Teaching heroes: Religious studies lecturer hopes to break down stereotypes

Brook Bahler in front of classroom


Brock Bahler remembers taking several of those vocational tests in high school — the ones that are supposed to direct you toward your future career.

“They always told me I should be a priest or a rabbi,” he recalls.

Although Bahler has worked in a church and considered going into ministry work, he ultimately chose a different route: He’s a lecturer II in religious studies.

But he finds that teaching religion has many applications in daily life.

“My pedagogy is deeply practical,” he says. “Often philosophy gets a bad rap for being highly abstract, ivory tower. … I believe we should always be thinking how what we read should affect how we interact with people. It’s important for me not just to be a professor but to be a human being, to talk about things in (students’) lives. I really try to make the class a space where we see how what we’re reading applies to what is happening in our world.

“Now I find what I really love about doing religious studies: the vast majority of Americans are religiously illiterate, even about their own traditions. I really want students, even if they don’t agree with (other religions’) positions, to sympathize with the positions: What is something you can learn from what you disagree with?”

He recalls one Muslim student who, newly exposed to the ideas of 12th century Islamic philosopher Averroes about science and religion harmonizing, wished he’d had such arguments at hand earlier, when talking with his imam.

“So the classroom, as a religious studies professor, gets to be this place of honesty and vulnerability and courage, (a place) to question what we were raised with,” Bahler says.

Religious studies “opens their eyes to pluralism, even within their traditions, and breaks down the stereotypes,” Bahler says. “I was raised Christian, but I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I think the people who have had the most profound influence on my life are not Christian.”

Today, he finds himself teaching a lot about Jewish religious thinkers in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and his class on Maimonides, author of the famous “Guide for the Perplexed.” This fall, he will add Modern Jewish Philosophy and a class on Philosophy of Race and Religion. He also teaches Philosophy of Religion, Religion and Rationality and Science and Religion.

“I always envisioned that I would be at a small liberal arts college,” he says. But after earning his doctorate at Duquesne University, he started at Pitt in 2014 as a visiting professor. “What I’ve always enjoyed about Pitt: It has all the benefits of a larger research institution, but at the department level you have this close proximity to students and faculty.”

For all people’s lack of knowledge about their own religion and those of others, just filling in those gaps in understanding is not his main goal as a teacher.

“I really want to resist that,” he says. “My secret to teaching — and a lot of people aren’t big into this — but I want to learn from my students. I’m putting a little responsibility on my students to teach me.”

He wants to guide them to engage with their texts, almost as if they were creating a Talmudic commentary together. “If I keep that posture of learning myself, then my students might come up with ideas I hadn’t even considered. It requires me to be an endless tinkerer” — with the choice of texts and with the class’s direction, he says.

That’s because he knows, whatever our beliefs, all human beings could use community. “We need a space that gives us something for our fears,” and rituals to mark major moment in life, he says. “So religion has understood these psychological needs that we have.”

He even gets a “liturgical” feeling, he says, at Pirates’ games, with their rituals: “Where else in the world do we all sing together? You start to see how we are ritual beings, and even if we give up religion we find ritual elsewhere.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.