Justin Maaia has been “studying” (what a sterile word to use for what can be a transformational discipline!) religion since 1997, when he took the world’s greatest World Religions class from Mr. Steve Antil at Saint Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Mr. Antil was (is) a practicing Catholic who had lived and practiced yoga in a Sikh ashram, had gone on intense Zen Buddhist retreats, and had ongoing dialogues and friendships with Trappist monks at a nearby monastery. More importantly, he had a family and a daily spiritual practice involving meditation, mindful walking, running, chanting the psalms, chopping wood, and carrying water. He is a spiritual descendent of Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Basil Pennington, and his ability to speak to people of all walks of life almost landed him on the speaker circuit with Ram Dass and others. I and many others are grateful that he chose a different path instead. He became a scientist in addition to a spiritual teacher, and this lent even more credibility to his voice in the post-post-modern world. His ability to speak to people where they are at, to offer them a vision of a relationship with God (or with their highest selves), to show them the possibility of finding an authentic path both within and outside our society, has been a gift to so many.
I always wanted to be like Mr. Antil. I told myself that after I had “lived life” for a while, I would spend 40 days and 40 nights in the desert or under the Bodhi tree. A serious brush with death made me realize that that “someday” had to be “now.” (“Always the stick, always the now!” as Theophane the Monk said.)
So I switched my interests from law and graphic design to philosophy and religious studies. If I had only listened to my first mentor at Suffolk University, Dean David Robbins, I may have been able to make this switch without the need for cancer to show me the way.
I had a number of amazing teachers at Suffolk: One was a Harvard-trained analytic philosopher (Rudy Zuckerstatter), one was a University of Chicago-trained religious studies scholar (Dennis Outwater), and the third was a Boston University-trained guru (Donna Giancola). None of them could stand to be in the same room as the others. All of them were amazing thinkers, teachers, and mentors.
Then I met Douglas W. Shrader at the undergraduate philosophy conference he created, and I found a model who could be both personally and academically engaged with the material, and who could speak to all of the various types who find themselves engaged with religious studies.
For my graduate degree, I found myself at Boston University. What a place to engage philosophy, religion, and life: The professional home of Elie Wiesel, Peter Berger, Howard Zinn, Paula Fredriksen, and others. More importantly for me, the home of Alan Olson, Ray Hart, Wesley Wildman, and Lucien Richard. I am forever indebted to the ego-less expertise, high expectations, hard work, and gentle presence of these four teachers. They gave me possibilities of thought that I am still exploring, and skills that I am still honing and using. They trained me to be the best religious studies teacher in the world (even if I fall short of that), while also allowing me to remain a seeker of truth.
None of this even begins to mention the influence and constant presence of my family and friends, and I won’t attempt to do them justice here.
All along the way, two major insights were internally confirmed for me, even as they were often challenged externally:
1. All religions are valid paths to God, and
2. Despite this fact, each of us must have a specific path.
We cannot get to God through all the paths, nor through none of them. We can follow our own path to the point where we transcend it, seeing the truth of all paths, but we cannot get there without a path in the first place.
Our path is unique to us, but it is usually rooted in a particular wisdom tradition. I wanted a way to affirm the importance of these traditions while still allowing for the fact that we transcend them as we engage them, plunging ever more deeply beyond them as we grow and develop.
Borrowing a method from Friedrich Schelling, via Ray Hart, I asked myself the following question: “Using your imagination, what would religion look like from a God’s-eye view?”
I say: “Perennialism.”
Perennialism proved to be a good working hypothesis to color the background of my personal search for wisdom. It also proved to be a good place from which to teach about religions. After a stint in the world of banking, biding my time in the “desert,” I finally got my first chance to teach religious studies. I have been doing that since 2005, and it is the greatest job in the world.
For me, religious studies is the exploration of the self through a study of the world’s religions. There are some who would object to this, claiming that this approach will lead people to see themselves in these religions, rather than to see the religion as it is in itself. That is certainly a danger inherent in this method. However, my experience has been that it is a danger worth the risk. When we explore a religion personally–say, engaging Buddhism by chanting and then journaling about that experience–we may discover more of our own selves than we do of Buddhism, but it is an invaluable and powerful starting point. First of all, that piece of Buddhism is unforgettable for us, because it becomes personally relevant. Secondly, it captures our attention, and makes us want to learn more. Thirdly, it plants a seed of respect for the tradition, transforming it from a scary “other” into a font of wisdom. This is why I believe in this method, and this is why I know that such a World Religions course is the most important class in our world today.
Please explore the pages on teaching world religions as I add to them, and feel free to try any of the activities, appropriate any of the lessons, use anything you like. And please, please, PLEASE, don’t hesitate to give me feedback.
Note: If you feel that I have misrepresented or wrongly-characterized a religious or spiritual tradition, I welcome your opinion and explanation of that. If I do not change the materials based on that fact, please know that it is not because I do not trust your interpretation, but only because the materials I have are based on the interpretations of other practitioners. All of these interpretations are probably (hopefully) equally valid. So, while my understanding of religions is always changing and deepening, the trend is almost always to add, rather than to change or to take away interpretations. This is also why I like to use the language of “traditions” rather than “religions.” A “religion” sounds like a static, closed, finished thing, whereas a “tradition” acknowledges many valid and diverse interpretations and “ways of being” that fall within it.