveting.

On top of this, Harkin’s challenged her students to not use social media.

Some of the students’ reflections of solitude from the experiment voiced that these religious practices were refreshing, yet challenging because they required very intentional actions on a daily basis.

Observations of public prayer before meals left students feeling uncomfortable, self-conscious and anxious as they did not want to be labeled as religious fanatics.

“This type of experience for students in a Catholic campus in the northeast in America is a startling and interesting revelation,” Harkins said.

Harkins’ class discussed the religious culture on campus and suggested that there should be safe places for religiously diverse students to publicly display their prayers and practices without discomfort.

Harkins said followers of the Catholic church and other sects of Christianity have gained more of an acceptance towards other faiths and political views, but may be losing their traditional connections in the process.

“For both Christian communities and Jewish communities of every denomination, it is becoming more and more difficult in America to have a secure teaching of their own tradition, thus making more difficult to see the teaching of the other,” Harkins said.

Instead of focusing on the common factors or connections between the two faiths, Harkins said there needs to be an intellectual and theological approach to understanding the other through readings and asking hard questions.

“In some ways, understanding others and understanding yourself kind of go together,” Steven Rodenborn, associate professor of religious and theological studies, said. “I liked her talk and how she focused on learning to understand and respect others, but in doing that, making sure you know a little bit about yourself as you enter those conversations.”

Harkins’ future research will include academic studies on time period of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Teacher of Righteousness.

Harkins was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic home and earned her Ph.D. in theology with a focus on Christianity and Judaism in antiquity at the University of Notre Dame after a year abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently on leave for a Marie Curie Fellowship at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

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