My most meaningful interreligious encounter was when I was in high school on an overnight, school field trip to the sacred City of The Ocean—OCMD. It wasn’t a conversation fostered by a trusted adult or a cool journaling activity that got me to see the light. It was a giddy, teenaged-girl gossip session with an edge. Between getting yelled at about quiet hours and carefully applying way too much eyeliner on each other’s soft lids, we found ourselves situated in a religious discourse in room 230 of the Princess Royale hotel.
I was raised a Christian and my friend Rabbia was raised a Muslim. Her family owned a chicken farm, and I worked on a nearby dairy farm. We were both lawyers on the mock trial team. We had crushes on the same gross boys, listened to the same bad music, and shared a fondness for late-night conversations. Religion had never been something we discussed. But something about the nature of God and the nature of a sleepover is the same, and on the night of the field trip, secrets of worship and morality flowed naturally. Rabbia was crying—sobbing—because she would never be allowed to marry a white boy. For more reasons than one, this blew my mind, especially considering the exact specimen she was referring to (Zach). We went to bed at 5 a.m. after realizing that for two farm kids from the rural Eastern Shore, we actually had a lot of huge life differences and experiences.
I’ve always walked around looking for God. I look for it in the underside of leaves before a storm; I look for it in abandoned cans of teal paint—even in errant traffic patterns. I found it once or twice at mountain overlooks on old roads, in my elderly aunt’s wry sarcasm. Maren Morris finds God on the radio. R.E.M. found God and lost it. A college professor once told me that our brains either have or don’t have the ‘God gene,’ a neural network that might let certain brains be more susceptible to the idea of eternity. My own paternal grandfather was a Methodist preacher who found God in red packs of Pall Mall 100s. God is everywhere and nowhere, at least for me.
Currently, religion is taboo in the American English classroom. Just as I tiptoe around birth control, politics, and climate change in my lessons, gauging attitudes and throwing in wrenches, I find myself wary about asking my students to question their beliefs. This hesitancy is common practice, and overall, it does prevent potentially awkward encounters. However, it’s hard to ignore relevant conversation when the humanities are (for better or for worse) steeped in politics, sex, the environment, and religion.
Consider any novel you read (or pretended to read) in high school. None are without religion. Even in the most secular of classic tales, characters go to Protestant churches or casually reference the Bible. Most novels in the curriculum could be read through a Christian allegorical lens (just Google “Great Gatsby and Christianity”) and the novels thrown in for the sake of diversity feel tokenizing. Therefore, when religion is both officially and culturally taboo to discuss, our children are missing out on opportunities to discover their own God. And, while God and the divine are technically not present in the American Constitution, references to the Christian God are explicitly featured over 100 times throughout state constitutions.
When people in a position of change and power—teachers, perhaps—steer away from hard conversations or even avoid light discussion about facets of daily life, the societal taboo towards religion is strengthened. When we associate a heavy weight with these topics, it gets harder to talk about. How, then, can we justify a system where we do not talk about religion in the classroom, yet teach novels that have implicit religious references that students who were raised in a Christian household are more apt to catch, versus their Muslim counterparts?
For some, God is a chore. For others, it is a grounding technique. Some find answers to their hardest questions with God: Why me? Why her? When did you know? How can the sun greet me relentlessly? How does my world stand still and yours doesn’t? Why can’t I marry a white boy? Why can’t you eat pork?
That’s what I want my students to do, too. Listen to stories. Find their own meaning. Ask hard questions and get complicated answers. No matter what form your God is in—spiritual, metallic, grass-fed, homely—I want to hear about it. I want to hear about it all. Tell me how you find patterns and signs in the woodwork, how you justify evil in the world. Tell me how you can grasp mortality in your thin fingers and spread it over everything that shines.
Kallie Blakelock teaches English at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, Md., and was a 2022-2023 ICJS Teachers Fellow. Learn more about the ICJS programs for teachers here.
Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Teacher Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives.